“Nice White Parents” is brought to you by Serial Productions, a New York Times Company.
I want to tell you about another old film I found during my research. It’s from 1951. We see a housewife, a white woman — everyone in this film is white. She’s sitting in her living room with some neighbors. They’re here to solve a problem. [OLD MOVIE PLAYING]
A chain broke on a swing in a public playground, relatively unimportant, but a child might have been hurt.
They sit on couches with notepads, deep in discussion. They will solve this problem together. In another scene, a machinist in California approaches his bus, the factory owner, with a request from the workers.
I’d like to show you the new pension plan that we built. I thought we had discussed the pension plan previously.
They had. The discussion requires listening, debating and waving your arms a lot, which they do in the film.
Not yet friends, they may never like each other. But they’ll sweat it out together. The problem is mutual. Much is involved. Developed within each citizen is the Democratic spirit, the Democratic method.
Where were they taught the Democratic method, you might ask? Public school, where the housewives taught to problem solve for the safety of the community’s children, public school. This film was made by the National Education Association. It’s a 25-minute promotional film that spends almost no time inside schools. Instead, it’s all about the purpose of public schools, how they prepare us to live together as citizens. We see Americans use their public school training in everyday life, when they sit with their neighbors, debate their bosses, when they go shopping, and drive a car, buy a house. We are all part of a grand play, interdependent — the senator, the homemaker, the factory worker.
And Fred Gorman, the farmer of Pennsylvania, are his decisions important? They are, if the nation wants to eat.
Fred the farmer has a nameless wife, whom we see now standing next to him. Fred’s wife is trying to resolve a problem. The neighbors want to build a drainage system into a pond. The lowest land for the pond is an orchard that belongs to Fred and his nameless wife. The wife understands that to prevent further flooding, she and Fred will need to sacrifice for the greater good. Fred is not so sure.
If we don’t do something to help, our land is going to get like theirs, and you know it. I don’t like the idea of losing those trees. There’s the problem in a nutshell, a tough one to crack, his land and his neighbors needs. A dictator could solve it for Fred, but he prefers to do his own thinking.
Luckily, Fred has the tools to do it.
Those tools are sharpened in the schools of America.
And thank goodness, because the stakes are high.
Problems every day, and the way they are solved determines the way the country functions.
This vision of public schools, the same one laid out 100 years earlier by the founder of American public schools Horace Mann is that America and democracy cannot survive without public education. We need common schools where rich and poor come together to solve problems, generate fellow feeling. Public schools, the great equalizer. But I have made my way through the history of one modern American public school. And from what I can see, white parents are standing in the way of achieving this vision. Our schools are not an equalizing force, because white parents take them over and hoard resources. We’re not learning how to live together as one society because white parents flee or cordon themselves off in special gifted programs. Even when we’re not in the school building, funding and attention still slide our way. So I don’t see how it’s possible to have equal public schools, common schools that serve every child, unless we limit the power of white parents. But how do we do that? In all my reporting around this one school building from 2015 all the way back to the beginning, I’ve never seen that happen. And then I did. From Serial Productions, I’m Chana Joffe-Walt. This is “Nice White Parents,” a series about the most powerful force in public schools: White people.
Recently, I’ve come across two examples of schools that seem to be suppressing the power of white parents, two examples I found in the very last place I expected, in the I.S. 293 building, one upstairs and one downstairs. So today’s episode, what does it look like to limit the power of white parents in schools? And does it work? Does it lead to an equal education for everyone?
I’m going to start downstairs. Eight years ago, the city put a charter school in the basement if I.S. 293. It’s called Success Academy. That year I spent following the new white parents upstairs at the School For International Studies, I would occasionally see Success Academy kids around the building in orange and blue uniforms. It was always a little startling because Success Academy is an elementary school. So they look tiny in a building full of middle and high schoolers. But mostly, the Success kids stood out because of the way they moved through the halls.
They walk in single forms like they’re in the Army. It’s so weird. If they don’t walk in single form, they stop the whole line.
Denagee is one of the many students from SIS upstairs, who is eager to tell me about the charter school and its rituals, their silent, controlled lines.
It’s like a sense of the Children of the Corn. It creeps me out.
Or Storm Troopers or something.
That’s his friend Chris saying Storm Troopers. Sometimes they’ll hear Success teachers say, make a bubble in your mouth. And then a line of six-year-olds will close their lips and fill their cheeks up with air, that way nobody’s talking. Chris and Denagee told me they look like puffer fish.
I remember kindergarten very vividly. And I know if I was to have my face in a puffer fish, I would automatically just start making all types of sounds and stuff, you know?
And they don’t?
No. That’s what’s so weird.
It helps me think, or it makes me think about — what really happens inside of the classrooms with them to be coming out like that?
The year I was reporting at SIS, The New York Times published a video that showed a particular and alarming moment inside one of the Success classrooms. It was secretly recorded by an assistant teacher, who leaked it, and it went viral. You see a group of first-graders gathered in a circle on a polka-dot rug, sitting legs crossed, hands in their laps. And a teacher is asking one girl to correct a math problem she got wrong.
You cut or you split. So count it again, making sure you’re counting correctly.
The girl does not respond. The teacher leans in and repeats.
The girl whimpers, or says something so quiet you can’t hear. The entire class is watching. It’s silent, intense. The teacher is visibly upset, picks up the child’s paper, and rips it in half, points an angry finger to the side of the room.
Go to the calm down chair and sit.
She goes. The teacher turns to the rest of the circle.
There’s nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper. Somebody come up and show me how she should have counted to get her answer that was 1 and a split.
A boy rushes over to do it correctly. But the teacher is not done publicly reprimanding the girl, who’s now sitting to the side of the classroom in the calm down chair.
Thank you. Do not go back to your seat and show me one thing and then don’t do it here. You’re confusing everybody. Very upset and very disappointed.
The teacher is white. The girl whose work she just ripped up is not. The whole thing is hard to watch. When this video came out, the student was living at a homeless shelter with her mom. Success suspended this teacher, but didn’t fire her. Instead, at a press conference, the C.E.O reprimanded The New York Times for not understanding that this teacher was having a bad day. When I asked about this incident, the C.E.O of Success told me the teacher’s behavior was unacceptable. Teachers are not allowed to yell at kids. But it was not a fireable offense. She says the teacher made a mistake.
I have always been skeptical of Success Academy. Success has a reputation for being harsh and punitive. Especially unnerving, to me at least, is that they’re harsh, punitive approach is deployed in schools across the city that are almost entirely BBlack and brown. Success students are generally kids of color from working class or poor families. The intense focus on policing kids’ bodies, on test prep drills, frequent use of suspensions — you don’t see that in majority white schools. I’ve never seen a line of uniformed, white students walking through the halls of a public school building with their mouths in bubbles, or being told to quote show urgency when they dawdle unpacking their book bags or eating lunch, except for here. This particular Success Academy in the basement of I.S. 293 is integrated. A quarter of the student body is white. And it’s the first school I saw putting limits on the power of white parents.
Success Academy is the city’s largest charter school network, 47 schools, elementary, middle, and one high school. They get public funding, like all charter schools. Success Academy also gets private funding. The state oversees charters, like Success. But it isn’t run by the state or the city. It’s run by a private organization. And Success is a choice school. That means families opt in to Success. The C.E.O, a woman named Eva Moskowitz, opened her first 40 something schools in largely working class Black and brown neighborhoods where she imagined families would want a new school option. Then about a decade ago, Moskowitz decided she wanted to open an integrated school, a new Success Academy that was racially integrated and economically diverse. She needed a school building where integration was possible, where perhaps, half a century earlier, a group of white families pushed for a strategically located fringe school building between two racially segregated neighborhoods. And this is how Success Academy wound up here, in the old I.S. 293 building because of yet another plan to integrate. Only this time, it worked. White parents opted in. The way families at this Success Academy — it’s called Success Academy Cobble Hill — tend to come from advantage, just like the white parents upstairs at SIS. They’re upper middle class and rich, doctors and lawyers, corporate accountants, people who walk into most public schools with a lot of power. But the influence I’d seen white parents wield upstairs at SIS, that didn’t seem to be the case downstairs. I found that confusing. Do you have a PTA? We have a parent council so it’s very similar to a PTA this is Alissa Bishop, the principal of Success, Cobble Hill. The parent council is not that similar to a PTA though, because in the very next sentence, Principal Bishop told me that the parent council is not allowed to raise money. This, I assumed, was probably difficult for parents who are accustomed to fundraising for their kids’ schools. Have you had parents who want to raise money, who come to you and are like, I want to — I want this thing to happen, and I want to raise the money for it.
Not anything like that. I have had parents come to me and say I want to do a coat drive. They want to donate. We do that stuff throughout the entire year. But I’ve never had anyone approach me about donating money.
Really? No parents have been like I want to do a fundraiser for x, and you have to be like, that’s not a thing that we do?
No. I’ve never had that. Principal Bishop looks over at the PR person, who’s come from Success headquarters to supervise this interview. The PR person shakes her head. No, parents don’t raise money.
And what if somebody did want to raise money for the school — a parent wanted to raise money?
Yeah, we don’t.
It’s against the policy.
We don’t raise money.
Principal Bishop looks over to the PR person again, as if to say, am I not being clear with this chick? Why isn’t she getting it? But I seem to be unable to stop myself from listing all the things I’ve seen white advantaged parents demand in public schools.
If parents were like, we want this to be a dual language French school, and we can help fund it —
We don’t have — our curriculum is network-based. We’re given curriculum. We don’t have a language curriculum in our elementary schools.
Or, if parents were like, we want there to be less math, or a different kind of math, or we want there to be a film program, a film program, or whatever, any of those things. Parents are like, we want —
Yeah, this is our model. It’s our model across all of our schools. No changes.
The C.E.O. of Success Academy, Eva Moskowitz, followed up later to tell me, if parents want to give money, they can. But it will be distributed evenly across all of our schools. We can’t have our Cobble Hill families getting more than our families in Harlem.
Here’s what I started to understand about how Success Academy was limiting the power of white parents. Success was limiting the power of white parents by limiting the power of all parents. I met a dad named Travius Sharpe outside the building one day, a Black guy who grew up in Brooklyn. His son Ethan is at Success.
We actually get graded.
You get graded?
We get graded as the parents. We get an email saying, this is what your progress is saying.
You get a grade, like an A, B, C?
They get like a meeting expectations or —
Upstairs, SIS tripped over itself to meet the demands of new, white parents. Downstairs, all parents at Success Academy are being graded. Even day to day, the Success principal and teachers make sure to remind parents when they’re falling down on the job.
So we running a little late. Why is Ethan late? It’s your fault why he’s late. I think one day, I was late. And she texted and said, Ethan is not here yet. Any reason why? And I felt like I wasn’t the parent at that point. That’s their time. But it keeps you on your toes and stuff like that.
You felt like you weren’t the parent.
I wasn’t the parent. I wasn’t the parent. And I felt like I was just dropping this kid off to his parents.
One day, in the cafeteria, I met a white mom named Sarah Stanich. Sarah is a financial advisor. Her son’s in fourth grade. And she was telling me she likes the school, even though — and then Sarah lowered her voice, pointed at her boy, and said, he’s been suspended.
He’s been suspended. And I was not happy about that. And I definitely never had that experience when I was a kid. But —
How old was he when that happened?
Well, it’s happened more than once, embarrassingly.
So kind of young. Maybe third grade, or maybe even second the first time it happened.
How many times has he been suspended?
A few times, a few times, probably three — but pushing, fighting. And he’s really not a fighter, but they’re boys, and — and sometimes I think it’s kind of harsh. They’re young kids. And I know that that’s a complaint about suspensions in the schools. But on the other hand, he had warnings, and it wasn’t that I think that his teachers had given him given him space and slack in other areas. I have no lingering anger about it.
Yeah. Overall, I’ve been I feel very lucky to have been able to be a part of this community and be part of this school. Sarah later wrote me to say her kid was actually suspended four times that year. I’ve reported on discipline in schools and the use of suspensions a lot. I’ve talked to many mothers of children who have been suspended. Not one of them has been white. Black kids are suspended in New York City schools at five times the rate of white kids. After I met Sarah, I double checked the numbers for the 2017 school year, just to be sure. In the regular New York City public schools that same year, not Success or other charters, but the traditional, public elementary schools, that year, there were 327 suspensions for non-white kids. For white kids, there were only nine. I was so surprised after meeting Sarah when I left the building I called two people, who know a lot about education to say this is what’s happening at Success Academy, Cobble Hill. White boys are being suspended, rich, white boys. And they couldn’t believe it either. One of them, Noliwe Rooks, a professor at Cornell, said, well, well, how’s that for equality?
So white parents can’t raise money, they can’t ask for special programs, and their kids get suspended. Why are they suddenly OK with equality? I interviewed lots of Success parents.
We did get a flyer. They put them on the doors. They put them on the doors in the neighborhood.
Suzanne Gigliotti saw the flyer for Success when her son was in preschool. So she looked into it and every other possible school option she had.
It was in our neighborhood. But more importantly, we toured so many schools, public, private, parochial. We were slated for 58, which is an excellent school. And we did get in there. But Success was head and above any school I’d seen, just the level of excellence. And yeah, nothing matched it. The test scores — almost every parent I spoke with said they were initially drawn to Success Academy because of the excellent test scores. If your measure of success in school is standardized tests — and at Success Academy, it is — this is one of the best schools in the city. The scores are truly remarkable. Success Academy students perform twice as well on state tests as regular New York City public school kids. The vast majority of Success kids pass the tests, 95%, 97%. In your average city public schools, it’s less than half. And even more impressive, to me at least, is that the kids at Success are doing well on tests no matter if they’re poor, or rich, or Black, or Latino, or Asian, or white. This is the problem that decades of public education reforms have tried to address, the achievement gap. Success Academy was pulling off, not only an integrated school, but an equal integrated school that was closing the achievement gap.
The way Success achieves equality though, some things give me pause.
What’s my first expectation? Lock your hands. Track Kamira. The first expectation is read —
Last year, I went into the Success classrooms.
Send Kamira some love. Give Kamira two claps. [CLAPPING] My expectation is that —
I didn’t see any teachers reprimanding kids or ripping up work, like the one in the video. What I did see were teachers, who issued a constant wall of verbal directions, where to look, what to do, how to sit, delivered in the same and consistent, neutral tone. When a teacher calls on someone, she gives a direction to the class to track the speaker, look at the person speaking. Meanwhile, a second teacher roams and hovers, issuing reminders.
Lock your hands. Track Shana. Liam’s hands are locked tracking Shana. Lydia’s hands are locked tracking Shana. Colin’s hands are —
Shana answers correctly.
Nice job, Shana. Nice job, Shana. Scanning for another friend on the carpet, who looks so professional, lock your hands, track Zoe.
Success achieves equality, at least in part, through utter uniformity. Every Success Academy across the city uses identical methods, identical curricula, and identical classrooms. The kids sit on the same polka-dot carpet, hands locked in their lap, same signs on the wall, singing the same chants. Even the teachers look the same. They’re almost all young white women in cotton dresses and ballet flats just out of college, sometimes the same college. I know this because the classrooms are named after teachers alma maters. And there are three Penn State classrooms.
How does it go? We are Penn State. Yeah, we pull our weight Yeah, we cannot wait. Yeah, to graduate. Roll call. It’s uh-huh. And then Shabooya, sha-sha-shabooya, role call. Shabooya, sha-sha-shabooya.
Education people talk a lot about the difference between equality and equity to a point that I believe is tiresome. But I thought about this difference a lot at Success. Equality means everyone gets the same thing. Equity means everyone gets what they need. Success is equal. Everyone is treated the same. But kids are never all the same. Some kids are chatty in the hallway, or need a minute to think before answering a question. Some kids have a million bucks at home, and some kids don’t. A Black girl might respond differently than a white girl to being reprimanded by a white teacher. A single parent with two jobs might have a harder time getting their kid to school on time than, say, a stay-at-home mom with a partner. One of the main criticisms of Success Academy from public education advocates is that Success doesn’t actually serve all students, that it has excellent test scores because it serves a select group of students. Kids who don’t test well, or can’t sit still, they’re weeded out of the school. Success Academy vehemently denies this. They point out that they make special accommodations for kids with special needs, and they note that they don’t get to choose students because kids get spots in their schools by random lottery. And that’s true. But it’s also true that lots of parents don’t apply to the lottery because they know the school’s culture and the demands it makes of families won’t work for them. And plenty of kids who do end up at Success don’t last long. Maybe they get held back a grade or they’re suspended. A civil rights complaint filed on behalf of more than a dozen families alleges their children were regularly removed from class and suspended, seven, 10, 13 times at Success Academy. Most of those families eventually left the school.
I had a thought walking through Success. I suspected that the strict classroom control was partly what made white parents feel comfortable at Success Academy. I’m speculating here. None of the white parents I spoke with told me they chose Success because the school polices Black and brown students so well. And I don’t believe this is a conscious thought for anyone. But I do know that white parents bring plenty of unconscious biases to public schools with Black and brown kids, fears that the classrooms will be chaotic, or not challenging, that the kids will be disorderly or threatening. White parents worry that our kids will be harmed. Success Academy completely controls for these fears. Everyone gets excellent test scores. There’s no room for misbehavior, no risk of disruption because there are no idle moments. If 30 children need to move from their desks to the rug, it sounds like this.
On your bottom, on the black line in five, four, three, two, one.
Every kid is on their bottom, hands locked, eyes tracking the teacher, except for one boy. He gets a correction.
Success operates on the principle that with rigor and discipline uniformly applied, all students will achieve equally well. It’s a tempting vision, especially coming from upstairs, where the power of white parents seem to have no bounds. But equality does not necessarily shift the balance of power. White parents aren’t running the show here, but Success is run by a white C.E.O and a board that includes millionaire hedge fund managers — sorry, billionaire hedge fund managers. The board of trustees is listed on the success website. And the bios include Maverick Capital, Redwood Capital, Glenview Capital, Cumulus Media, Morgan Stanley, Facebook, Arnold & Porter. This is not exactly a disruption to the social order, is all I’m saying. You can limit the day-to-day influence of white parents. But still, rich white people control the agenda, the priorities, and the money.
Back in 2015, the year of the white influx and SIS, toward the end of that school year, I was talking to Imee Hernandez one day. She was the PTA co-president of SIS. And Imee told me watching all those white parents come and take over, it was almost like watching tumbleweed move along in the wind. It was so quiet. That’s how they moved through here, she said, picking up power as they went.
Like a tumbleweed, it starts really soft and slow, and it keeps just picking up speed and getting bigger. So it’s really soft and slow. But it’s getting bigger. It’s not like an avalanche that comes at you. It’s just tumbling along very slowly. So it’s very light. You don’t feel it coming at you.
Back then, Imee told me there’s no stopping it. She’s worried she couldn’t protect what she loved about her school.
If you were right, and the worst case scenario happens, what does that look like in a year or two?
That there’s no more color in this school.
Then there’s no more community, which I really hope I’m wrong. That’s my biggest fear. Then I would question if my daughter’s coming back. I really would.
Imee feared that each year, more and more white families come into SIS until it just became like the other segregated middle schools, where all the white parents fought to enroll their kids. Against the repetition of history, Imee was wrong. What happened at SIS was nothing like she or I expected. That’s up next when we go back upstairs.
This past spring, a Black teacher at Success Academy named Fabiola St Hillaire publicly criticized the C.E.O. for not taking a stand after the murder of George Floyd, or acknowledging the effect police violence was having on the families and communities Success serves. After that, more staff, families, and alumni raised alarms about Success, calling some of its practices racist and abusive, its discipline policies, the way white staff and leadership speak to kids and parents of color. In response, the C.E.O. apologized, and Success has released a plan that commits to mandatory bias and sensitivity training for staff. The plan says they will create an Equity Team and review their culture, their relationships with staff, and families, and kids with quote, “an attention and sensitivity to race.” I read this plan and thought, huh, there is a school that’s already doing many of these things, right in the same building, right upstairs.
OK, welcome. Hello. Thank you.
It’s September, 2019. I’m back at SIS. It’s been four years since the French gala and the drama with the PTA. Rob, the dad, who fundraises, he’s not here anymore. His son finished middle school. Imee is still here. Her daughter is a junior in high school. And a new crop of sixth graders and their families are settling into the auditorium.
Welcome to PA Chaz. Welcome. Please, find a seat for me. Thank you.
The school is no longer called SIS, the School for International Studies. It’s now BHS, the Boerum Hill School for International Studies. They changed the name, again. BHS has a new principal, Nicole Lanzillatto. She gets up on stage, and the staff cheers. Miss Lanzillatto welcomes the new families to BHS.
Any school is a microcosm of the world, and we are blessed with beautiful diversity.
Miss Lanzillatto lists the ways the school reflects the world, race, ethnicity, language, gender.
We are an extraordinarily diverse community. And it’s a beautiful thing, and we fight for it, and we work on it.
Miss Lanzillatto says BHS is going for true equity. She says the word equity three times in this welcome speech. Miss Lanzillatto is white, chatty, well-liked, with black hair that’s styled straight up. The hair is really Miss Lanzillatto’s defining feature. Picture boy band pompadour. She’s worked here most of her professional career. The year white families arrived at SIS, Miss Lanzillatto was the assistant principal. She won’t say anything bad about that year. It was a learning experience. It’s a process her predecessor, Ms. Juman, talks about it the same way. Remember? Principals — diplomatic. They’re careful not to place blame, but both of them said after that year, it was clear they needed to intervene. One of the first things Miss Lanzillatto did as principal was request special permission to reserve 40% of the seats for kids who get free and reduced price lunch. The majority of kids who get free and reduced price lunch are kids of color. And Miss Lanzillatto didn’t want the school to flip. She didn’t want Black and brown kids to get pushed out. The assistant principal told me they wanted to make sure the school did not become colonized. Some things here have changed. They got rid of the foundation, the Brooklyn World Project Rob and the other white parents had created. They scrapped some of the French programming, hired more teachers and staff of color. And one of the most striking changes I noticed — spend 10 minutes of the school, and you can’t not notice — Miss Lanzillatto is talking directly and constantly about race and equity. She told me everyone here needs to be on alert for racist habits and ideas. They need to aggressively address them, whenever they pop up, in the cafeteria, in the classroom.
There’s a conversation happening in the school around the smart classes and the non-smart classes. Let’s talk about it where is that coming from. So I think it’s really about being a beast. I think it’s about everything we do coming back to it.
Coming back to equity. I could not get over how much time and energy the school puts into ensuring equity, not equality, equity. It’s almost like the obsessive focus Success puts on making sure everything is the same is exactly matched by the obsessive focus BHS just puts on recognizing everyone is not the same. BHS formed an Equity Committee of staff and students a few years ago. They looked for bias in the curriculum, in the signs on their walls and the books on their shelves. They analyzed achievement data, discipline data, where they could clearly see that the school punished Black boys more harshly than other students. So they revamped their entire approach to discipline, created a restorative Justice Department. They applied for grants to help pay for this to train their teachers on implicit bias and then train them again. They brought in experts.
And here are some things that I look for in transition. So how do kids engage with each other? Is it verbal engagement? Is it non-verbal engagement?
Last fall, I watched two equity consultants, Cornelius and Kass Minor, show a group of BHS teachers how to observe racial dynamics in their school. This involved teachers walking around in a huddle with clipboards, taking diligent notes as kids walk through the hallways.
One fun lens to look at — and I’m just naming things out — I often ask, what are boys doing? What are girls doing? What are Black students doing? What are students of color doing?
Mr. Minor is full of fun things the teachers should look for.
Here’s another fun thing to do, just because we’re out here. I do drive-bys in the hallway, where I walk by classroom windows, and I look in.
They all take turns peering through the small window of a classroom door. They take more notes. Later, the teachers meet as a group. And one teacher, Stacy Ann Manswell, explains her observations from a math class.
And then in the math classroom that we were in, something that stood out to me — so there was two white males, white female, Black male. And I’m walking around. And Black male, he was finished. And he finished early, waiting for his peers to do the Think Right Pair Share. And when the timer went off, the girl, the white girl he was sitting next to, he looked to her, but she looked to the two white boys. And they formed the pair. So it was like, now she had to work with him. But she was sort of looking for the other two boys for validation for what this boy was saying. So my teacher self is like, OK, does this child not participate in class, and she doesn’t trust that he knows what he’s doing, or is it because she doesn’t see him because he’s a Black boy and she figures he’s not capable?
The teachers talked about this moment in depth, what it might mean, what messages the kids were picking up in their school about race, about who’s important, who’s bad, who’s smart. And it’s not just the staff. The administration is telling white parents that their mere presence in the school does not make it integrated. They have to work at making this place fair.
So this is our agenda today. We’re going to start with a reflection, and we’re going to get into how we talk about race with our young people.
One Saturday morning, a group of two dozen parents gathered in the BHS library for something called Family Academy. This event was open to everyone, but mostly white parents showed up. And many of them shared that they had never really talked about race very much when they were growing up.
Show of hands, if race was not talked about, or only minimally talked about, or sort of avoided in some way. So just looking around the room, it’s about half — no, about 60% of us.
Assistant Principal Meghan Casey walks went through a workshop on race and racism in America and child development. I think about how just a few years ago, the buzzword in this very school was diversity. Everyone is all about celebrating diversity. But now, Meghan Casey tells this room of parents diversity is not the goal. Having a diverse school does not mean we have an integrated school. We need to work on that to get to an integrated school. She says they surveyed BHS students last year, asking them about their experiences.
And our white kids overall said it feels like I’m in a Benetton ad, and it’s so diverse, and lovely, and I’m not experiencing racism, or racial bias, or implicit bias here at school. It’s great. And our kids of color were saying, they feel less loved, less seen. They talked — though they didn’t use this language, they talked about stereotype threat, they talked about implicit bias. They talked about moments with white peers that were uncomfortable, where a friendship felt a little strained. And it was clear to them that their white friend just didn’t — did not have bad intentions, loved them, good friend, but didn’t know the harm that they were creating, and just didn’t have the same knowledge base that they had about race and about racial consciousness. I want to just make sure, because it’s for whatever reason — I don’t know why — sometimes we think that things are better than they are. I just wanted to come back to our students. They are reporting that this is urgent, and we need to continue to deal with it. And it’s not a Benetton ad, even if some of our kiddos think it is.
It’s a little jarring to hear school leaders telling parents, even though everything looks OK, it’s not. Principal Lanzillatto says she knows it can be hard to hear some of this stuff.
And some people are going to feel pissed off about it, and some people do. And that means some people are going to leave the room feeling like they’re being blamed. But at the end of the day, this is about kids. This is about serving kids and including families and communities. What else is the point of the school, right? That’s the whole point of a school.
Is that the point of a school? When Miss Lanzillatto said this, I got stuck on the phrase. What is the point of a public school? We don’t seem to have any kind of unified vision. Maybe there was one back when they made that old film about public schools teaching us about democracy and how to live together. But we don’t have a shared vision now. What we have is choice. You can choose your vision for a public school. You can go to the test score school, like Success Academy, or the racial justice school, like BHS. There is no city policy that says every school needs to be integrated and equitable. It’s up to us. If we want that, we can choose it. For families with the most power, the most choices, that means we get to choose. Do we want to play fair or not? At BHS, families were choosing equity, white advantaged families. I didn’t see anyone leave the room at that parents workshop, or seem upset, or blamed at all. The parents I met at BHS of all races were pretty happy with the school. They seemed bought in. Meanwhile, the test scores at be adjust have improved dramatically. There’s still an achievement gap, but it seems to be closing. Black boys are no longer being disciplined at much higher rates than everyone else. And the kids seem happy, warm, and confident, and adept at talking about things like race and power. One day though, I heard a rumor. It was going around the high school. Kids were saying the PTA was stealing money from the high school and giving it to the middle school. I heard it first in the library from a group of 10th graders. They said the PTA had taken $1,500 to create a garden, and they were pissed. Later, I heard it again from a tenth grader named Farzana. And it wasn’t $1,500 anymore.
Yeah, so they just received $15,000 for gardening. What else can that $15,000 be used for so much more?
This was meaningful because the BHS middle school is much whiter and larger than the high school. And despite all the focus on racial equity for the past few years, the PTA leadership at BHS is now almost all white, a lot of middle school parents, which has not escaped the notice of students, who have been encouraged by their school to notice such things and call them out. A girl named Paola told me we have to keep watching them because there’s no one there representing us. My mom works. She can’t go to PTA meetings.
It’s just very unfair, that the fact that your mom can be in the PTA and make all these rules, and be like, no. We want the money from middle school.
Yeah. They’re like this all power thing that’s above everybody’s head that can just take this money and do this. You know what I mean?
That’s Jeremiah jumping in. Jeremiah is a kid who jumps in. He’s the guy you go to if you’re feeling angry about something unjust, and what you want more than anything is someone who will feel just as angry as you do. Jeremiah tells Paola this is ridiculous. I’m going to go to the PTA and just tell them straight up.
You guys need to stop taking, stop taking money from this to put in their middle school programs. You know what I mean? It’s just too much.
Your middle school already has it enough. Why do you want more?
I wasn’t sure they had the details exactly right. But I did think, yeah, here we go again. The mostly white PTA probably is manipulating where money goes. So I looked into it, and it wasn’t true. The PTA did not steal money from the high school. It did get money for a garden, but it was grant money, not regular PTA money. Plus, the garden is mostly for the culinary program, which mostly serves the high school. Jeremiah texted me a few days after we spoke to say, sorry to bother you, but I think I might have been a little too critical of the school. Is it possible to do a follow-up interview? He was mad at himself and his friends for believing the rumor. He was mad that he said it to me and looked stupid.
I think there was some leftover feelings. Honestly, I can’t even say because —
What do you mean by leftover feelings?
Because that’s been the understanding for five years. You know what I mean? It’s always been that.
It’s always been that. It took me a while to get Jeremiah to say more about what he meant by that. Jeremiah is 15 years old. When he was in third grade, the city closed his mostly Black school — called it failing. His mom, a Black woman, fought the school closing as hard as she could — went to every meeting. It happened anyway. The city put a charter school in the building. And it also opened a new small school designed to appeal to the newly gentrified neighborhood. It had a global studies curriculum and a dual language Spanish program. Jeremiah went there third through fifth grade. Then he went to SIS for middle school, the year the white kids came in. Suddenly, his science class was sometimes taught in French. The after school programs he wanted to go to, also French, which he didn’t love, for obvious reasons.
Because I can’t speak French. So that was pretty annoying.
Right, Jeremiah, a Black kid, believed a rumor that white parents in the PTA were stealing from him and his classmates because he understands that this is how schools work. He has leftover feelings. Jeremiah likes the new BHS, and he says it does feel more integrated and more equal. I told him about some of the white parents I had been meeting at the school, who seemed truly committed to integration.
I think that for white moms just think — I think its popular now. It’s like yoga. It’s like, oh, yeah, integration. It’s cool now. It’s a new thing.
And what do you make of that?
Yeah. You’re a part of it. Thanks, but are you just — do you genuinely care, or is it everyone’s doing it? When it’s not beneficial to the white families, it’s going to be changed. And history repeats itself. So when this integration isn’t beneficial, then it’ll go right back to where it was before.
History repeats itself is a very central thesis of my story.
Yeah. It’s just truth for life.
When integration is not helpful, it’s going to become segregated again.
That’s probably true. White parents are opting in to be at BHS right now. But they can just as easily opt out. Historically, they have.
When this school building first opened its doors years ago, Black and Puerto Rican parents were demanding integrated equal schools city wide for everybody. They weren’t asking for one curated school or a small network of schools where people could integrate, if they wanted to. They were asking the Board of Education to have a plan for all schools. They were asking for things to go differently than they have for all of history. Next time, on “Nice White Parents,” things go differently.
“Nice White Parents” is produced by Julie Snyder and me, with editing on this episode from Sarah Koenig and Ira Glass. Neil Drumming is our managing editor. Eve L. Ewing is our editorial consultant. Fact checking and research by Ben Phelan. Additional reporting from Emmanuel Dzotsi, Jessica Lussenhop and Alvin Melathe. Music supervision and mixing by Stowe Nelson with production help from Aviva DeKornfeld. Our director of operations is Seth Lind. Julie Whitaker is our digital manager. Finance management by Cassie Howley, and production management by Frances Swanson. Original music for “Nice White Parents” is by The Bad Plus with additional music written and performed by Matt McGinley. Film clips, courtesy of the National Education Association and C-span Video Library. Special thanks to Tina Priceman, Johanna Miller, Leonie Haimson, Jill Cysner, Clayton Harding, Kate Taylor and Ana Espada. At The New York Times, thank you to Kelly Doe and Jason Fujikuni. And at Studio Rodrigo, thanks to Khoi Uong, Becki Choe, Nick Emrich and Christina No.
“Nice White Parents” is produced by Serial Productions, a New York Times Company.
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From the makers of Serial and The New York Times: “Nice White Parents” looks at the 60-year relationship between white parents and the public school down the block.
The show is also available on your mobile device: Via Apple Podcasts | Via Spotify | Via Google
Public education won’t be fair until school systems limit the power of white parents. But is that even possible? Chana finds two schools that are trying to do just that, and both are actually inside the I.S. 293 building. One is downstairs in the basement, where a charter school called Success Academy Cobble Hill opened about seven years ago. The other is upstairs at the newly-renamed Boerum Hill School for International Studies.
“Nice White Parents” was reported by Chana Joffe-Walt; produced by Julie Snyder; edited by Sarah Koenig, Neil Drumming and Ira Glass; editorial consulting by Eve L. Ewing; and sound mix by Stowe Nelson.
The original score for “Nice White Parents” was written and performed by the jazz group The Bad Plus. The band consists of bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Orrin Evans and drummer Dave King. Additional music from Matt McGinley.
Special thanks to Sam Dolnick, Julie Whitaker, Seth Lind, Julia Simon and Lauren Jackson.