Helping To Desegregate Public Schools Is In Every Parent's Power

If we work together and make choices that benefit everyone, we can fix this.

The legal segregation of American public schools may be a thing of the past, but culturally, the divide by race and income remains high, and troubling. Take New York City, for example. Despite touting its diversity, the city is less of a melting pot than it is an assemblage of its components, separated by culture and lifestyle. It is home to the largest school district in the country, as well as the most segregated in the country by far. 

There are obvious reasons for this, including zoning, the deprioritization of forced integration, and the issue of New York's deep housing segregation. But public school segregation is also upheld by parents' choices on which schools they send their children to, argued New York Times reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones. 

In a piece from last year about her decision to send her daughter, Najya, to a segregated, low-income school, instead of a "good" public school or a private school, Hannah-Jones detailed her and her husband's internal struggle about their choice. They both had gone to integrated schools, and she described it as "transformative" for them. "Yet the idea of placing our daughter in one of the small number of integrated schools troubled me. These schools are disproportionately white and serve the middle and upper middle classes, with a smattering of poor black and Latino students to create 'diversity,'" she wrote. 


a Katz /

The racial makeup of New York City's public schools is 41 percent Latino, 27 percent black, 16 percent Asian and 15 percent white. Of that percentage of white students, half of them are in only 11 percent of NYC's public schools. Hannah-Jones explained:

Part of what makes those schools desirable to white parents, aside from the academics, is that they have some students of color, but not too many. This carefully curated integration, the kind that allows many white parents to boast that their children's public schools look like the United Nations, comes at a steep cost for the rest of the city's black and Latino children.

In their effort to combat school segregation, Hannah-Jones and her husband sent Najya to a school with a majoriy of low-income students, 91 percent of whom where black and Latino. It was a decision that she worried about, she wrote, as she questioned whether taking a moral stand would come at the cost of her daughter's education. 

Appearing on NPR recently for a discussion on school segregation, Hannah-Jones said that she often got strange looks and judgment about her reasoning behind that decision. 

"I say this — and it always feels weird when I say it as a parent, because a lot of other parents look at you a little like you're maybe not as good of a parent — I don't think she's deserving of more than other kids. I just don't," she said. "I think that we can't say 'This school is not good enough for my child' and then sustain that system. I think that that's just morally wrong. If it's not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools?"

Although her daughter Najya's school distinguished itself with Mandarin and chess classes, and violin lessons, it, too, suffered from the many issues plaguing other segregated public schools in America like falling test scores and perpetual absenteeism. The school was different because it was helmed by Roberta Davenport, who shunned the kind of singular focus on test scores that many other public schools practiced. But Davenport has retired since Najya started school, and the shaky reliance of a public school's exceptionalism on its principal instead of sweeping policy is unsustainable. 

Then there's always the threat of the school's demographic changing drastically if improvements are made. Hannah-Jones pointed to a nearby school that a decade ago was populated by mostly black and Latino students. The harder the parents worked to improve the school and offer more extracurricular activities, the more white students were enrolled in it, effectively pushing out the minorities who helped attract them.

Many parents who fight for diversity in their schools — real, impactful socioeconomic diversity — similarly struggle with the choice of whether to set an example by sending their own kids to the poor, segregated public schools they champion, or to a predominantly white school with better resources and a stronger system. 

In her NPR interview, Hannah-Jones called for serious efforts to fix segregation and inequality, both on a policy level and on a personal level. "School segregation is both structural, it is systemic, but it's also upheld by individual choices. As long as individual parents continue to make choices that only benefit their own children... we're not going to see a change," she said, adding that putting her daughter in a public school is helping her learn important values. "I think it is making her a good citizen... It is teaching her that children who have less resources than her are not any less intelligent than her or not any less worthy than her."

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