Now that we are neck-deep in the advertising-rich “Back to School” season, let’s pause a minute to think about what it is that we are going “back” to.
Parents around the country are washing the summer grime off our kids and filling shiny new backpacks with pencils and carrots. We are sending our darlings off to school in the hopes that they will learn some stuff, make some friends, develop social skills, be challenged and nurtured. We cross our fingers, post “baby’s first day of kindergarten” photos, and hope for our kids to come home bright-eyed and eager for tomorrow.
In a larger sense, though, we are back to another year of building the next generation of our democracy. Because, in addition to educating children, these institutions are also shaping the backbone of our society. “Public schools,” argues political scientist Benjamin Barber, “must be understood as public not simply because they serve the public, but because they establish us as a public” (Barber 1997: xii). Public schools are the grand arbiters of our civic identity; they create our us-ness.
But our children are heading into classrooms where their classmates overwhelmingly look like them, speak the same language(s) at home, and come from similarly resourced families. The majority of our nation’s schools are segregated by race and/or class, and this trend is intensifying. What does this say about the US-ness we are building?
The recent horror in Charlottesville gives us still more reason to think about our increasingly divided nation, about the gaps between the haves and the have-nots, about deep disparities between racial communities and the ever-narrowing bubbles we inhabit. Our public schools too often tell the same story. We speak about equity, justice and opportunity for all children while typically advocating only for our own kids.
In the end, though, what is the nation that we are building? What are we helping to create for the next generation? What is it that we are modeling — and our kids are living?
Until we invest our most precious, until we intertwine our fates, until we literally put our skin in the game, our hopes for a future based on justice and equity will be rely on nothing but empty words.
Now, to be clear, I am talking to YOU, privileged parents, and especially to privileged white parents. You are my audience because this is our problem to fix; we created this system for our advantage and have been hoarding our opportunities for too long. It is time to stand up for our anti-racist values (cue spicy comments).
If you’re like my neighbor, you’re thinking that your kid can’t be *sacrificed* to fix this huge problem and that, lamentably, you must choose offspring over ideals. We all love our kids and want the best for their futures. If you’re like my neighbor, you imagine that those kids of yours will only get into a “good” college and have a “good” life if they go to a “good” school. And that “good” school will be relatively affluent, disproportionately white or white and Asian American, have high test scores, talk about STEM and The Arts, and host fundraisers for organic gardens.
But there are ways that integrated/ing schools can be good for your kids, too. A growing body of research shows that diversity in school actually is good for all kids, including white and affluent ones (this and this and thisand this and this). Adaptive reasoning, global-identity-forming, complex problem-solving skills, dexterity in cross-cultural collaboration, and effective communication strategies are only some of the benefits. And yes, heightened awareness of the significance of race, ethnicity, and class.
At a privilege-segregated school where everyone comes from a slim slice of the cultural and economic stratum, frames of reference are narrowed. “Difference” becomes an academic problem rather than a lived experience. The world is flattened. And I think we know what lack of nuance gets us.
There are other reasons, too, that privilege-segregated schools are not the only or even best way to educate our littles. Our universities are beginning to question admissions exclusively from the bubble (this and this and this and this).
In record numbers, parents across the country are opting their children out of standardized tests, in part because a “good education can’t be measured by a test score” (also this). Moreover, many of us are wondering whether the demands of 79 AP classes and heaps of extracurricular hours to log onto college applications are really preparing our kids to be the kinds of adults we hope they will become (like this, this, this, this, this and this).
Maybe, just maybe, integration isn’t the sacrifice we are sold.
My babies, now in middle and high school, attend a poor, majority-Latino, heavily native Spanish-speaking school. My kids are thriving. They are two among a handful of white kids in a diverse group of students whose families largely hail from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. While almost 90% of the kids quality for free/reduced lunch, the socioeconomic demographics don’t tell us about the wealth of experiences that each student brings to the classroom. And yes, the school has a vibrant parent community — though it looks very different from the PTA at whiter schools.
Does integration always work? Of course not. Nothing alwaysworks for everyone. And we certainly haven’t *done* integration well in many places.
In fact, it has been traumatic for many families of color, and meaningful and equitable integration at the classroom level is even harder to find. Behind every integration horror story lies a heartwarming Lifetime-movie tale of kumbaya waiting to be told. Chances are that your kids’ experiences will be somewhere in between.
Attending integrated/integrating schools is likely to be a bit messy and complicated and hard (and often it will be more challenging for you than for your littles). But raising children to be adults is hard and none of us had kids because we wanted life to be easy.
But when I see the kinds of people my kids are becoming, I know we have made the right decision. I’m thrilled that my boy became irate at age 13 because his best friend was always referred to as the “Mexican kid” while my son was just a “kid” (“Mom! Why am I the normal thing and [best friend] is something else?”).
I wish I could take parental credit for my kids’ radness — first rule of parenting teenagers: always use slang from your youth because the eyerolls are the best! — but I know that there are no weekends-out-of-the-bubble that could replicate the experience of growing up with kids from different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
My kids will enter adulthood with a greater, deeper, more substantial — indeed, experiential — understanding of difference (and sameness!) than I did. Imagine if even a quarter of the next generation started from this point?! How much closer to a just society could we get? And then their kids… It could be exponential progress rather than the incremental steps we’ve resigned ourselves to.
Parents — white parents, privileged parents, privileged white parents — as you send your kids off to school, think about the kind of nation you want your kids live in and the kind of adults you want to raise. This doesn’t have to be the choice of Kid OR Country.
If your kids aren’t yet in school, please consider just stepping foot inside one of these majority-minority schools; take a tour, see for yourself what is behind the “reputation” and internet-searchable test scores and demographics. You might well be surprised and want to join the many parents across the country choosing integrated or integrating schools (this, this, this, this, this, this and this and this).
With all the talk for us white folk to be more than just allies, for our country to find a way to come together, it’s time to integrate. For real. Not because you’re a hero (you aren’t), not because you want a social justice cookie (you don’t get one), but because it is good for your kids and all kids and our national future to grow up together.
Bust out of the bubble.
With our fates tied together, we can begin the hard work of uplifting equity for every child in every school. (And yes, then comes the hard work of fostering integration at the classroom level thoughtfully and meaningfully).
“This is not just a black issue, this is not just a Hispanic issue, this is an American issue. All fair-minded people should be concerned.” (7 July 2016 President Obama)
This article is an edited revision of “Racism, Policing and Schools are NOT Separate Conversations” IntegratedSchools.org Summer 2016.