Last month, San Antonio ISD adopted a new code of conduct and student bill of rights. The new policy moves the district toward a more restorative approach to discipline, and encourages teachers and administrators to consider the emotional and social health of the child when conflict arises.
The idea is to reduce the number of suspensions, expulsions, and assignments to alternative schools. All of these actions remove students from the instruction they need, and make it more likely that they will withdraw from the institution of school and end up disengaged or in bigger trouble.
On some campuses, the new policy is business as usual. On others, it is likely going to require a radical culture shift.
A public information request revealed just how disparate the district’s campuses are when it comes to discipline. While we know that the district tends to reflect national norms when it comes to racial and special education disparities in discipline, there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to which campuses make the most use of exclusionary discipline methods (suspension, expulsion, alternative school).
Meanwhile others have completely done away with such things…or at least made it three months into the school year without them.
The following (messy and imperfect) graphs demonstrate that there is little demonstrable correlation between the most over-disciplined student populations and the discipline rates at specific schools. However, it should be noted that among the top 15 (top quartile) discipline-heavy schools, seven and eight campuses had higher percentages of black and SPED students respectively than the district as a whole. Among the 15 least heavily-disciplined schools, only St. Phillips Early College had a higher percentage of black students than the district. Four schools had lower percentages of students classified as SPED.
Income does not seem to influence the data much either, though the schools with the largest white populations, are among the less heavily disciplined. Zip codes 78207, 78220, 78212, and 78210 show up throughout the list.
You will notice, however, the outlier dot on both graphs, which is where things get interesting.
In the first three months of the 2019-2020 school year, Davis Middle School handed down 390 suspensions, and placed 14 students in the district’s alternative school. Around one-third of the school’s 600 have missed school for disciplinary reasons so far this year.
That is the highest rate of exclusionary discipline in the district, followed by Rogers Middle School and Highlands High School, which each reported 11 percent of students receiving suspensions or alternative school placement.
Together, those three make up 30 percent of SAISD’s 2,678 exclusionary discipline actions in the first three months of this school year. Adults would likely describe these as three “tough campuses” but are they really “tougher” than, say, Lanier, Margil, JT Brackenridge, and Washington? Why? It appears the disparities lie in something not captured by the stuff we measure, which means it does not seem to be something inherent in the children.
In the coming months, I plan to explore this data further, getting into the details and complexities of the new code of conduct in light of this starting point data. Restorative practices are not without their discontents, but right now, it’s difficult to argue that kids in SAISD are getting an equal shot at it. If this is something that the district is serious about, then it will take sustained effort and community participation to make it a reality on every campus.
A community redesign revealed that parents and students who said good-bye to Rodriguez Elementary want something big in its place.
The West Side is getting a new school. Or rather, a rebooted school. In the fall of 2020, Rodriguez Elementary will re-open its doors as a dual language Montessori school. San Antonio ISD announced the new model at a public meeting on Tuesday night where around a dozen community members gathered to hear the news.
The new school will be the first of its kind in the city. It will be the second choice campus in the Lanier High School area, after Irving Dual Language Academy. The district does have another traditional Montessori school, Steele Montessori Academy on the Southeast Side. Only one other public Montessori school in the state, Eduardo Mata Elementary in Dallas ISD, has a dual language program. When Rodriguez re-opens in August 2020, it will begin with the “Primary” community (ages 3-6), and grow each year with its initial class.
Rodriguez closed its doors at the end of the 2018-2019 school year, a state-mandated action in response to five years of failing to meet state standards. The redesign team aimed to get right all that went wrong in the closure process.
Closing schools just sucks. Marisa Alvarado would know, she’s been through it twice. The Alvarado family moved to Rodriguez when under-enrolled Carvajal Elementary became an Early Childhood Center in 2009.
A small group of parents met with SAISD Director of Strategic School Support Dana Ray at Alvarado’s home near Rodriguez. They were there to discuss the redesign of Rodriguez, but first they shared their lingering frustration over the closure.
From day one at Rodriguez, she said, she felt the school was “lame.” It showed signs of neglect—outdated technology, worn out furniture, and a principal who was “nice,” she said, but mostly only a voice on the loudspeaker. No one seemed to care whether parents were involved, she said, “As a parent, I like people reaching out.”
She saw an improvement when the district brought in a new principal who had the verve to push for turnaround. Ms. Brady had the energy, Alvarado said, but not enough time. Turnarounds, done properly, are often slow. By the time she pulled Rodriguez’s scores out of “improvement required” status (Rodriguez earned a “D” last year), the decision had been made. To prevent further action from the state, SAISD had already signaled to the Texas Education Agency that it would close Rodriguez.
When they announced the decision, Alvarado said, “I was livid.” She stopped waiting for the school to reach out to her, and started voicing her concern. She wasn’t selected to be a parent ambassador during the closure process, she suspects because she was not happy with the school or the district. But she would show up to meetings and events anyway. “I was determined to be there, because it was my right,” Alvarado said. She has been involved ever since.
While last ditch efforts were made to save others like P.F. Stewart and Ogden—Rodriguez just closed. One parent said she didn’t believe the district even considered other options–at least not publicly or with community input.
Alvarado joined up with COPS-Metro and the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, and even went with them to Austin to protest the closure. But she says she didn’t find a listening ear there either. “They wanted my support, but they didn’t want to listen,” she said, “It drained me a lot.”
Alvarado said she felt bad for the teachers who would have to change schools, and she understood the argument that the neighborhood school is an anchor for community. But those were not her primary concerns.
Her primary concern was for her kids. Not just that they would have somewhere to go to school— Carvajal reopened to receive the Rodriguez students—but that it would be a good school. A school that the district prioritized.
At one point, Alvarado even considered enrolling in the Advanced Learning Academy. Rodriguez families were given priority in the lottery for any SAISD choice schools, but the drive would have made her mornings too volatile, she explained. She opted for close-by Carvajal for her 3rd grader.
In keeping with her vigilance to keep eyes and ears on the future of Rodriguez, Alvarado agreed to host a redesign meeting in her home—one of at least nine district outreach efforts during the first three months of school this year.
The first meeting in September was a classic public meeting hosted at Rodriguez attended by around 40 people, including former teachers. There the district presented some models that might be appealing. Next, a bus tour of the Advanced Learning Academy, Steele Montessori, and Irving Dual Language gave parents 90 minutes with each school to see what they liked and didn’t like about the schools.
A second public meeting to get feedback from the tours was not well-attended. Only about five parents came to the October meeting with representatives from each school, Superintendent Pedro Martinez, Board President Patti Radle, and representatives from the enrollment office.
After that, the district shifted gears, meeting with smaller groups at libraries, school campuses, and Alvarado’s house. Ray has met with close to 100 students and parents throughout November, getting feedback on the various models and priorities.
All saw the benefits of Montessori, project based learning, social and emotional learning, and dual language instruction. Their main priority, expressed in various ways, was that the school know and respond to their children. They wanted to be engaged as partners. For a community that often feels ignored and written-off, the district clearly has some good faith to restore, and parents want it restored in a particular way: a high value placed on their children.
Several parents expressed hesitation about dual language, referencing an internalized “stigma” some community members have against speaking Spanish. In Mexican American communities, some adults remember being punished for speaking their home language at school. English-only use among Latino immigrants increases with each generation, and while some are worried about losing connection to their heritage, others still have a bad taste left over from discrimination they have experienced.
Students at Rhodes Middle School, were all in on dual language when they met with Ray. They liked the idea of self-guided Montessori and hands-on learning at ALA. But they lit up when asked if they would have liked to learn Spanish (or French or Japanese, they added). Students believe in the advantage of being multilingual in competitive job markets. They would be jealous, they said, of their younger siblings or neighbors who became fluent in a second language.
Both priorities are reflected in the new model. Rodriguez students will be able to opt into a dual language program within the wall-to-wall Montessori program, which, when implemented with fidelity, is highly individualized and relational.
The campus will also be a “diverse by design” school, meaning that it will be intentionally integrated using socioeconomic status. Half of the students will come from middle and/or upper income households, and half will come from homes that qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program. This element of the Rodriguez plan may present as large a challenge as training Montessori dual language teachers and outfitting the school in the next nine months. Drawing middle and high income families to the West Side has been a challenge for SAISD. Rodriguez will serve an area that has been historically ignored by the rest of the city.
While some have raised concerns that development aspirations around UTSA downtown will bring gentrification to the West Side, the housing stock in the 78207 zip code is not as amenable to the kind of rapid change seen in Southtown and Dignowity Hill on the East Side. Small houses and lots, and large public housing developments create a different set of variables than the high vacancy rates and the stately-but-aging housing stock of other areas. For those who have heard Trinity researcher Christine Drennon explain the segregation and gentrification issues of San Antonio, she points out that the West Side was built with segregation in mind. That doesn’t make it immune to redevelopment, but it changes the dynamics. The West Side also has a history of effective Latino activism that could afford residents a stronger voice in conversations about the future of their neighborhoods.
All that to say, the advent of Rodriguez and its hot new curriculum does not herald immediate influxes of coffee shops, nor does it cater to some future population who may or may not be moving in soon. Putting what might be the most attractive model deep in a neighborhood designed for segregation is something else entirely, in my opinion.
It is definitely a challenge to middle class families to see how much of their school choice really has to do with philosophy of education. Twain and Irving have very different lottery pools, even though the model is the same—diverse by design, dual language. At an event last year, a parent pointed out that there were some other reasons to choose Twain (it had a play scape, and at that moment Irving did not yet have one). But the biggest difference between those two schools is the neighborhood around them.
More importantly, placing dual language Montessori at Rodriguez spreads the wealth—literally. While there’s still work to be done in making sure that every campus has the resources of ALA or CAST Tech and the attention of schools like Twain and YWLA, placing choice models in historically segregated neighborhoods is a move toward equity as long as those neighborhoods will have priority in enrollment.
Does one new economically integrated school alleviate the concentrated poverty at Ogden, Storm, Sarah King, Barkley/Ruiz, Margil, Crockett, De Zavala, J.T. Brackenridge and Carvajal? No, not really. But it does add integration to the mix of ways that families on the West Side could finally be getting the choices and resources they have been requesting for decades. It is a step. A piece of the puzzle.
Rodriguez will be by far the shiniest of SAISD’s choice schools, and it’s up to the district to make sure that the neighborhood feels the glow.
We put our kids in a public school committed to socioeconomic diversity, where they are among the 6 percent of kids who look like them. It’s going very well. They are learning how to speak Spanish while their classmates learn English. My kindergartener is adding, subtracting, and reading up a storm. My pre-kindergartener wants to be an “astronauta” and asks for, “mas jugo, por favor” (pronounced, “po-faloe” because no one is going to correct something that adorable).
So what are we learning, my white husband and I?
We are learning how to support the work of integration. We got on board with desegregation when we enrolled. Integrating is much…much harder.
I say integrating is harder than desegregation. It is. But mostly because it is very difficult for me not to look like an ass in doing it. Integration is more difficult to do well. Not that it is harder to endure or to survive. Reflecting on my first semester as an integrating parent, I would be remiss if I didn’t dedicate at least one blog post to how awesome it has been for my own mental health and the mental health of my kids.
Not in a “purposeful life” sort of way. Not in a “the peace of doing the right thing.” Not in a “virtue is its own reward.” No. I mean that saying yes to functional systems and no to the rat race is incredibly freeing and fun and I think it may be saving our lives.
Because of the narratives around failing schools, and frankly the narratives around desegregation, a lot of the focus stays on the resources that middle class parents bring with them into under-resourced schools. The focus is on what these parents will be giving up, and not so much on what they will gain. But if we look a little deeper, while we might be giving up some elite coaching, some cool field trips and clubs and whatnot, we are also escaping something.
I sort of wanted integration to be more risky, because economically advantaged people need to be willing to feel a little discomfort, and to give up some of our advantages. We have to stop idolizing the idea that our kids will have an edge over their competition, we have to stop the opportunity hoarding whereby we get stuff for our kids and then see everyone else as a threat. We have to stop making everything about childhood a competition.
We have to stop, because when we do that, we inevitably rely on unjust systems of segregation, nepotism, and power tokens to do it. When we use those systems they get stronger.
We cluster in the most “competitive” schools, so that’s where the college recruiters focus, overlooking other schools.
We use our connections to get our kids into programs and club sports they did not earn, or we pay for copious tutoring and lessons to make sure that they can earn their way in, edging out kids who might have gotten in on skill alone if it were really a competition between kids. So now, to get into some programs a certain amount of expensive pre-gaming is assumed. Eventually some families are priced out.
We use our influence to create internships, clubs, and learning experiences centered on the interests and ambitions of our kids, giving them the natural advantage of interest and ambition.
We continue to build the world to their advantage, which is a zero sum game. Not everyone can win. But the race doesn’t start in the classroom. It doesn’t even start at birth. It started generations ago, which is why one group (white folks) are over-represented among the economically advantaged. While not every white person is rich, in America we have had more consistent and longstanding access to means of creating wealth–property ownership, inheritance law and tax code written with our norms in mind, fair lending, insurance.
Our inheritance as second-and-forthcoming-generation privileged folks is the obligation to maintain and expand our lead.
This rugged individualism is just as destructive…and it’s self-destructive too. It’s become pathological. It starts so early, and costs so much. Not only in money, but in mental health. Which is why opting out of it is, in my opinion, an advantage worth having.
I truly believe that the pressure we put on our kids to achieve is as toxic as the social media apps we like to blame for everything. The drug use, the self-harm, the eating disorders…those thrive in highly competitive school environments. (Not like “do your best” competitive. There’s a difference between success and dominance.) The kids begin to self-destruct right along with us.
The social pressure between parents is, yes, the stuff of parody, but get one whiff of it and you will find it is not funny at all. We can snicker at Big Little Lies, The Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce, I’m Sorry, Modern Family, I Don’t Know How She Does It, Where’d You Go Bernadette?, Bad Moms, Bad Moms’ Christmas, or any television show set in a private high school…but all of that is a derived from a real, gut-churning thing.
We all say we aren’t going to be the parent who does our kids’ school projects or stays up all night making bake sale goodies. That we wouldn’t indulge their request for absurdly expensive athletic gear. We all say we would nev-er pay a man to fix their SATs.
Look at what else we’ve been willing to do. Is any of that less radical than clumping our children into affluent enclaves that have been proven to disadvantage other schools across town? Is doing your kid’s homework somehow more egregious than demanding they be put in a certain teacher’s class? Is paying thousands of dollars in SAT prep any less fair than signing a petition against a rezone that would bring in more low income households to your child’s school?
Opting into integration, for me, is the first step in opting out of all of that. I say no to competitive parenting, starting by forfeiting the advantage of segregation.
When I say “no” to that, I say “yes” to other things. We still have a lot of joy.
I sent my daughter to school with a historical figure pumpkin that she made herself. I helped her a little with the pinning part so that she didn’t hurt herself, but she did do the rest herself. And it looked like a five-year-old made it. It was Ruby Bridges (and I was beyond proud of her selection), but you could not tell by looking at the pumpkin. She’s playing YMCA soccer at her school, and dabbling in random other things where she’s interested, as little people do. My three-year-old does nothing outside the house besides school, as being with me is his preferred extracurricular.
I’m a super indulgent parent, and I typically let my kids try whatever they want to try as long as it’s ethical and safe. Jumping off stuff, making concoctions in the kitchen, dance lessons. I think their curiosity is wonderful, and I have a hard time saying “no.” Our economic situation enables a lot of this, which is why I have to say “no” at times as a discipline. I set boundaries when I know I should, but I’d always rather say, “Yeah! Let’s see what happens!” (Those who know me, know that this is not just in regards to my kids…this is just me in life…send condolences to Lewis.)
But every time I talk to parents who share my demographics, I’m bombarded with the idea of more competitive leagues, mastering a musical instrument, or thinking about getting into the pipeline that leads to the best colleges. Not in the interest of indulging our children’s quirkiest interests, but in the interest of helping them stand out and get ahead.
The obsession with selective colleges begins the moment our children are born, if not before. Even though research shows that selective colleges don’t really carry an extra advantage for kids who already come from the professional networks and social circles made accessible by selective colleges.
There’s good guidance out there that desegregation shouldn’t be a stealth power move. If going into a desegregated school is a way of garnering yet another advantage for your kid—whether dual language, project-based learning, or just the many actual benefits that come from diverse settings—you probably won’t really integrate. And you’ll miss out on all the sanity it has to offer.
We put our kids in a public school committed to socioeconomic diversity, where they are among the 6 percent of kids who look like them. It’s going very well. They are learning how to speak Spanish while their classmates learn English. My kindergartener is adding, subtracting, and reading up a storm. My pre-kindergartener wants to be an “astronauta” and asks for, “mas jugo, por favor” (pronounced, “po-faloe” because no one is going to correct something that adorable).
So what are we learning, my white husband and I?
We are learning how to support the work of integration. We got on board with desegregation when we enrolled. Integrating is much…much harder.
The Integration Diaries Part 2: A Lottery without Power Tokens
Right now 28 percent of SAISD families are attending choice schools, choice programs inside of schools outside their neighborhood, or have transferred to an SAISD school outside their neighborhood. That number will probably grow as more schools open their enrollment to the district and beyond.
That “and beyond” is troubling for some, and I want to acknowledge it right up front. The lottery system is complicated, but the bottom line is that the district needs more students. Period. In addition to the net gain, it needs more economic desegregation. Most of the families coming from outside SAISD are economically stable, meaning they do not qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program. In order to create the socio-economic diversity that the district is going for in its choice system—breaking up the concentrated poverty that makes for very challenging school environments—the district is going to need to pull in some of those out-of-district kids.
However, I would like to suggest that at the schools where this is not the case—where the balance can be achieved internally within SAISD— that it should be so. Twain Dual-Language Academy, Steele Montessori, and the Advanced Learning Academy could probably hit the 50-50 balance entirely in-district, if not this year, then soon. I think a strong case could be made for eliminating the out-of-district set-aside for these schools in the next few years, allowing for siblings of current out-of-district students and teachers’ students.
While I’m all for breaking down barriers between the districts, I do think that it will ultimately be SAISD families who sustain the work for generations, and wherever they can take full ownership of a school, they should. While they already have priority status in the lottery, it may be worth doing more, like ending the out-of-district set-aside once district demand reaches capacity. Just a thought.
Of course, there could be the concern that if out-of-district families cannot get into the highest demand schools (Twain, Steele, and ALA), then they will just stay put in Northside or North East ISDs. That is actually quite likely.
Remember, SAISD wants the out-of-district set-asides in the choice schools to be net gain in district enrollment. SAISD families who don’t get into the choice schools should, in theory, be able to choose their neighborhood school and be just as well-served.
A snag: those living SAISD neighborhoods but enrolling in private and charter schools may not be willing to enroll their kids in their neighborhood school—especially if its been rated a D or an F or if they tried it once and had a terrible experience. Whether those families are middle class and thinking “ALA-or-nothing” or whether they are low-income families going to KIPP or IDEA until their neighborhood school improves…that’s a real thing SAISD has to contend with in the era of school choice: are your most desirable choice schools the only district schools some families will consider.
If there’s an all-or-nothing sentiment among those considering SAISD, the district has to walk the fine line between pragmatism and idealism. Pragmatism says, “if it’s all-or-nothing, give them all” and idealism says, “if it’s all-or-nothing, give them nothing.”
Had we not gotten into Twain, I hope we would have put our children into Hawthorne Academy, our zoned school. It’s a D school. I don’t like its current charter. It’s actually farther from our house than Twain is. But it has great teachers and good community. I’m 99 percent sure we would have done it, but that D would have been a significant hurdle.
But because we did get into Twain, I have to check myself even more. We got this great “A” school…at 50 percent FRL, six percent white, and 30 percent ELL it is not the most or least radical version of itself. There are still a lot of ways I could adopt an all-or-nothing attitude within the school. I could dangle the threat of withdrawal every time I don’t get my way. I could give opulently and then expect special treatment in return. I could jump the line by cashing in on “who I know” whenever I want to get something done.
Like any middle class parent, I could try to play my power tokens.
A common sentiment among those who have things—middle class and upper-middle class adults—is that everything must be earned, everything must be transactional, nothing should be free.
We can discuss the idea of welfare and generational wealth over lunch sometime, but for now I’ll just say that middle class adults can be really hypocritical about entitlement. We feel it all the time.
Once we have money, we feel entitled influence, to deference, to a sort of power in our spheres that goes beyond mere transactions.
For instance: A person of means buys a nice car.
Transaction: Car for money. Car should operate as advertised.
Basic level entitlement: Customer service should be above and beyond, because I’m paying a lot…for the car.
Extra level entitlement: I’m going to park on the line and take up two spaces because I don’t want anyone denting my expensive car. The entire world owes me more space because I paid a lot for my car.
Influence in one sphere also leads to entitlement in another. Government officials expect to be able to get into sold out events, invited as VIPs. Influencers expect to get free stuff.
The world is full of stories from customer service representatives about how ordinary people (we are all ordinary people) felt that they should get extraordinary treatment or exemption from the rules of polite society because of a monetary transaction. They weren’t paying for a product, they were paying for status.
My friend Kelly O’Connor recently opened Ruby City, the legacy art institution of Linda Pace. It’s a beautiful space, promising to be a destination for locals and visitors alike. However, O’Connor has made it clear that Ruby City is for the community—the artists of San Antonio, and the general public who enjoys their art.
“We really don’t have VIP events,” in the traditional sense, O’Connor told me, after Ruby City’s free “BubbleFest” attracted over 1,000 people to the park adjacent to the building. Anyone can sign up to receive the Ruby City News Letter, and that’s how events are announced, along with media coverage, and public communication avenues. Local artists will be invited to special events, because that’s who Linda Pace wanted to honor.
This hasn’t landed well with all of Ruby City’s donors, O’Connor admitted. Many people pay to become members of museums and foundations for the perks, the parties, and the previews. When an institution is dependent on donors, those benefits are part of the transaction. But sometimes members expect more, especially those giving at higher levels. Keeping members happy can become a full time job. Or several full time jobs.
But Ruby City is funded by an endowment from the Linda Pace Foundation, O’Connor explained, they don’t have to shape their mission around the desires of donors. That’s as Pace would have wanted it, O’Connor said, and given the world that Pace came from, it’s is pretty big departure from the norm.
People can donate if they believe in the mission that already exists, and those are the kind of donors that will be happy at Ruby City—those for whom the transaction is complete as long as Ruby City flourishes.
Public schools, like cultural institutions, are subject to expectations. Parents can come in expecting some quid pro quo for the donations and volunteer hours. They expect their child to have access to clubs and classes that they might not earn on merit alone. (We will discuss “merit” in another post.)
Sometimes it’s not even money being leveraged. It’s social capital. It’s prestige of public office, family name, or legacy. Sometimes we expect special treatment just because of who we are.
Even when we don’t start out with that intention, parents who have money, time, and connections to share can be tempted to “cash in” when conflicts arise. When there’s a curriculum we don’t like, when our kid can’t wear their light-up shoes, when disciplinary actions come into play.
We don’t mean to, but we think to ourselves… “After all I’ve done. All I’ve given.”
When we have that thought, we have to admit that the flourishing of the system didn’t really complete the transaction for us. That wasn’t all we were investing in…there was something else. We were skimming off the top to pad an influence-slush-fund just in case we needed it. Our loyalty account, our frequent flyer miles, our reward points. Or, as Trevor Noah referred to them on the podcast linked above: power tokens.
One would hope that in the flourishing school (the one we invested in) every kid is getting what they need (yes, including ours). No parent would ever have need of a power token.
But, alas, needed or not, these tokens are used frequently. In a system where not every kid is getting what they need, parents can play tokens to get resources for their kid, at the expense of others. In a system where every kid is getting what they need, parents are tempted to use the power token to get extra, to get more than others. Either way, if a system shows that it is willing to take influence-slush fund monies or power tokens, parents will use them.
[I want to make a quick distinction between power tokens and investments. Families with more money, more connections, more time, more grandparents can invest in their schools in ways that increase the flourishing of all kids. That’s one of the many many benefits of socioeconomic integration. I’ll speak more to that in yet another post.]
Fair systems cannot accept power tokens. Democracy and public education cannot be doled out as part of a customer rewards rubric.
Being truly integrationist is not just “using privilege for good” or choosing not to spend power tokens. It means actually supporting systems that do not take them. I want my kids school to reject my power tokens.
“But that’s just how the world works.”
Yeah, I know. We’re out to change the way the world works. Because if no one takes them, power tokens become worthless, and privilege diminishes a little.
So here is your yearly reminder that the SAISD enrollment system cannot be gamed. There’s no back door. All applications go through the office of enrollment, and they aren’t allowed to care who you know or how much you have.
Principals do not have control of their waitlists. They cannot get you in. That may have been the case at one point, but, said Mohammed Choudhury, who runs the enrollment office, “It meant there were inconsistencies.”
Inconsistencies in enrollment usually make room for power tokens.
Under SAISD’s recent reforms, principals get a lot of say in how their school runs. More campuses get to structure their curriculum and their operations around the needs of their students and the desires of the community. But they can’t pick their students.
Which means that your power tokens are no good here.
On August 12, we put our kids in a public school committed to socioeconomic diversity, where they are among the 6 percent of kids who look like them. It’s going very well. They are learning how to speak Spanish while half of their classmates learn English. My kindergartener is adding, subtracting, and reading up a storm. My pre-kindergartener wants to be an “astronauta” and asks for, “jugo, por favor” (pronounced, “po-faloe” because no one is going to correct something that adorable).
So what are we learning, my white husband and I?
We are learning how to support the work of integration. We got on board with desegregation when we enrolled. Integrating is much…much harder.
I’ve been challenged by my friends to write about this year much like I wrote about our process in choosing a school.
That’s tougher of course, because my instinct is to protect my kiddos. I don’t want them paying for my soapboxes. However, I trust the teachers and administrators at their school enough to believe that they would not be doing this work if they didn’t already know a lot of what I’m going to say. And they are top-notch educators who already love and care for my kids very well, whether or not they like me as a person.
So, here it goes.
The Integration Diaries, part I
My kids already stand out racially at their school. Not only are we white, but we are white. Blonde hair, blue eyes, the whole bit. We are going snow skiing over winter break…in Utah. That is the whitest vacation on the planet. If you went into the classroom and made a few blunt, statistically-based assumptions about income, parents’ professions, zip code, etc, you’d probably guess wrong for some of the kids, but not ours.
Knowing that, I was hypersensitive to how they would see themselves in their new school. How they would fit in until they found the right way to stand out (preferably with kindness and creativity).
This anxiety manifested in some slightly silly ways that are probably best seen as metaphors or object lessons.
When it was time to buy school supplies, I did my best to get the most universal version of everything. On Meet the Teacher night, I was pleased to see that our supplies did not stand out. Basic in the best way. Her blue, transparent pencil box looked just like about eight others in her class. The pink handles of her round-tip safety scissors were indistinguishable from the rest.
Which was problematic when we forgot to put her name on everything.
After the first day of school, my daughter let me know that she needed a new pencil box and scissors. She was also concerned about her hair—a mane of wild blonde curls worn loose and grown slowly.
Her teacher apologized and explained that, essentially, Moira’s supplies, because we forgotten to write on them, had been taken as donations and given to other children. She had replaced what she could from the school’s extra-supplies closet, but there were no more pencil boxes or scissors.
So not only had Moira stood out on her first day, but it was in that stomach churning way no kid likes to stand out…she didn’t have the supplies she needed. She was conspicuously unprepared. Both her father and I would have pretty much melted on the spot as kids.
Except that Moira’s stomach didn’t churn. She wasn’t mortified or anxious. She wasn’t the only one without a pencil box or scissors. Her teacher didn’t make a thing of it, the other kids didn’t make a thing of it. She just wanted to know: did someone steal her stuff?
She was more bothered that her hair did not look like anyone else’s in her class, and she, for the first time in her five and a half years, asked to change it. She wanted dark, straight hair that she could wear in a thick braid.
These two minuscule, very inconsequential issues set the tone for our year. They could have happened anywhere, but they didn’t. They happened in the context of integration, which infused them with new meaning: We can be part of a system that works, because we belong to each other.
We learn to sort the world at an early age. Researchers have shown that kids recognize sameness and difference from their earliest days of cognition. Parents are constantly stymied by the various ways they decide to sort themselves as they grow. When I was in fourth grade we had major in-group issues over who brought Gushers vs. plain Fruit Roll-Ups. The haves and have-nots of the lunchtime economy.
We also sorted racially, economically, and by academic ability. Some of this was facilitated by the school itself, which was desegregated, but not intentionally integrated. Tracking, recommendation-based G/T testing, all those ways that schools internally segregate. The more empowered parents (whiter, wealthier) would request which teachers they wanted for their kids, and so they all ended up together.
(Shout out to my parents who did not do that.)
Beyond those mechanical means of separating us, we also just gravitated to what we knew.
We didn’t encounter a lot of mixed-race settings outside of school, so we didn’t recreate them in school. My anachronistically idyllic neighborhood was white. My church was white. My doctors were white and all the patients I saw in the waiting room were white.
Despite Hispanic students making up about 40-50 percent of the school, I did not have my first sleep-over-level Hispanic friend until 7th grade, and she was constantly catching grief from her friends about being “too white.”
Placing our kids in deliberately, doggedly diverse settings doesn’t stop them from noticing difference—their own or anyone else’s. In fact, it brings it to the foreground much faster. Like on the first day of school.
So we had a talk about what matters.
What matters: kids having what they need.
Getting a new pencil box and scissors was not a big deal for us. In fact, it was a pleasure. We let Moira pick this one, and she went all in, as usual. Tie-dye pencil box and scissors with a soccer print. They stand out because they reflect her personality, her gusto.
She doesn’t know who got her original box, but we were able to talk about the difference between sharing and stealing, and how we should always make sure there’s enough in that extra-supplies closet so that no one has to go without. After all, how glad had she been that it was there when she needed it?
What matters: belonging.
On the matter of hair, I had to break the news that she would never have lustrous, dark, straight hair like her classmates. I could not braid it into thick braids. It barely holds a clip, and I have to use orthodontic rubber bands to make pigtails. But while she can admire their lovely hair, I pointed out, she also has lovely hair, and it is very special to me.
“You know, I’m glad you have curly hair,” I said, “Because I do too.”
She liked that. “We’re like each other,” she said with a smile.
(Cue Mom tears.)
She has not brought up the hair issue since. She often admires other girls’ bows, braids, and shiny brown hair, but she also comments on how much she likes her own hair when it swoops over her forehead, or when the curls make complete spirals.
She feels secure, and so she is generous with others and herself.
Integration is not ignoring our differences. It’s the opposite. By being different and staying together we can make sure everyone has a grip on what matters. Everyone has what they need. Everyone has a place to belong. Those same teachable moments are for the parents, the aspiring integrationists, as well.
What matters: economic justice.
We live in a world where some kids have no pencil boxes, some kids have cool pencil boxes, and some kids can run out and replace their pencil box whenever they need to. The growing gap between those who depend on the extra-supplies closet and those who stock it should not exist. But it does, and now that we know, what will we do?
Will we just re-stock the closet with our plenty, or will we fight for enough to go around in the first place?
What matters: representation.
I didn’t worry that Moira would never realize she is beautiful. She is damn near identical to the standard of beauty that our culture has been promoting and celebrating for centuries. She’ll figure out soon enough that her parents, grandparents, and random strangers aren’t lying to her.
But those people in the positions to define what is “beautiful,” “professional,” “classy,” and “appropriate” need to see beyond the Moiras of the world. She is one of a million ways to be beautiful. Our board rooms, marketing firms, artists, media producers, and decision makers should look like those million other ways, so that they recognize them when they see them.
Fitting in is a lot easier when you all exist in the same economic and racial America. You know the rules, you know the code. I often hear the pro-segregation argument, “people just like to be with their own.” Birds of a feather. I get that: No one likes to feel isolated or alone in the crowd. But we can build a community based on more than economic and racial likeness. We can preserve the importance of those lived experiences without perpetuating the inequities that come alone with them. We can build society on more than Gushers or Fruit Roll-ups, who has, and who does not. I want my kids to know how to build a community based on what matters, and that’s something that we are going to figure out together.
Parents, homebuyers, and ed reformers all love simple, clear school ratings. Can we have them without reinforcing neighborhood segregation?
In the old real estate adage “location, location, location,” at least one of those locations represents proximity to a good school. It seems natural that parents would want this, and real estate investment experts confirm their hunch. A 2018 Forbes article recommends first-time homebuyers consider four priorities, and the first is location. Describing a good location, the author writes, “Look into things like crime rates and the quality of the school district.”
At some point in their hunt most homebuyers will visit at least one of the most popular search sites — Zillow, Realtor.com and Trulia — and encounter a seemingly simple measure of school quality: a color-coded GreatSchools.org ranking on a scale of 1 to 10, and a “parent rating” of 1 to 5 stars. States have followed suit with their own user-friendly report cards under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), but none have the market presence of Great Schools.
“We literally chose the house that we did based on proximity to and ratings of the schools,” said Clint Ochoa, a recent homebuyer in Texas. The ratings were clear and helpful for Ochoa and his wife while he was stationed in South Korea and she was in Atlanta with their three children. The whole home search had to happen online, and they knew very little about the area. Though they would go on to make school visits and talk to a real estate agent to discuss some of their family’s unique needs, Ochoa said, “Zillow was a starting place.” He’s in good company. In 2018, Zillow reported 157.2 million unique users per month, if those users clicked on a property, they saw a Great Schools rating.
Given the power to steer homebuyers and shape neighborhoods, it’s not surprising that the ratings used by these sites are under constant scrutiny.
Even assuming that the summary ratings could somehow fairly and accurately measure school quality, University of Massachusetts-Lowell Assistant Professor and director of research for the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment Jack Schneider still voices concern about their effect, whether from private or state agencies. Though state ratings are intended to spur school improvement, he said, “I think we should have some very serious questions about the theory of change that putting such information out there for the public is somehow going to guarantee better education experiences for young people.”
Great Schools is not in the accountability business, but instead aims to help parents make informed choices. This function is equally problematic for Schneider. Having a facile quantifier for how “good” and “bad” schools are, he says, drives neighborhood and school segregation, two of the culprits behind the achievement gap in the first place.
In search of a better measure
The accountability and rating craze began in the No Child Left Behind era and has done little more than reinforce what many already believed, Brookings Institute fellow Jon Valant said: schools serving low-income populations or large populations of black and brown students were bad and should be penalized and avoided.
“That was preventable,” Valant said. Once it was clear that the data showed little more than centuries of social and economic disparity—something schools can do very little about— state and federal governments could have tried to find a different way to measure what schools were actually doing, and get that information to parents.
“If you are going to show a label for the school,” Valant said, “it should be about what they are learning in the school … not how much they knew when they got there.”
There have been some steps in that direction. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, many states incorporated “growth scores” as a component of overall scores to demonstrate the value of what is happening inside the school. Each calculates and weights them a bit differently, but in general growth scores describe how much knowledge a student gains in one year, regardless of where they started. With wealthy students starting school already ahead of their lower-income peers, growth scores, in theory, should keep schools from being penalized for where their students started.
Parents care about more than tests as well. In the beginning, as No Child Left Behind took effect, the ratings were simple reflections of state assessment performance—something Great Schools no longer sees an adequate measures of school quality. Since 2007 Great Schools has continually expanded and honed the criteria that go into its ratings, including growth scores and other equity metrics.
“Our goal as an organization is to provide the broadest picture of school quality,” Great Schools CEO Jon Deane said. “We’re generally looking at, how can we tell a complete story?”
Stanford University professor Sean Reardon is one of the nations’ leading proponents of using growth measures over proficiency scores to determine school quality and measure the opportunities afforded to students. “If parents were to use the learning rate data to help inform their decisions about where to live, they might make very different choices in many cases,” he said in a news article on the Stanford website.
A Brown University study by David Houston and Jeffery Henig seems to back that claim. In an experimental situation when parents were asked to select a school using demographic information and growth scores, they chose less white and wealthy districts than when they were given demographic information with achievement scores.
However, a new report and data tool from Reardon’s team showed that segregated schools with concentrated poverty do not move students forward academically as well as socioeconomically diverse schools and wealthier schools. Their growth scores would be lower. The report would not say definitively what accounted for the difference in growth, but did suggest some possibilities including limited resources and teacher experience.
So prioritizing growth scores might make a parent choose a different school…but probably not highly segregated, low-income school. Changing the way ratings are calculated hasn’t make disparities disappear, because disparities still exist in schools. The fundamental truth learned from No Child Left Behind still stands: not all kids are getting the same quality of education. We know more about the gaps—they show up in almost any measure we invent—but we haven’t been as successful in addressing them.
Families know this, but for many, the neighborhoods around the most highly rated schools are out of their price range. “A large percentage of our users are low-income parents,” Deane said.
For them, finding the right school is an art. They need the more complex data available on GreatSchools.org to figure out if their children can thrive in more middling-rated schools–those in the yellow 4-7 range. Then, they can go back to Zillow, and find an affordable home to match.
Did you want a good school, or a white school? Or are those the same thing?
While deeper exploration is possible on the Great Schools site itself, the real estate websites only show the summary score. Seeing the summary dark orange “2” instead of a green “9” can have an immediate effect on a family wanting to purchase or rent a house close to the best possible school. As long as ratings act as market drivers for certain neighborhoods, they will increase segregation, which will increase the disparities reflected in the ratings, said Schneider.
“Good schools” sell houses. Alleviating inequality does not, Schneider explained, “The market doesn’t create integration.”
However, it’s not clear whether the ratings themselves are actually changing homebuyer habits, as much as reinforcing them, and making the process more efficient. While both state agencies and Great Schools continue to make more information available to parents, that data still generally tracks with income and racial demographics. Ratings are, whether the shopper intends them to be or not, a shortcut to finding schools with more affluent, whiter students.
Some researchers and most integration advocates acknowledge that parents may explicitly prefer whiter schools. What bothers Florida mom Stephanie Ilderton is it that this desire can be laundered of its racism by the seemingly simple science of ratings. Meanwhile, families who are looking for diversity may think they are getting a more racially and economically agnostic measure, but they aren’t, she explained, “The ratings are really incredibly biased.”
When Ilderton looked around her son’s Orlando metro-area school, she saw a lot of things she liked: strong academics, engaged teachers, and classrooms with books and materials for every child. What she didn’t see were black adults. As white parents with adopted black sons, Ilderton said, she and her husband needed to find “racial mirrors” for their children.
“We’re always on the hunt for role models for our sons,” she said.
She knew that finding a new school meant moving, so she consulted Zillow. From there, she quickly realized that the school ratings were leading her away from where she wanted to be. It was easy to find schools rated 9 and 10 in suburban Orlando near the university where her husband is a professor. But if she limited herself to 9s and 10s, she said, it ruled out the most diverse schools and the neighborhoods they served.
It bothered her that the ratings confirmed what people in her area already associated with “good schools,” she explained— whiter, wealthier students—thus rewarding decades of racial and economic segregation. “I don’t even think it’s intentional,” she said.
Ilderton is also acutely aware that disparities can continue within a highly-rated school. She needed more than a simple rating to know if her sons would be well-served academically and socially.
To find the supplemental information she wanted, Ilderton combed the Office of Civil Rights Database, visited schools, and eventually settled on a school that was rated lower than their current school, but still an 8 on the Great Schools rating system. It received a “B” on the Florida state report card, lower than the district as a whole, but the academic performance for black students was proportional to their representation in the student body—information she gleaned from Great Schools and the state report card. Both allow users to explore performance for different groups of students. Upon visiting the school, Ilderton was pleased to see black teachers around.
She knew which school she wanted, and only then did Ilderton returned to Zillow. She used a tool on the website that allows users to search for homes within the attendance zone of their desired school.
A map is focused on a geographical area: a city, a zip code, a suburb. Alongside the map, area schools are listed next to their ratings. Location.
Users click on the school name, and a map shows up, highlighting the attendance zone. Location.
The user then clicks “houses for sale inside this attendance zone” and another map shows up, empty except for qualifying homes. Location.
The tool does not tell parents what they should be looking for in a school. It leaves the moral quandry of balancing quality and equity to the individual parent. Ilderton used the tool to find a more diverse school, but it chilled her how easy it could have been used to continue the racial and economic sorting process that troubles her so much. It was, in a sense a metaphor for how people already thought about certain areas. As Schneider put it, “All they have to do is click a button and all these neighborhoods go away.”
The ongoing work of rooting out perfectionism in my life and habits—and replacing it with Gospel truth—was going really well. I was finding my joy in the work, not the praise for the work. I was finding it easier to shrug and say, “That could have gone better.” I wasn’t freaking out whenever I had to talk to someone from my past about why we are making decisions so out of line with the way “we were raised.” I was more comfortable thinking, “not everyone is going to like you, agree with you, or even respect you.”
So. Much. Rooting!
And then school started.
A new school. A school where my children would trade free-spirited attire for uniforms. Trade Montessori exploration for dual-language rigor. Trading a school where our socioeconomic lifestyle is the norm, to a school that is intentionally diverse in that regard.
First were the fears: will they think my children are spoiled? Entitled? Undisciplined? Will my kids feel “weird” because they look different than most of their peers? Will they react poorly to the Spanish immersion?
And if they do…will they be seen as “bad kids?”
The first week did a lot to assuage my fears. Things seemed to be going swimmingly. Then came the bad reports. I won’t go into the details of our week of discipline issues and struggles to get to the bottom of what appears to be an adjustment from Montessori, coupled with a bright, strong-willed kid’s spirit.
The important part is that it took our family into the next phase of perfection detox. Or rather, it threw us into the deep end of that phase and held our heads under for a week.
I regret to report that on day one, the bad report caught me off guard. instead of listening to my kid and talking about it rationally, I let my own shame (“they must not discipline their kids”) run the show.
I knew it, I thought, we should have been harder on them. We should have been more authoritarian, because now they will have no respect for authority. They are going to be labeled a bad kids. One of them going to go to jail.
(I’ve been reporting on the school-to-prison pipeline, which will make a neurotic mess out of anyone.)
I took that shame—which is not based in fact, we totally discipline our kids—and tried to appease my own psyche by cramming 5 years of deferred harshness into one ride home from school.
I pushed until I got the tears I thought were appropriate. I roared. I growled. I latched on like a hungry animal and did not let up until my poor sobbing child was just “sorry.”
And friends, let me tell you, to add to my guilt: out of those deepest sobs, my kid was able to say, “Mommy that voice that you are using is making my brain freak out and I can’t think.”
My small child, the one I feel it necessary to eat alive, is telling me that I’ve activated their amygdala and am now working against myself.
This might be among my bottom ten parenting moments. No, bottom five. Easily bottom five.
It’s not that kids never need the hip check or attitude adjustment. And it’s not that those things can’t involve tears and tough love. It’s that the entire interaction was based on my fear, my embarrassment, and the unresolved issues I have that I’m not “doing it right” when it comes to parenting.
The fear that I’m not spanking when I should.
The fear that I’m letting my kids have too many choices, and letting them ask “why?”
The fear that I should not be reasoning with them.
Notice I’m not even mentioning my husband, who has just as much to do with our parenting choices as I do. He’s an amazing parent, and I take joy in how present and accountable he is. Dads are critical to identity formation and human development. But in the world of parenting shame and regret, I, like many moms, bear it alone.
Dads aren’t socially accountable for the scars, the baggage, the neurosis caused by their interactions with their kids. Dads have been allowed to, if they want, just be themselves, however destructive that may be, and it will be buffered and balanced by Mom. Mom, in the model of the 80’s and 90’s, is the expert parent, the one who has to get it right.
The converse, in this model, is true as well. A competent dad can’t make up for a failing mom, and if your kids are “bad,” you, Mom, aren’t getting it right.
But I reject that. And so I began the work of replacement.
As bad as that first day was, with 5-year-old Bekah snarling at her children, the next few days were a slow climb to “better.” Not great. But better.
Day two: The basics. My view of my children will inform their views of themselves, and they need to see that my love is not contingent on their ability to follow directions.
Not just my love, but my delight in them. The Bible says that God sings over us. He delights in us because we are his…even though we elicit other emotions (anger, sadness, etc), the delight is deeper, it comes from a more permanent place. My kids need to know that I don’t begrudge their place in my heart. I relish it.
While a stern word is merited sometimes, they should never feel like my kindness toward them is something to be given or taken away based on their behavior. Even if my affection is the thing they want most, and taking it away would be the best motivator to make them behave, it’s not on the table. Hugs are not gold stars. Hugs are air.
So I had to decide: is having lunch with my daughter a reward, or an expression of love? Is snuggling with my son before bed his privilege, or my delight?
Day three: Putting it into practice. My children should never expect criticism from me. They should expect love and acceptance. In that context correction stands out, catches their attention, and helps them make better choices.
This is also the day I called in the reserves. I reached out to friends who have experience with small children, their own and those they teach. I asked them how they would address the issue, and what I should be thinking about as I prepare for each new report.
Shame isolates us. I think it isolates moms in an especially cruel way.
So many women have been defined by motherhood, with the fruit of their labor being the performance of their kids. In that economy it’s hard to fight perfectionistic parenting. Which draws us deeper into trying to prove how awesome our kids are…which just exacerbates the anxiety of the other parents. I don’t blame social media either. This can happen in the pick up line, on play dates, at birthday parties, at church. This happens wherever kids, like prize goats at the fair, are being lined up for ribbons, real or imagined.
In order to reach out to friends, I had to remember that my identity doesn’t come from having “awesome kids.” It comes from being a loved child of God. And he loves me no matter how my kids behave. Better yet, he loves THEM no matter how they behave.
My kids know this. If you ask them who loves them, even right after they get in trouble, they will say Mom, Dad, and Jesus (in random orders). Then they will go on to add grandparents, aunts and uncles, caregivers, and their teachers.
Day four: Advocating for celebration. I looked for ways to build on my kids’ views of themselves as “loved” so doing good things and blessing their teachers with cooperation might fit with their imaginations of themselves. If they are kind, brave, curious, creative people…then they can do the things that match.
Day five: By day five, we had turned a corner. We were joyful, talking constantly about how we could show love and respect, and what are the benefits of focusing in class. We were practicing self-control at home, but in ways that were not punitive or high stakes.
Our journey is just beginning. We have many years of school, of bad news, bad reports, bad grades, lost games, lost uniforms, lost homework. But even if these are daily occurrences for the next 13 years, it will not change our love for our kids.
I also anticipate lots of “bad reports”, precisely because our kids know that they are loved and accepted and celebrated. I never doubted my parents love, but somewhere along the line I picked up an approval addiction, and believed the lie that I had to perform to be accepted. So much of my own good behavior is based on my addiction to approval, and my need of external confirmation to justify my existence. Good grades. Good daughter. Good friend. Good worker. Good wife. Good mom. And good becomes best, and best becomes perfect, and suddenly, anything short of perfect is worthless.
If my kids’ identities are more secure, they will probably experiment and push more. They will not hide their failures. Which means I will have to learn to deal with them. I will have to grow up all over again, this time with two sets of impressionable eyes watching me.
My journey toward understanding and believing in integrated schools is well-documented. I’ve reported, opined, and emoted publicly. But until now, my personal relationship to integration has been theoretical.
When we signed up our kids for Mark Twain Dual Language Academy, a socioeconomically integrated school in our home district, I was excited…and nervous.
One of the ways white, middle class people keep each other from pursuing equity in meaningful ways is to throw up our children as shields. “I’m not sacrificing my kids on the alter of…(name your social justice priority).”
And thus, our kids are the primary means of passing on and locking up our wealth, so any hoarding we want to do can be done in the name of their well being.
Even though I know that’s a false idol, the little voice— saying that I was sacrificing my kids—whispered occasionally at night. Told me lies that my kids faced increasing competition. That the world was too dangerous to take chances. That they’d never get into the school of their dreams unless…
Thankfully, I had Rucker C. Johnson to shake me out of my opportunity-hoarding eddy of competition, and remind me that other children exist. Other children who, if I believe what I say I believe, are partially mine.
[A note on class and race as they will be used in this blog post: legally, we’ve done everything we can to make them synonymous. They are not, but the overlap is exactly what you’d expect after years of concerted effort. The exceptions do exist, but most schools that are isolated by race tend to be isolated by class as well. So when I read about racial integration, in San Antonio, I take that to mean socioeconomic integration that will yield some degree of racial integration.]
Johnson’s book, Children of the Dream was on my summer reading list the moment I heard him speak on the lasting benefits of integration efforts in the 1960s-80s. Those efforts, he explained, were even more effective when accompanied by school finance reform to make sure that schools where resourced equitably, and didn’t just look like the houses in their neighborhoods. Even more interesting, he adds the benefit of Head Start to the mix to show that early childhood education for low income children also enhances the effects of racial integration and school finance reform. In other words, things that work, work even better together.
I wore out my highlighter in the first two chapters. At a certain point it stopped mattering, because if you are highlighting every sentence, you might as well just stop. It’s beautifully written, which is unusual for an academic/data book. He also calls out Joe Biden and some other arguments that arose afresh this summer. I hope that, during the democratic debates, Johnson yelled “buy my book!” at his television.
The research, which is meticulously controlled to find out where student gains actually come from, is compelling. Education is incredibly complex—with family, neighborhood, and the unlimited varieties of children’s personalities—all in play. So correlation and causation are notoriously easy to muddle.
Johnson goes to great lengths to do otherwise.
The fact that he does so told me a couple of things: 1) he knew this would come under intense scrutiny, and 2) he really wanted to know.
Let’s start with number two. If I really want to know what—short of massive societal overhaul— will really help children of color experience opportunity in the same way white children do, it’s going to take some deep analysis. Privilege is complicated, because it is essentially the study of everything (except possibly math, physics, and chemistry). It is psychology, sociology, law, economics, history, literature, rhetoric, architecture, city planning, and on and on. So if you just want to make a righteously angry point, you can just throw a dart and see where it lands, call that the source of all ills and probably be, in part, correct.
If you want to find useful information with actual application potential…you have to be meticulous.
Johnson and his data-loving associates also, however, must have known that all of this would come under intense scrutiny, in part because of philanthropic funding, liberal bias, etc. But mostly because people just like dismissing integration, Head Start, and school finance reform. They are solutions that cost us something, so we’d really like them not to work, and to keep our money and our segregated, comfy schools.
Johnson’s meticulous research doesn’t so much tell us what we didn’t know, as much as it keeps us from denying what we do know.
If we didn’t know the importance of money (both direct funds and the effects of wealth carried in by the children themselves) in schools, we wouldn’t pay so much for “meh” houses or drive clear across town for a charter school that subscribes to the “tuition free private school” model. We wouldn’t enlist teams of professionals to get our mediocre students to elite private schools and colleges.
If I were designing a perfect world, these things wouldn’t matter. A school with 90 percent of kids on free and reduced lunch would feel and score the same as a school with 10 percent. I do believe it is possible to, as SAISD’s Mohammed Choudhury says, “do high poverty schools well.”
It’s really tempting to just focus on this part. And to make faux arguments about people preferring to be in places with other people like them. I call this a faux argument because no one disagrees with that. Of course no one likes to be in a social situation of any kind where they feel culturally and physically isolated.
But 1) people are generally willing to be the “only one” if that means being safe, secure, and properly educated. White wealthy people just don’t get that because we’ve NEVER encountered that dilemma. And 2) if integration is done properly, nobody is “the only one.” I truly think that when it comes to low income students or students of color, wealthy white people imagine schools where 10, even 25, percent of the students are not like themselves. Try 40, 50, 60, and 70 percent of a student body being non-white or non-middle class. No one in those ratios needs to feel like “the only one.” That is also an incredibly ambitious ratio for many schools regarding both class and race.
But even if the perfect, economically equitable world existed (it so does not), even if we lived in a post-racial world (WE DON’T. WE SO DON’T) we still need kids who are comfortable with people who are not like them in as many ways as possible. We need them to see each other full of strength and weakness, full of dignity and humility. We aren’t just preparing workers, we are preparing citizens. If the past three years has taught us nothing, it is that fear of the economic/racial/religious/sexual other and ignorance of their lived experience leads to all sorts of terrible decisions, pain, and suffering. If we get post-all that, we’ll still need to stay limber, because there are more ways to sort ourselves. We’ll find them.
But since that’s all totally theoretical, we can just stick with: we don’t even have a modicum of equity, so we need to get serious about this.
Johnson documents how white people maintain their preferred demographic ratios. He lays out examples that show how easy it is to evade policy, and how easy it is to keep your social capital once the system is in your favor.
Best example: If the federal government demands integration, your district can secede.
Less well documented: In Texas, any wealthy school district mad about Robin Hood —a law that require property wealthy districts to send a portion of their local revenue to the state, ostensibly to be sent back our to property poor districts— will find the ear of a sympathetic lawmaker to help them get that money back through some other mechanism, grant program, or allotment.
This is possible within “integrated” systems as well, by the way. You can have balanced campus numbers and segregated classrooms. You can have teachers who do not actually believe in the potential of every student, and act accordingly. You can have PTAs that insist on meeting 2-3pm on weekdays.
Every policy, every practice has to fall into line for this to work.
I believe, and Johnson affirms this in writing, that while assertive policy is needed, so is the work of hearts and minds. Because hearts and minds are what move the people who move the policy. As we see in attempt after attempt at integration, even the most effective policies don’t last without the support of those who will need their hearts and minds to be changed.
“Desegregation is a law, but its realization is achieved through a spirit of belief in the potential of all children,” he writes.
One thing, as Johnson points out, that does seem to win hearts and minds: experience. People with lived experience of integrated schooling are some of its most powerful champions. Johnson mentions a movement to recapture integration in Charlotte, through the work of an multiracial task force.
I’m hoping that my kids become those champions.
This week, we took our first action steps as we dropped off our two white, middle class children at a school specifically designed to be socioeconomically integrated, in a district, neighborhood, and city where that implies they will be the racial minority. By…a lot.
They are among only a few white children in their classes—prek and kinder—and their teachers and school leaders are Latinx. They’ll be learning Spanish from native speakers all around them.
Now, I need to add that I’m lucky in other ways too. My integrated choice is an A-rated, well-resourced, creatively led campus where each of my kids have a teacher who fits them perfectly. I don’t know what else I could want. But beyond those fundamental wins, I love that non-white people will be their leaders and peers. That they will see the advantages and disadvantages of their own home, because they see the similar and dissimilar advantages and struggles of their classmates.
It was the time of year when the cicadas ran their tymbals around the clock, giving the familiar shade of our live oak trees a more exotic feel. Something both sleepy and full of dramatic potential, like the opening scene of an independent film.
And that is how each day felt to me. It was my third summer of covering the tragedies that befall immigrants in blistering hot Texas summers. My third summer of the Trump administration. My third summer of one beat—education— slowing down while the other—immigration— gushed forth.
I received a text message from a writer who had given me a story about an asylum-seeker his church was caring for.
The story had struck a chord with our audience at Christianity Today. The asylum-seeking woman, had fled gang violence and trafficking with her children, relying on Scripture she had memorized to battle her trauma.
The text message said this: “She got her order of deportation…it feels so tragic.”
We went on to text about the threatened raids, and whether, if they happened, it was likely that she would be swept up in them.
Yes, it was likely.
The bitter irony, of course, is that even if you spark compassion in the hearts of thousands of Americans, that can’t save you from the web they wove over decades of political jockeying.
The cicadas kept buzzing, but there’s something about the way our tear ducts work that blunts the sounds in our ears. I couldn’t hear much anymore.
On another evening this summer, earlier, when the cicadas were only singing in the heat of the day, a group of elected leaders visited the detention centers. As I was reading their accounts, sitting on the steps of my children’s playroom, my daughter looked up from her book.
“What are you reading, mommy?” she asked.
“About the places where they are keeping the children who come to our country,” I answered.
Her five-year-old eyes squinted. “Where are they keeping them?”
I try to explain a detention center.
“Mom…do the kids have dark skin?”
“They do. How did you know?”
“That’s who they took away the first time, remember?”
In 2018, we had gone to Montgomery to the Memorial to Peace and Justice and she learned that dark skin and light skin have always had consequences.
When we came home from that trip, the wave of family separations broke. She remembers Mommy going to learn about the kids who had been separated. Who were being reunited just down the street from her playroom. She saw the pictures I took.
They all had dark skin.
She’s figuring out America.
“But you know,” I said, “The leaders and helpers who went to check on them? Lots of them have dark skin too.”
Her eyebrows raised, “Read me the story.”
She wants to know about the steps forward along the never-ending road.
It’s difficult to share these things with her and to help her understand that she shares no risk, and thus should lend her hands and voice. When she hears about kids being separated, she wonders if la migra will come for her. I remember asking my own mom, after witnessing a KKK rally, if they would come for me.
She had to explain that I was safe. And why.
I have to explain to my blue-eyed citizen that she is safe. And why.
Why aren’t all children safe?
Of course, because this is America, it’s only a matter of moments before we remember that all children are not safe. Then again, as a Walmart in El Paso reminds us, some are less safe than others. You’d have to be crazy not to feel nervous out in public, at church, dropping your kids off at school, in the days after a mass shooting. But my acute nervousness only highlights the chronic nervousness of other moms wondering if not if their child will be accidentally caught up in white supremacist violence, but the target of it.
There is a difference between acute and chronic dangers, just like there is a difference between acute and chronic illness and pain.
And in El Paso, in Charleston, in Poway in so many places now they are one, merging into a raging cataract, a waterfall we are going over in a barrel made of centuries old parchment.
The week before that particular cicada-heavy afternoon, my family spent the weekend in Dinosaur Valley State Park. We waded in the ankle-deep water along the limestone shelves of the Paluxy River, looking for the famed Acrocanthosaurus tracks that gave the park its name. There are times, the guidebook warned, that the water is too deep to see the tracks. But now, at the height of summer, the blistering Texas heat had evaporated enough of the flow that we found them easily.
Of course, the fact that we were seeing them for the first time did not mean that they had not been there all along.
They had been there for millennia.
That’s how reporting on immigration feels. It feels like when the waters of our concerns—school schedules, legislative agendas, and quarterly reports—when they slow down for the summer vacation, we suddenly see immigrants. We shout in horror at their mistreatment. We bother to attend a protest, donate to a legal aid organization, try to leave a voicemail on Sen. Ted Cruz’s eternally full answering machine.
But then the rains of hurricane season send a few storms spiraling across Texas. School starts up and people don’t have time to comb the Paluxy anymore, and we forget that the Acrocanthosaurus tracks are still there.
It was John Garland who said to me, in 2018, when I was covering family separations, “This is not a crisis. This is a long term disaster.”
Soon the cicadas will calm down and cool off and they won’t need to run their tymbals. But if summer is when we become concerned with immigration, I hope they never stop.
Because the ed beat slows down a little in the summer, I have to keep myself busy doing other things. Most recently that’s meant covering immigration. But I also like to use to summer to read really enriching things that my brain totally cannot handle during the school year.
First up, one that I’ve been anxious to get to, mostly because I felt like until I did, I was just walking around making a fool of myself.
Like most people, and nearly all white people, I’ve carried around some what-I-thought-were-truths about housing segregation in the US. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law has disabused me of some of those beliefs.
Housing is part of the education beat, because housing segregation leads to school segregation. In a city as sprawling as San Antonio, there are plenty of opportunities for those with means to escape the discomfort of being poverty-adjacent. However, when those who still have a lingering tinge of poverty move in next door to middle class families in the aging inner loop of the city, the trend continues northward. We call this de facto segregation. People are legally able to go to the same schools/live in the same places, but they choose not (i.e. white flight) to or are barred from doing so by economics (not laws).
Myth-I-believed #1: Changes in the law are the end of the story
White flight is not the whole story on how segregation works. That’s how it has worked in my life time. But everything about my lifestyle will tell you: what happened before I was born changed everything.
I’ve never been salaried over the national average. If things keep going well this year I just miiiiight reach it. Combined with my husband’s salary, we do well. But our lifestyle way outstrips our income because of what we’ve inherited. Not just the actually inheritances, but the networks of people willing to give us a break on rent, the families who paid for college and continue to help out with camps for kids, vacations, etc. We were born into land wealth which translated into excellent dental and medical care, private schools, and summer jobs that were more about long term career goals or edifying experiences than they were about helping out with family income. We can afford maintenance on ourselves, our house, and our cars so that we do not have huge emergency costs from deferred maintenance.
All of that is because our families have been landowners for generations. Or, as my husband put it, wryly remarking on how the deck is stacked in our favor: “The smartest thing you can do financially is to be rich.”
Before I go on, I realize that not every white person benefits from generational wealth. Tragedy, crashing markets, changing work forces, and various forms of usury have taken their toll. However, we were never legally prohibited from advancing into middle class houses and schools. If you’re white, money is money. If you were a person of color in the 20th century, your money wasn’t always accepted currency.
I was once interviewing a city councilwoman from Austin, where they are fighting to preserve family homes of black residents on the uber-gentrified East Side. Without historical designations, many are not preserved from rezoning or demolition, and the market is now priced above entry for most young working class people.
Councilwoman Ora Houston was born on the front end of the baby boom, just a smidge older than my own Boomer parents. She owns her home, and is trying to help others secure the same. When we were talking she said, “I’m just trying to do for my kids what your great-grandparents did for you.”
Her parents and grandparents were not allowed to do that. They did not have access to the loans, neighborhoods, zoning protections, and housing stock that would create value over generations.
In the two generations of buyers between government efforts to help white people own homes after the Great Depression and the Fair Housing Act (1968) you have my great-grandparents and grandparents accumulating wealth, and Ora Houston’s parents and grandparents being denied the same opportunity.
If prosperity were a race, which capitalism has ensured that it is, my white family is two laps ahead of Ora Houston’s. We were two laps in when they fired the starting gun for her.
Which is why housing is about more than the legal freedom to move where you want to move. It’s about the fact that we live in two different housing markets—one in which prices of our assets have inflated our prosperity, and the other where you get less for your money than ever before.
So it’s sort of insulting when people who got a two lap head start (at least…I married into a few more bonus laps) look at the people who just started the race and say, “Why can’t you just catch up?”
Myth-I-Believed #2 That de facto segregation is more damning than de jure segregation
I thought the fact that we had no legal excuse to divide the world into ghettos and enclaves—and yet continued— was a moral indictment. I thought that’s where we were as a society, just trying to make our final strides toward justice by winning hearts and minds.
Rothstein, however, points out that in order to make racial disparities better on any meaningful scale, it is the de jure segregation that matters.
That’s what the book is about. It wasn’t a bunch of racist people individually excluding black people between 1932 and 1968…it was a series of racist laws. As those discriminated against by the law, black people should be entitled to legal restitution.
This is also a good time to point out that decrying de facto segregation is more to appease my white conscience, while confronting de jure segregation can get some stuff done.
Not to worry, there’s plenty of cathartic self-flagellating to be done in de jure segregation. After all, who was making these laws?
The 14th Amendment made, essentially, segregation Constitutionally untenable. It would take some time to get from segregation being mandatory to it being permissible to it being illegal. We have not quite figured out how to proactively encourage integration, but that’s the next step, and it probably involves reparations—incentives, subsidies, grants, scholarships, etc.
So the existence, however specific or local or de jure segregation is key to making good. However for justice to be complete, the will to make amends must touch the heart of de facto segregation—there’s going to have to be enforcement, which means that property owners, police forces, judges, and elected officials are going to determine the lived experience of those who would receive their legal due. For instance…Ruby Bridges got to go to school, but I’d hardly call her experience a laudable example of justice.
Myth-I-Believed-about-segregation #3 That progressives support integration
Sometimes, as a guilty pleasure, I read the exchanges between historian Kevin Kruse and provocateur Dinesh D’Souza. One such exchange pointed out that Southern Democrats were the party of segregation, Jim Crow, etc. It was, as Kruse pointed out, a shallow, intellectually dishonest pot shot at current Democrats.
Then, of course busing came up at the Democratic debate.
You can be “progressive” and still uphold racist systems. You can be in favor of abortion, LGBTQIA rights, and environmental regulations and still not give a lick about brown people at all, in fact. You can even be for “the little guy” and limit that definition to just “the little white guy.”
Right now, the deep blue cities are priced out of range for working class people. People who financially support Planned Parenthood and the ACLU won’t put their kids in schools where too many of the kids are poor.
The examples Rothstein uses in the book aren’t all conservative strongholds like Birmingham, Atlanta, and Dallas. They are in the Bay Area and the Northeast.
From Reconstruction to the Great Recession, the politicians trying to take care of the most people were often convinced—not saying how difficult it was to convince them—to trade the freedom of black people to live and go to school where they wanted to, for things that benefitted poor and working class white people. When they could rally support to give something to black people (i.e. public education, subsidized housing), it had to come with the promise to in no way increase white exposure to those black people.
Integration—and any support for reparations that might lead to integration—is the ultimate test of hypocrisy. It asks not whether we believe that people of color deserve to vote, own property, or move freely throughout society—but whether we believe that they should be able to do so to the same degree that white people are, and whether we are willing to bridge the gap our laws created.