First Person

Researcher: Gentrification can turn into school integration

The Useable Knowledge series brings education research to GothamSchools readers. In the second installment, Jennifer Stillman presents her research into racially diverse schools in gentrifying neighborhoods. Stillman, a research analyst for the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation, earned a doctorate in politics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She lives in Harlem.

Leave questions for Stillman about her research in the comments section. 

What questions guided your research? 

I researched the process of school integration in gentrifying neighborhoods because I think school integration remains an important societal goal, despite the dismantling of racial integration programs across the nation. Gentrifying neighborhoods seem full of potential.

I wanted to figure out how a school without any white, middle-class families goes through the process of integration. What does it take to attract the first white families to a school in a gentrifying neighborhood? And the next wave? And the next? Why do these families stay or go? Is there a point at which we can say the school has successfully integrated? My research question was one of process, not outcomes, relying on existing literature that links integration with positive effects.

I am a “gentry parent” myself (which I define as white, middle and upper-middle class, highly educated parents who are gentrifying a neighborhood with their presence and wealth), and I understand why neighborhood gentrification is controversial. Long-time neighborhood residents might be displaced as rents increase, and the neighborhood might lose whatever was considered its authentic character. But I think there is a lot of possibility wrapped up in the demographic mixing happening in these neighborhoods, if only the people living in these neighborhoods could figure out how to engage in some sort of meaningful social mixing. My hope is that if the schools in gentrifying neighborhoods integrate along with the neighborhood, some common ground can be found between the opponents and proponents of gentrification.

How did you conduct your research?

I decided to allow the racial aspects of gentrification guide my research, even though gentrification is primarily an issue of class.  Lance Freeman, author of “There Goes the Hood,” argues that while middle-class black and Hispanic families can be — and usually are — part of the gentrification process, it is the entrance of white families into a neighborhood that overtly signals a neighborhood’s gentrification, and causes the non-gentry residents to take note and react. I decided the same reasoning would apply to schools.

I interviewed more than 50 white, middle-class “gentry parents” in three different New York City gentrifying neighborhoods about their elementary school choice process — those who were utilizing their neighborhood school, those who were sending their children elsewhere, and those who had tried their neighborhood school and left.  Because these families typically have the ability to choose something other than their zone school, I hypothesized that school integration in a gentrifying neighborhood must happen through the collective choices of the more privileged group.

What were your major discoveries?

School integration in gentrifying neighborhoods does happen, but rarely. It happens through a chain of actions and reactions of different types of gentry parents, each with a different threshold for tolerating their own minority status, each with a different idea about whether they can and should try to change a school to better match their preferences.

The first gentry parents who enroll their children in a segregated school usually find some sort of enclave program where they can concentrate their presence, like a Gifted and Talented, Dual Language, or preschool program. If this first group of gentry parents feels welcomed by the principal, and if the principal can successfully bridge the “gentry/non-gentry culture gap” that exists between the new type of parents who are coming in and the existing parent community, this first wave of gentry parents will keep their children enrolled in the school, and they will work to attract the next wave of gentry families with a flurry of activity and outreach, primarily through staging impressive school tours, all of which will give the school the label “changing” in the gentry neighborhood network.

“Changing” schools are difficult to move to the final stage of integration. Many gentry parents enter a “changing” school because it appears to have already changed enough to match their most important school preferences — diversity and progressive pedagogy. Often, however, they discover it actually hasn’t changed enough for them to feel comfortable. The school feels too traditional, too authoritarian in tone, and these less tolerant gentry parents take their children out, looking for a school that can give them what they want. If this skeptical group does stay, the final wave of gentry families will soon arrive, and the school successfully tips and becomes integrated, or “diverse,” as the gentry would say.

Schools that have the easiest time integrating seem to have the following two characteristics: First, a school with a diverse non-gentry composition appears to be more welcoming of gentry families, as there is not a single, dominant culture that already exists in the school beyond the school culture. The principal is already skilled in managing a diverse constituency, and adding the gentry to the mix is not jarring in the way it is when a school is primarily one ethnic/racial group. Second, a school that is in a neighborhood much further along in the gentrification process has a surrounding community much more accepting of school change, which gives the principal political room to adjust the school’s culture to better match the preferences of the gentry.

What can policy makers learn from your work?

Enclaves are an important tool for gentry parents who need to concentrate their presence to feel comfortable in a school. But, those enclaves that screen children, such as G&T programs, risk alienating the existing school community and usually fail to achieve socio-economic integration. To facilitate enclaves without screening, I propose the creation of Urban Education Cooperatives (UECs). As conceived, UECs would be groups of parents, formally organized by a school district (in the case of  New York City, the Community Education Council would likely be the organizing force), who are committed to public education, but who don’t feel comfortable with their zone school, and are willing to enter a district school that is underutilized by zone families if they are guaranteed two things: 1) That their children will be in the same kindergarten classroom with other members of the UEC, and 2) That they get to decide, as a group, which school they would like to attend after meeting with the principals and parent leaders of each school in the district that is identified as an option.

An alternative to UECs would be to target new charter schools in gentrifying neighborhoods, with the intentional goal of recruiting a diverse student body from day one. If the goal is integration, changing a school is much more difficult than starting a new one, especially when the new school is not restricted by zone lines and can cast a wider net for students. In New York City, there is a nonprofit organization that has recently been formed to achieve this goal, the Tapestry Project. It is currently recruiting school leaders to found racially and socio-economically diverse charter schools, and I am hopeful about its potential to foster a new crop of diverse schools in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Are there further questions you are exploring?

A serious limitation of my research is that it lacks the viewpoint of the principals who are charged with the difficult task of managing the gentry/non-gentry culture gap. From the perspective of my interviewees, school leadership was vital to whether they felt welcome to bring themselves, their children, and their ideas to a school. Because of the responsibility placed upon this one person to skillfully facilitate the integration of two disparate parenting and school philosophies under one roof, the principal’s voice is needed for a more complete picture of how the school integration process can be successful in gentrifying. Research questions might include: 1) What new challenges do principals face when leading schools that are integrating due to an influx of white, middle-class families? 2) What additional support systems do principals need in this situation?

Want to learn more? Jennifer Stillman’s new book, “Gentrification and Schools: The Process of Integration When Whites Reverse Flight,” comes out in August. Use the promotion code P356ED for a 20 percent discount.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.