The new segregation: How can we have racial harmony when our kids go to separate schools?

(This article was originally posted on Click here to see more content on parenting, race, and education.)

Years after Brown vs. Board of Education, are schools remain as segregated as ever.

It’s time to talk about integrating our schools. How can we have racial harmony when most of our kids go to racially-isolated schools?

This is especially disheartening when we look at racial segregation in ethnically diverse cities like San Francisco which has the third highest percentage of students in private schools nationally, and the highest rate in California. (These schools are predominantly White and Asian and full of middle-upper income kids.)

Parents talk a lot about “school choice” these days. I have come to understand that in many cases this translates to the choice to self-segregate. If White folks (and affluent Asians) truly value diversity, and want to teach their children to value kids from ALL backgrounds, they need to stop investing in “separate and unequal” schooling systems like charters, private and tracked “gifted” programs.

We Create Schools in Our Own Image

As parents we have to stop blaming “the district” or “failing schools” or “the lottery” and start taking responsibility for creating the change we’d like to see in our schools.

As another San Francisco parent, Julie Phung, writes:

“Parents are busy, so we use shortcuts to help us make sense of the 110+ school choices we have in our city. Unfortunately, the most common shortcuts we use feed into patterns of segregation and make us miss really great schools that might be the best option for our kids.”

[Read the whole post: “Segregation and the Best San Francisco Schools You’ve Never Heard Of”]

Many parents unwittingly perpetuate segregation in our schools. We do this in many ways. We look for schools with other parents that “look like us” and our kids. We choose schools based on GreatSchools ratings (read: test scores), we choose schools based on recommendations from our existing social networks. Thus, affluent parents end up choosing schools with children of affluent parents. Spanish-speaking parents choose schools full of Spanish-speaking students. Second and third generation Asian-American families choose schools with second and third-generation Asian-American families.

It makes sense that we seek comfort in numbers. But is it really good for our kids? Is it good for our society as a whole?

I and many other families I’ve talked to don’t think so.

As researchers like Angelo Ancheta from Harvard’s Civil Rights project have found, this doesn’t just hurt Black and Brown students:

“We often forget that white students attend some of the most segregated schools in the country, and while those students often have great educational advantages, they are also deprived of the personal contact and learning that come with attending racially integrated schools,”

As a college educated, mixed-race parent (who identifies Black) in a largely low-income Chinese-speaking school, I have felt blessed that being a part of our school has allowed my family to expand its experience beyond our cultural comfort zone. My girls and I have learned a lot about Chinese culture. We’ve also gained an understanding of the challenges many low-income and immigrant families face. For example: Attending a parent meeting held primarily in Chinese, and where interpretation is FOR ME in English, has given me empathy for the heroic effort of families attending school meeting held mainly in English. This experience has made me more proactive about removing language barriers for Spanish and Chinese-speaking families at school events.

Direct experience is not something you can come by just through reading diverse books. And you can’t instill the value of celebrating cultural differences, while at the same time only encouraging friendships with kids and parents who look like you.

Additionally, as members of an underrepresented racial group at our school (White and Black) I feel we’ve made great contributions to our community as well. Black families have started a small affinity group at our school. We are helping to create an even more inclusive school by asking questions and challenging the predominantly Asian-American culture there to more visibly celebrate and support African-American families and other underrepresented groups.

Nonetheless, the “answers” to achieving truly diverse and integrated schools are not simple. What works in one context may not work in another. Change at our school has not occurred immediately, rather it has been a process over time. It’s not always a comfortable process either. As arguments on parent email groups and list serves will confirm: we all want to feel welcome; we all like feeling like a part of a community. But how we invite involvement and create community happens very differently in different cultural groups.

Segregation and SF Public School Enrollment: What’s a family to do?

To that end, I’ll be exploring these questions over the next few months in this blog, and with my friends in the San Francisco Families’ Union. You can join us in the conversation as well at in upcoming event this Saturday, January 9th at 2:00 pm. (Download and share the flyer!)

Click the image to download a Pdf flyer to keep and share!

We would love for you to join the conversation. Come out on Saturday, January 9th to hear from education experts, parents and educators about what they look for in schools and how they think about meaningful school integration.

You Don’t Have to Freak Out!

I wrote a piece a while back for pre-k families called “Don’t Freak Out! Your Child Will Get Into a GREAT Public School!” It has gotten a lot of traffic since I posted it almost 6 years ago. Which shows there are a LOT of anxious parents out there looking for reassurance in a system that constantly tells families to be scared about our “failing” public schools.

In reality, my experience and the experience of thousands of SF public school parents has been overwhelmingly positive. In all the time since I posted this piece, the only families I have ever heard about who ended up unhappy with enrollment options were those who limited their acceptable choices to a small group of high-choice schools. Schools like: Clarendon, Claire Lillienthal, Sherman, Grattan, etc.

With over 70 elementary schools, there are a LOT more than 7 “good” elementary schools in our district.

SFUSD school applications are due January 15th, 2015. If you are like me and choose to apply to a few excellent schools in your neighborhood that is not “high choice” your search is done. You won’t have to worry about the lottery or having a private or charter school “back up”. You will be practically guaranteed a seat in a great public school!

If there are schools in your neighborhood that you’ve ruled out and haven’t toured yet, you still have time. In the fie rounds that you can go through during the school application process, you can add those schools to your list as well.

Join the Conversation

Don’t just add schools to your list, join the conversation! Start your year off right and come out this Saturday, January 9th if you are…

  • Tired of listening to the depressing (and untrue!) narrative of “only a few good schools”.
  • Interested in being a part of a larger community of parents, guardians and caregivers of all races who care about integration and raising kids who are culturally aware and equity centered.
  • Searching for ways to “join and not gentrify” a great public school in your neighborhood.
  • Curious to hear from other parents and educators who have great stories to share about the amazing work going on in some of our often over-looked neighborhood schools.

Please share this post with other families who may be interested and I look forward to meeting you there!

What do you think? Does any of this make sense to you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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