Then the Valedictorian called out the school’s administration.
(This story has been updated with comments from SAISD Board President Patti Radle.)
The sun was just starting to peek out from around early morning clouds at 8:30 am on June 16, threatening to bake the 187 graduates from Sam Houston High School and their families. But things on the field, where the graduates sat in chairs spaced six feet apart, were already heating up.
As the national anthem played, not one graduate rose from their chair. They sat in protest of a country that they feel is apathetic to the needs and oppression of the black community. Their community. Their families. Their classmates.
“This whole racial (disparity) affects everyone,” said graduate Devin Brock-Johnson, “It plagues every single system of life.”
They decided that to sit through the national anthem would show that they wanted to see change.
Not everyone had to participate, graduate Jasiri Parks said, but from where he sat, he thinks that everyone did. An observer confirmed that the entire class remained seated. (I arrived shortly after the anthem.)
The graduating class at Sam Houston High School is 55 percent Latino, 40 percent black, 2 percent white, 2 percent Asian, and one percent two or more races.
“It just says something when every race sits down for it,” senior Jonathan Lee said, “When every race sits down together we know we’re in this together.”
SAISD Board President Patti Radle, and trustees Art Valdez, Ed Garza and Alicia Perry took a knee during the anthem in solidarity with recent protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Radle and others have been doing so since the district’s first graduation ceremony of 2020, Jefferson High School, last week.
“I just felt like being in a leadership position and representing the school district it was important for me to make a statement of solidarity with people who call for equality,” said Radle, who suggested the action, but did not mandate it from board members, “I didn’t want to impose on anyone, or grandstand on anyone.” Garza and Valdez, a U.S. Air Force Veteran, were the first to join Radle in kneeling during the anthem at the Jefferson graduation.
Radle is no stranger to peaceful action during patriotic ceremonials. As a Christian pacifist, she has long observed silence during the Pledge of Allegiance.
“I believe that God is love, and in that Being there are no borders,” Radle explained, “The only patriotism is to the call to love.”
Radle said she had not been alerted to the students’ plans at Sam Houston, though district officials say that several students at other graduations have also knelt during the anthem.
The students’ action had been planned a month before, Lee said, as they were checking in with each other during coronavirus. Most weren’t worried about getting in trouble with the school, he said, because that would have been small in comparison to what the students were protesting. “We were already in trouble the second corona(virus) came,” Lee said.
Graduates also sat through the school’s anthem, though many did raise their hands with the Sam Houston school hand sign, an index finger pointing into the air.
The reasoning for that action was articulated clearly by class valedictorian Payton Gogo, who used his time at the podium (min 39-42 in linked video) to call attention to what he described as educational negligence at his school.
The speech started softly, as Gogo praised the school’s response to the pandemic, in providing laptops and hotspots. He then pivoted to a strong call-out, saying that it was unfortunate that “it took a pandemic” to elicit such efforts.
“It should be the school’s mission to enlighten students and prepare them for life beyond high school. But this ideal can be difficult to reach for many schools, and Sam Houston is no exception,” Gogo said, “Unfortunately it seems the education and guidance are not so important as long as the student passes. There is a great separation between the administration and student body.”
While some teachers had done their best to help students achieve their goals, Gogo acknowledged, “they are fighting an uphill battle against the administration’s inability to solve the issues that plague Sam Houston.”
Administration, he went on, has “disconnected from students” which has led to fights, drug issues, and various misbehaviors being largely unaddressed.
Around 9 percent of the student body was suspended or expelled from Sam Houston in the first three months of the 2019-20 school year, the 6th highest discipline rate in the district.
“The school’s inaction is negligent at the least and students have been damaged by it,” Gogo said. He went on to encourage his classmates to strive for success, despite how well or poorly they feel they were served in high school.
Parks, a member of the school’s award winning decathlon team, said he agrees with Gogo’s statements.
“It was really needed for them to hear that,” Parks said.
Dezric Morgan, reflecting on the peaceful actions and sentiments shared by Gogo was hopeful that none would fall on deaf ears. Whether change came from the administration or another group of students is emboldened to speak up in unity, he said, “I hope everyone takes inspiration from this.”
Sometimes the kids are alright. Sometimes they aren’t.
When they announced that schools would be closed beyond spring break this year, I have to confess the grim thoughts that ran through my head. I pictured a return to those grueling infant years, with my hair in a non-sexy-messy bun, stress eating cookies and crying every afternoon as my kids whined and tantrumed on the floor next to me.
It took a full two weeks for me to come back to myself and remember: we’re fine. We, the McNeel family, are fine. Our kids are fine.
The middle of a pandemic is a difficult time to admit that we are actually doing fine, because the general anxiety of the moment is palpable. We are absorbing it with our senses, and you’d almost have to be a sociopath not to feel some degree of angst about our current moment. Because people really are dying. The economy really is struggling. Isolation is a mental health hazard.
But for us, the healthy McNeels in our 2,400 square foot house, internet access, safe sidewalks, and stable income…that anxiety should be sympathetic. It should be directed at needs outside ourselves. It’s the same anxiety that should be driving all of our decisions.
You should totally experience anxiety.
Anxiety is the body’s way of telling you that something is misaligned or disconnected. Something is not right. And when we look at the world around us—at things COVID-19 did not create, but has both exaggerated and laid bare—it should be obvious that something is wrong. We feel the reality that some kids are not okay. Their schools are not able and their government is not willing to support them in the ways they need to be supported. Their parents are swimming upstream against a system designed to exclude them. They do not have access to generations of accrued capital, and they do not see themselves proportionately represented among those who shape the world they live in.
We, white parents, see that world, and we feel anxiety. We should! Something is not right. We are cut off from a right way of being together.
But when we feel that anxiety, we have to quickly take the next step. We have to place ourselves. Is it MY kids who are over-disciplined by teachers? Is it MY kids who will have to hustle every day to gain entry to the middle class and even then may be sidelined? Do the systems—economic, education, and justice—of this country pose a threat to MY kids? Or do they work to their advantage? Will my kids get chance after chance to get it right, to “fail forward”?
If we (white, middle class parents) feel like our kids are threatened by the systems in our country, then we aren’t paying attention. We are mapping our anxiety onto someone else’s reality.
The Great Lie
We’ve been conditioned to believe that our kids are not going to be okay. From the moment we become pregnant, someone is trying to sell us something to keep them alive…to make them sleep/eat better (so they develop correctly)…to get smarter. We become consumers of improvement for our kids, and the best way to sell us stuff is to convince us that our kids are not going to be alright.
We take that foolish mentality with us when we start consuming opportunity. The best schools, the best lessons, the best coaches; all because we believe that they are starting from scratch with ruin nipping at their heels. If we were to look over our shoulder we would see that it’s not a precipice, but wholeness in our rearview mirror. We left equity and solidarity behind us and now we are running a lonely race that will never end, chased by a boogey man of our own making.
Hear me right: I’m not saying that white people don’t fall off economic ledges, or into addiction, or that being white and middle class means no one has to work hard. Only that we have to start disentangling hard work and hoarding. Those are different things. One runs on the belief that our kids are alright and up to the challenge. The other runs on the fear that they won’t be and they aren’t.
And that hoarding option is so ubiquitous, so persistent that we cannot imagine not doing it. It defines parenting in 2020. I don’t know anyone who would say that it’s healthy to give kids everything they want, but what about everything we want for them? Are we willing to admit that there are advantages and opportunities that they don’t need?
In this climate, the most radical thing that white middle class parents can say is: my kids are alright.
The Great Irony
The great irony, of course, is that believing that they are not okay has in some ways made them not okay, but not in the way that you think. The mental wellness of middle class kids is, according to experts, not good. Suicides, bullying, self-harm, depression…all can be linked to parental pressure to compete academically, socially, and economically. They are never enough to make us less afraid. Their performance is never enough to ease our anxiety over their future. In reality, our kids need us to be there for them, not to hoard for them.
Our family’s pivotal moment came this fall, within the first few weeks of school at our integrated elementary school.
After a happy first week, my daughter’s teacher stopped me at pick up to report that my daughter was acting up. She wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t sit still.
I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. So I took it out on my daughter. I immediately saw her future drizzling away, bleeding into the school to prison pipeline, never to be recommended for advanced courses, never to get into a competitive marine biology program, dooming her to bounce between unstable jobs while other kids, those who listened better in class, explored the Mariana Trench.
Never mind that I knew this was irrational. At the first sign of trouble, I mapped my anxiety onto real inequities. Inequities that do not actually disadvantage us.
Her little face, which had bounced up to me with a grin, fell, as I gave her a blistering reprimand in front of everyone.
Within two weeks, my sunny, exuberant daughter was “on red” day after day. Her clip on the behavior chart was perpetually falling, and her face when I came to pick her up was disconsolate, knowing she was in for an afternoon of icy discipline from mom.
Meanwhile, armed with my expert opinions and research, I went into full “that mom” mode. I tried to get the behavior chart—which clearly wasn’t changing my daughter’s behavior—replaced with something more “restorative.” I wrote letters to the teacher trying to explain my daughter. I began to consider more drastic measures to ensure that my daughter was as successful on paper as she was in my dreams for her.
At home, we were miserable. Every day we grew more alienated as she “jeopardized her future.”
Finally I woke up.
The Great Opportunity
It was true, the behavior chart did not motivate her nearly as much as the pleasure she takes in entertaining her classmates. But when it comes to the actual determining factors of a child’s future success…she’s alright. The biggest threat to her well-being was the shrill panic monster I was becoming.
I decided to let school be school. She and her teacher would work it out. I knew the teacher was kind and engaged, and wanting to see each kid thrive. As long as home was supportive and structured, my kid would adjust to kindergarten.
When I stopped making a big deal, my daughter revealed that she actually had a very productive mindset when it came to the behavior chart. One day she hopped in the car and told me, sounding victorious, “Mom, I got on red today, but guess what! By the end of the day, I had pulled it up to orange.”
Another day she told me, “Guess what Mom. Today I stayed on green all day, even though (classmate) told a poop joke. I did not laugh, even though I really wanted to, so I stayed on green.”
I congratulated her.
By the end of the year, she was getting onto blue and purple (the reward colors). She had grown, because I’d backed off and started supporting her growth instead of panicking about her future.
Hear me right again: I’m not saying we turn our kids over to the system never to check back in. I’m not saying that we don’t advocate or protect them when someone is harming them. But we need to know the difference between harm and challenge.
We have to stop treating every challenge, every “B”, every missed opportunity like it’s a death sentence. Sure, that “B” might mean they don’t get into the college of their dreams, and thus will not be set on an easy path to the career of their dreams. But dreams and success are not the same thing. Having everything we want, winning all the things…that’s not even really good for us. But if we constantly think that the opposite of best is death, we’re going to destroy our kids and everyone else’s in the process.
There’s real inequity in the world. Anxiety is merited, because injustice destroys the Shalom we desperately need. There are kids who are not alright, and we cannot be alright with that. But in order to see that clearly, we also have to be able to see when our kids are doing just fine.
I can’t tell you the perfect way to do it. Just that it needs to be done.
I don’t remember the first time we talked to our kids about difference, but it was probably pretty early. Because our life is full of people from different countries, who speak different languages, have different skin colors, different abilities, and different sexual orientations, these things come up naturally.
Talking to them about race and racism however, is different. It takes some doing. Especially for white parents.
Because our kids are at little to no risk of racist profiling or violence, and because we are woefully underprepared for these conversations ourselves, most of us would rather just…not. We hope our kids will just grow up believing everyone is the same and treating everyone well. Check and check.
Unfortunately, our education, justice, and economic systems were designed so that by not actively working against the racism within them, we are reinforcing it. If we and our kids just do the “natural thing” we will perpetuate the effects we associate with the vitriolic racism we thought we were done with—if the events of the past four years have somehow not convinced you that even that blatant form of animosity is still alive and well.
In short: Just because you don’t feel racist, doesn’t mean you aren’t investing in a system created with racist intent and effects.
Here’s the danger for white kids growing up unaware of racism.
Our kids will buy into the narrative that race doesn’t matter, and believe that everyone is treated according to their personal behavior and abilities. Thus, when they see their black and brown classmates being disciplined more severely or placed in fewer advanced classes, they will draw the “natural” conclusion.
They will be less inclined to walk in solidarity with their black and brown peers who call out injustice.
They will be careless about ways their actions perpetuate injustice, and should they have black and brown friends, may place them in immediate danger.
At some point they will figure out race, and it’s possible that the wrong person will explain it to them. Get to your kids before the Nazis do.
My husband and I believe the appropriate age to share this is determined neurologically—we need them to understand the difference between what people say and what is real (the concept of lying or being wrong). We also need them to understand that their perspective is not the only one. This started happening for our daughter around age four.
Another reason white parents hesitate to explain this stuff to their young kids is that kids will talk about it. And it can be so very awkward.
After our trip to Montgomery, my four-year-old saw two young men, one black and one white, walking together toward a local coffee shop. She said, in an audible voice, “Look mom, if this were the olden days that guy would be the other guy’s slave.”
She’s currently memorizing MLK’s dream speech, but because she’s listening to a recording, she wants to recite it in his voice. You can imagine how this sounds. At some point, I have no doubt we’re going to have to explain why she can’t use blackface for a “Rosa Spark” costume for a book report or something like that.
This is a rocky, bumbling path, friends. But it’s not optional, and there’s a lot of grace for the journey.
So, no, I don’t believe talking to white kids about race is optional. You have to do it. However, I’m not an expert who can tell you how (these folks are!), or the best way to do it. But I can share how we are doing it, and how it’s all going.
1) We prioritize peace over pleasantness.
We just went to Disney World. On the 100th exit-through-the-giftshop, the kids were exhausted and overstimulated, and tired of hearing “no” and they finally just lost it.
There were tears, there was negotiating, there was growling.
At one point I told my daughter that if she still wanted the Nemo squirt toys in three days I would order them online.
She, in a fit of rage-induced honesty yelled, “I won’t even WANT them in three days!”
Children know anger. It’s up to their adults to show them that there is a better use for that anger than hoarding trinkets and protecting their rights and privileges.
Children know sadness. They see pets and grandparents die, if not closer kin. They scrape their knees and get sick. They soon discover “bad guys.”
The realities of our racialized world are not pleasant. They are gut wrenching and uncomfortable. For the white family there are two ways forward: insulate or make peace. We can— and mostly do—bury ourselves in worlds where we don’t see the pain brought by racism. We shrink into smaller and smaller realms of pretty parks and private schools, and concern ourselves with the flourishing of that precious real estate.
When we hear “pursue peace” we apply it to our HOA squabbles.
To take the other path, the path of racial peacemaking, we first have to acknowledge what is broken…and why. We have to listen when we are accused. We have to sit in our discomfort. We have to mourn. We have to ask, “what does peace require of me?”
We can offer peace to our children by explaining how brokenness works, and how goodness can triumph.
Yes there are kidnappers, so mommy is here to help you know which strangers are helpers and which are not.
Yes, cars are dangerous, so we stay on the sidewalk.
Yes, people hate, so we love extra hard. Love marches in the long march. Love shares power. Love doesn’t hoard advantages. Love calls her lawmakers on issues that don’t benefit her directly. Love speaks up for the oppressed. Love steps aside so they can speak for themselves. Love makes powerful people uncomfortable. Love is in the fight.
You may know a popular Bible reading that sounds something like that.
2) We prioritize history over white history
The thing about history is that, if we are honest, the facts will do the heavy lifting. Here are some great books to get started. Also these.
My husband constantly remarks on how easy it is to talk to kids about racism if you aren’t trying to hide anything. If you just tell them what happened, they pick up on the “why” pretty quick.
The problem, of course, is that we are not often honest about history. We curate it to tell a story of triumph, cutting out the parts where the heroes were the villains. We reframe the battles justice has yet to win.
We started with what our daughter could observe: Obama was president when she was born. She had teachers and friends have brown skin. She met her state and local representatives, both Latino. She sees movies with people of color, she has dolls that have brown and non-white skin.
In her world, people of color had always been leaders and friends. We wanted to start with a concept of strength and dignity before we taught her how it has been violated.
We let Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative introduce the concepts of slavery, oppression and segregation. She was four, so I guided her exposure to words and images carefully on a visit to Montgomery. The Memorial to Peace and Justice was perfect for that, but she didn’t get to take in most of the Legacy Museum, because I didn’t want the more graphic images to overtake the concepts. She did, however, see the holograms of kids in pens calling out for their parents after being separated at auction. She remembers it to this day.
It was all appropriately bothersome, and she had questions.
I only offered answers from history.
We took her to Freedom Riders Museum as well so that she could see resistance, and how she, as a white person could be part of it. She was very comforted at the idea that people were fighting back.
Eventually she started using history to interpret current events. When she saw me reading a story about the family separations later in the summer of 2018, she asked about it. I told her kids were being taken from their parents as they tried to come to the US.
“They have brown skin, don’t they?” she guessed, her voice weary.
“They do. Why did you guess that?”
“That’s who it was last time.”
3) We prioritize righteousness over innocence.
When our kids, with their budding sense of justice, ask why the Trail of Tears, why the Middle Passage, why Jim Crow, most white parents don’t want to connect those “atrocities” to current mindsets of conquest and dehumanization.
We continue that mindset of conquest when we hoard educational opportunities and tell our children they are available to everyone who works hard enough.
We perpetuate dehumanization when we talk about laziness, broken homes, and addiction as the justification for the inequities they see with their own eyes. As though our own families were not infected with the same human ailments.
The desire to pass down a narrative of our noble ancestors and the less-than-ness of those they conquered might be the most secure lock on the gates of white supremacy. But history has to come home.
If we want to own the innovation, bravery, and altruism of our national and personal forefathers, we have to own their brutality, elitism, and malicious intent. We inherited all of it in our education system, our justice system, and our economic system, so we need to understand it. We inherited it corporately (and some of us inherited it directly), but we perpetuate it individually.
One evening, just before MLK Day 2020, I found my daughter looking grim.
“Mom, I have bad news,” she said, “Martin Luther King, Jr. died.”
“Oh honey,” I sympathized, “I heard. I’m so sorry, I know you loved him.”
“But do you know how?”
“He was shot.”
“No,” she said, sitting upright and looking fierce, “A white person shot him. On purpose.”
She was calling out my use of the passive voice to explain away the loss of her hero. A way to minimize our connection to acts of violence. I accepted her correction, and we talked further about those people of color carrying on “the dream.” We talked about how her school was carrying on the dream. How she would respond to injustice when she saw it.
When we marched in our local MLK Day March, my daughter heard someone chanting, “The dream lives on.”
She looked at me with big excitement “Do you hear them mom?!? The dream lives on! I’m going to be part of that!”
Because she’s okay being connected to the problem, she’s ready to be connected to the solution.
White folks have to get to the point of realizing that in the racialized world, we’re the ones who did the racializing. “Why does everything have to be about race?” Because we made it so! We are not innocent, friends. We are the heirs of the robber barons and the guardians of their systems. Our ancestors made it impossible for us to choose innocence. We can only pursue righteousness by repairing and relinquishing, and that is not a passive calling for us or for our children.
In late December 2009, ten years ago, I did something strange. I started a new journal expressly dedicated to chronicling a love story—my love story. In my 18 years of journaling before then, I had always been cautious about how much weight I ascribed my various romances. That’s easy when you have a written record of all the non-starters that came before. I knew how much shame I felt when reading “he’s the one!” in bubbly 2001 letters, when mere pages later he’d disappear.
What’s even more strange about my decision to start an entire journal dedicated to my love story is that it had not even really begun. I’d met a guy. We’d hung out twice. But when I started the journal we were one week into what would turn out to be a four week silence between first meeting and first date. No flirty messages. No emails or phone calls. There was no evidence to suggest that this non-relationship was going anywhere.
Nevertheless, in a fit of romance, I did it. I started a brand new journal with the explicit and stated purpose of writing about my love story with one Lewis Maverick McNeel…who had yet to call.
In that first journal entry, I wrote about the moment I now know, and then suspected, I had fallen in love.
We were at the grocery store, and I was buying break-n-bake cookies…for one of those fancy holiday cookie swaps where everyone goes all out. I was working in college ministry, making $16,000 per year (all of which I was fundraising), and jumping from crisis to crisis with the people around me, students, friends, and family. I just didn’t have the resources or energy to make elaborate cookies.
But that was the life I was in. I was unsure of the value I brought to the world. Convinced that I had to earn my keep by being agreeable, unimpeachable, and useful. Knocking myself out to sell myself short, professionally. Auctioning off my time and energy to the people I thought would keep me safe, emotionally. Running on affirmation and little else, spiritually.
Break-n-bake cookies do not bring affirmation.
I lamented my predicament to Lewis at the checkout and he said, “I’ve been underwhelming people for years now.”
I fell in love on the spot. And then he disappeared for a month.
Four months after he reappeared, he asked me to marry him. And for the first time in my life I really didn’t care if anyone thought that was a little irresponsible or too fast. I was certain. I bought a wedding magazine, looked at the recommended planning timeline, and realized that most people spent longer planning their weddings than we would spend going from “hello” to “I do.”
That was the easiest brave thing I’ve ever done.
The next brave thing happened in 2012. That’s when I left the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
Despite my bold dreams of a life in ministry, there was no future for me in it. Looking back, I realize that I had traded usefulness and approval for calling. For 28 years that denomination had been my home, but it had also kept me childlike and dependent—because women in that world will always serve at the pleasure of the men, the “specially gifted” who are ordained by God. I had never been taught or allowed to think outside those rigid guardrails, so I just maintained them. A strong, smart woman joyfully submitting, proving that the system worked.
I believe I would have wasted my life as a Martha sweeping the stoop of the boys club had it not been for those break-n-bake cookies and that fast engagement. I was not defined by my fancy cookies or my prudence. I was loved beyond my usefulness.
When I left that church it was like coming up out of the ocean and being able to see without the salt burning my eyes.
In this new world, I could be a terrifying anything. I could be what I was supposed to be. It turned out that was a journalist and a mother.
My fingers trembled a little as I submitted an essay to The Rivard Report in June 2012—after all, I was nothing but a failed ministry paraprofessional at that point. I had no idea if they would laugh at my small life, my small thoughts. Would they dismiss me like my writing had been dismissed and diminished for the past four years?
I was able to push “send” only because I said, “Maybe they will be underwhelmed. It won’t be the end of me.”
I had just quit my job and left the church community I’d been in for almost a decade and the denomination I’d been baptized into. I’d married a man I’d known for less than a year. I had dedicated a journal to a guy who hadn’t called me. I’d taken break-n-bake cookies to a cookie swap. If some editor on the other end of an email laughed at my small mind, what was that to me?
Of course, that’s not what happened. Robert Rivard and Monika Maeckle may have been underwhelmed at some parts of the essay—I don’t remember what that first draft looked like—but they also called me. They gave me a shot.
In 2013 things were looking strong on the career front, and the thought of starting a family sounded like setting off a bomb in the middle of it. Having a baby would change how the world saw me. I was so close to being taken seriously, I felt, to no longer being underwhelming. If I had a baby, the climb would become steeper. My capacity to perform would be split between worlds, and I needed every bit of it, because I was already balancing two jobs.
I would also have to fight for my writing to be professional and motherhood to be relational. Parenthood is not a career. It is a relationship. Caring for children’s needs, however, can be a career, and one at which many parents excel even as they are unpaid and undervalued by society. It’s noble and incredibly necessary—and not the career I wanted. But we have a hard time separating parenthood (mostly motherhood) the relationship from childcare the career, and I knew that doing so would test the limits of my professional and relational confidence.
But Lewis— that man who had given me the courage to underwhelm and befuddle and flout expectations—wanted to be a father. He wanted the parenthood relationship. And he promised that if he could be 100 percent architect and 100 percent father then I could be 100 percent journalist and 100 percent mother. He didn’t care that there were precious few examples of this in our world, very little evidence it could be done.
I had lived 28 years looking to others to tell me what to do. Only two years listening to Holy Spirit inside me. The Holy Spirit reminded me how this whole adventure had started. “I’ve been underwhelming people for years.”
I was free to underwhelm. Free to do it differently, even if different was disappointing to many.
Having Moira was the only brave thing I did in 2013-14. We have had to fight for balance every single day of her life, but we have found it. It is not the vision of motherhood or professional life I had imagined. And with it have come incredible doubts. Such doubts, in fact, that I was not sure that a second child would be a wise decision for me. As a mom, I felt underwhelming, and not in a free and easy way, but in a fearful, inadequate way.
But one day, at our new church, a couple prayed for me. A couple with five lovely, successful adult children, prayed that I would have confidence that I was not the perfect mom, but the right mom, for my daughter, and whoever might come along next.
And so having Asa was the brave thing I did in 2015-16.
With a second kid on the way in 2016, I quit my side hustle and leaned hard into journalism. In 2017 I walked away from a sure thing—The Rivard Report—to try something idealistic and new—Folo Media. One month into 2018 I had to walk away from Folo on principle. I did not have nearly the portfolio or reputation I needed to be a successful freelancer, but that was the option. The day I left Folo, I thought back to 2012, when I’d left my ministry career. Maybe this was it. The end of my journalism career.
But I had given birth to two children while working two jobs. I’d submitted an untrained essay to a fledgling publication just one month after leaving an entire life behind. I had married a man I’d known less than a year. I had dedicated a journal to a guy who hadn’t called me. I had taken break-n-bake cookies to a cookie swap.
I had been underwhelming people for years.
Freelance journalism, any journalism at all really, is like tying your ego to the tracks. It is rejection and tough feedback. It’s also thrilling and fulfilling. But it does feel like I have to do little brave things on the regular now. Pitches, fighting for stories, calling sources without a big institution behind me. I publish things on my blog. On other people’s blogs. I write things that less than 100 people read and things that tens of thousands of people read. Both feel incredibly vulnerable.
I regularly hover over the “send” button and tremble a little, and then tell myself, “Maybe they will be underwhelmed. It won’t be the end of me.”
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.”