I continue to think about Nikole Hannah-Jones’ piece that appeared in Sunday’s NY Times Magazine, Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City. Hannah-Jones is the reporter these days who has covered school integration with more expertise than almost anyone else. Here she describes her and her husband’s journey as they chose where to educate their own daughter in New York City. Hannah-Jones grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, where she believes she benefited from the opportunity to be bused for school integration. Her husband was educated in the naturally integrated schools that serve the children of the American military in the U.S. and around the world.
Today the family lives in Bedford-Stuyvesant. “a low-income, heavily black, rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of brownstones in central Brooklyn.” “In a city where white children are only 15 percent of the more than one million public-school students, half of them are clustered in just 11 percent of the schools, which not coincidentally include many of the city’s top performers. Part of what makes these schools desirable to white parents, aside from the academics, is that they have some students of color, but not too many. This carefully curated integration, the kind that allows many white parents to boast that their children’s public schools look like the United Nations, comes at a steep cost for the rest of the city’s black and Latino children. The New York City public-school system is 41 percent Latino, 27 percent black and 16 percent Asian. Three quarters of all students are low-income. In 2014, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, released a report showing that New York City public schools are among the most segregated in the country. Black and Latino children here have become increasingly isolated, with 85 percent of black students and 75 percent of Latino students attending ‘intensely’ segregated schools—schools that are less than 10 percent white.”
Hannah-Jones spends some time setting up the couple’s dilemma. Her husband initially wanted to look into a public school with high test scores or a parochial or private school, but Hannah-Jones, “explained that if we removed Najya, whose name we chose because it means ‘liberated’ and ‘free’ in Swahili, from the experience of most black and Latino children, we would be part of the problem. Saying my child deserved access to ‘good’ public schools felt like implying that children in ‘bad’ schools deserved the schools they got, too… One family, or even a few families, cannot transform a segregated school, but if none of us were willing to go into them, nothing would change. Putting our child into a segregated school would not integrated it racially, but we are middle-class and would, at least, help to integrate it economically.” “I understood that so much of school segregation is structural—a result of decades of housing discrimination, of political calculations and the machinations of policy makers, of simple inertia. But I also believed that it is the choices of individual parents that uphold the system, and I was determined not to do what I’d seen so many others do when their values about integration collided with the reality of where to send their own children to school.”
Parents trapped in one of today’s most troubling and difficult moral dilemmas.
The Hannah-Jones family had public school choices, because parents in New York City can apply to schools outside their immediate neighborhood even at the elementary school level. In 2014, the Hannah-Jones enrolled their daughter comfortably in the pre-Kindergarten at a neighborhood school that serves the Farragut Houses public housing project—a school 91 percent black and Latino—a school where 90 percent of the children meet federal poverty standards. Hannah-Jones, the skilled reporter and researcher, spends many paragraphs tracing the history of segregation—integration mostly across the South—and resegregation. And she explores the way housing discrimination has driven school segregation in New York City. What fascinates me in her reflection, however, are the lessons of her own family’s experience.
Realizing that a school’s test scores in aggregate correlate with family income, not the quality of the school, Hannah-Jones and her husband did not choose a school based on the test scores. The test-score metric by which we “grade” schools today sends many parents to the wealthy suburbs or in a city like New York, to the wealthiest schools or those quickly gentrifying. Hannah-Jones convinced her husband instead to visit several local schools. At P.S. 307 they found a school where the principal and all of her own siblings had grown up in the neighborhood and attended P.S. 307 as children. Five decades later, in 2003, she became the principal at her own childhood school and dedicated herself to developing a program that includes Mandarin, violin lessons, and an intensive science program.
In the spring of her daughter’s pre-K year, Hannah-Jones learned that the city threatened to move children from P.S. 8, a nearby, overcrowded, gentrifying school into her daughter’s less crowded school. Hannah-Jones describes her own reaction at a public meeting as powerful parents from the nearby school publicly voiced their most visceral fear that their children would be exposed to too many poor black children and in this instance to her own daughter: “I was struck by the sheer power these parents had drawn into that auditorium. The meeting about the overcrowding at P.S. 8, which involved 50 children in a system of more than one million, had summoned a state senator, a state assemblywoman, a City Council member, the city comptroller and the staff members of several other elected officials. It has rarely been clearer to me how segregation and integration, at their core, are about power and who gets access to it… As the politicians looked on, two white fathers gave an impassioned PowerPoint presentation in which they asked the Department of Education to place more children into already-teeming classrooms rather than send kids zoned to P.S. 8 to P.S. 307 (her daughter’s school).”
As the months passed, the city proceeded with a rezoning plan that would have gentrified P.S. 307 but that also threatened to marginalize the poorer children already enrolled. Some of the white parents whose children were to be rezoned into P.S. 307 told the principal “they’d be willing to enroll their children only if she agreed to put the new students all together in their own classroom.” Hannah-Jones’ husband, who had by then become the PTA president, led an effort to engage and organize the parents in the Farragut housing project to demand protections for their own children. They demanded to know, for example, whether P.S. 307. as a gentrified school, would continue to qualify for federal funds for free after-school care and other programs. The organized PS.307 parents delivered demands—with 400 signatures—to insist that, “half of all the seats at P.S. 307 would be guaranteed for low-income children. That would ensure that the school remained truly integrated and that new higher-income parents would have to share power in deciding the direction of the school.” In the end, a compromise rezoning plan moved forward—with a set-aside of 50 percent of seats for low income children and at the same time a guarantee that children living in P.S. 307’s attendance zone would receive priority admission. In a gentrifying area, where young children are increasingly white and affluent, such a plan is not a guarantee of protection for the children of the poorest families: “Without seats guaranteed for low-income children, and with an increasing white population in the zone, the school may flip and become mostly white and overcrowded.”
Racially balancing the public schools in a city like New York with rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods posses a logistical and moral dilemma for parents and public officials. As she wraps up her story, Hannah-Jones reflects, “The sense of helplessness in the face of such entrenched segregation is what makes so alluring the notion, embraced by liberals and conservatives, that we can address school inequality not with integration but by giving poor, segregated schools more resources and demanding of them more accountability. True integration, true equality, requires a surrendering of advantage, and when it comes to our children, that can feel almost unnatural. Najya’s first two years in public school helped me understand this better than I ever had before. Even Kenneth Clark, the psychologist whose research showed the debilitating effects of segregation on black children, chose not to enroll his children in the segregated schools he was fighting against. ‘My children,’ he said, ‘only have one life.’ But so do the children relegated to this city’s segregate schools. They have only one life, too.”
Hannah-Jones describes only one person not much affected by the political and moral battles of the adults in Brooklyn. Whenever she writes about her daughter, Najya is calmly enjoying her days at an educationally challenging school.
I encourage you to read Hannah-Jones’ important article.