Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Kids like us

At the open house for new kindergarten and first-grade students last June, there were two tall blonde twins who stood out. Mostly they stood out because they were white. (At my school, if you are a white child in a classroom you are in the minority. I usually have one, maybe two white students out of 20 per year.)

The first-grade teacher called them this week to set up a home visit. "Oh," said their mother. "We decided to send them to another school instead. We really love your school -- we think it's a great place. We love that you do home visits. But we decided we really wanted them to be in a school with kids from our neighborhood -- you know, kids from [insert the name of the whitest, wealthiest neighborhood in the area]."

Nina said she was at a loss for words. But when she told our principal, she didn't pause for a second. "Good," she said. "Let them go to another school. We don't want them." We all knew what the code stood for. "Kids from our neighborhood" means kids like us -- white kids.


  1. Oy.

    Remind me to tell you about a conversation (positive) that I had with a family member before school started a couple of years ago. It did bring up some interesting things about the different neighborhood communities that our school serves...

  2. I have mixed feelings about this. What tends to happen in New York, where most schools are neighborhood schools, is that affluent parents discover a good school, move to the neighborhood in droves, the rents go up, and suddenly the school is 90% white. It can happen so fast that the fifth grade classes and kindergarten classes look totally different. I think it's wonderful to see an amazing, successful school like yours continue to have mostly black, mostly poor children - they are the ones who need the excellent education most. I can also empathize to a certain extent with a parent who doesn't want their child to be the only one of a certain race in the classroom; I think it is important for children to be friends with some kids who look different and some kids who look the same as they do. On the other hand, attitudes like this are clearly perpetuating the segregation of our schools, and the majority of schools would certainly benefit if rich parents would send their kids to black schools.

  3. Interesting points, Alicia. It's true at my school the we tend to have a quick reaction to a comment like that, and there are of course many things going on in that conversation about "kids like us." I hadn't thought about the scenario you describe, where a school gets kind of taken over and drastically changed by affluent parents moving in. I think my school is pretty well-protected from that particular fate because of our commitment to serve primarily African-American and Latino students in the city. I think we won't let anything get in the way of that mission, and so far we have been successful in that.

    And yes, it takes a particular kind of parent, willing to make a specific kind of commitment, to send their children to a school where they are one of the only white children. I have taught a good number of these families, who send their kids to us because they believe that there is great value to their child in being in a school with kids who look different from them and act different from them -- who can bring to them a new way of thinking and interacting with the world. When one of your primary goals in educating your child is that he or she benefit from the accumulated wisdom of many cultures and backgrounds, in an environment where we work together across difference and challenge each other to be honest and direct, you might well send your child to my school, even if she will be the only white child in her class. I haven't personally seen children who seemed to suffer from that scenario, at least not in the early years. I have absolutely seen students benefit from it.

    Families are also told up front that in our school we talk openly about race, and if they are not ready or interested in those conversations, they should find a school that fits them better. So they know that coming in.

    There is so much more to say about this topic. I have a mental post, that has not yet left my brain for the computer screen, about different parts of New England I visited this summer, what they are like, and what they make me think about the kind of place I want to live. It all links back to schools and diversity, really. So stay tuned.