It was quite a feat to listen to this podcast without screaming out loud in agreement. To listen to a situation, in a public school, that mirrored my 2018 school year experience was startling, but it was also crazy of me to think that the ” Nice White Parents ” situation was unique in any way.
A little backstory, This American Life had a podcast come out this week titled Nice White Parents. Chana Joffe-Walt, reports on a situation that happened in 2015 at The school of Intentional Studies in Brooklyn, NY.
To sum up the podcast…
Many White families in Brooklyn were having a hard time finding a “proper” middle school for their children. As many NYC families know, spots are limited at highly prestigious schools and White parents had deemed the surrounding public schools inadequate. With no where to go, a group of White parents decided to reach out to a nearby middle school. At the time, the school consisted of mostly Latino, Black, and Middle Eastern students. Within the next year, more than 70 new students were accepted to the incoming 6th grade class, all reliant on a parent-principal agreement about a new dual-language French program for students.
This large shift created waves within the community and PTA. Many Black and Latinx parents felt that the school was changing in ways that were damaging to the surrounding community. White families began to make school-wide decisions on how money should be spent. They would meet privately about money they had raised for their kids and their dual-language program. To put it lightly, many veteran parents felt steamrolled.
The most infuriating part of this story, for me, came during the fundraiser for the school. The fundraiser, that was to be held at the school for families and children, quickly evolved into a “gala” on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. During the gala, a bilingual French woman, clearly disconnected from reality and the public school system itself, began speaking with a Latina PTA parent about the importance of being bilingual. She condescendingly explains that knowing another language is your ticket to connecting with different cultures and that she enjoys speaking with French locals in the grocery store and laundromat on her yearly adventures to France.
This conversation is cringe-city, and within a few sentences, she completely encapsulates the problems at large- white privilege and racism. Certain cultures and languages are not as valued in American society as others, and it may be looked at as disadvantageous to study Spanish. She is clearly speaking to a Latina woman who is bilingual, but is oblivious to it, or doesn’t deem knowing Spanish as valuable. For me, the podcast comes together in this moment, with a whirlwind of cognitive dissonance. This woman believes being bilingual is good, but not when you’re poor and it’s Spanish.
This situation is not unique, it happened in my Brooklyn public school too.
In 2018, I was hired to teach music at a Public School in Bushwick. In my interview, my principal talked through underlying issues that the school was facing. “Our school is becoming gentrified, we live in a community that is being gentrified.” Basically, a Japanese Dual- Language program had started 4 years prior, and the first “dual-language class” was now in 3rd grade. She explained that the families were disconnected, and at times, didn’t communicate well. She wanted to brainstorm possible solutions for families, the PTA and the school.
It was clear, after teaching for a month or two, that the school was segregated in itself. From 3rd grade down, white and Asian kids made up half of the population. In 4th and 5th grade, the students were Black or Latinx. As the music teacher, I saw the clear divide as I taught the entire school.
Here are the main issues I saw at my newly gentrified school:
- The classes were segregated within the school.
The Japanese dual-language program students were almost entirely White and Asian, so the “general ed” classes were almost 100% Black and Brown. I felt that the school had missed an opportunity to integrate the students and motivate all families to connect with the dual-language program.
- Class sizes were not balanced.
The dual-language program classes, for the most part, had more manageable class sizes, therefore the “general ed” classes were overcrowded, and had up to 32 kids at a time.
- Students of color were disproportionately affected.
It was harder to create relationships and support students that needed it most. Because of the larger class sizes, it was harder to create relationships with every student on a consistent basis. (Remember, I was the music teacher and saw them 1-2 times a week.) In the larger classes, I found that many students were asking for connection and relationships through their interruptions or indignation, but it was sometimes impossible with 32 kids.
- Classroom management was more difficult in my over-crowded classes.
This is not to say I didn’t enjoy working with all my students, I did. I loved them all, but it made me angry to see my Black and Latinx students clearly struggling more in school than my White and Asian students because of choices made by my administration and, of course, lack of funding in our schools to support students of color.
And yes, you guessed it, my whiter classes were easier. The kids would quiet down when I told them to because the classes were smaller. Also, their parents have more agency and resources in society and the majority of the dual-language parents had more time, money and resources than my other students parents did.
- Speaking Spanish was not as encouraged or as valued as Japanese was.
Every morning at our school, the faculty, staff and students would say “Good Morning, Buenos Dias, Ohayōgozaimasu”. My old principal was a Latina woman and clearly proud of all the different languages and diversity that was in our school, but outside of this, it didn’t seem like Spanish was highly valued. To me, it seemed like the Dual-Language kids thought they were better or more important than the “general ed” kids, and it was reemphasized again and again.
Of course, we had a diversity festival where students learned and performed Salsa and Bachata. Families brought in traditional dishes. It was an amazing event! But on a day-to-day basis, Latino culture was not emphasized or valued as much as Japanese was, even though we were a block away from “Puerto Rican Avenue”. My Spanish speaking students went to ESL classes to work on their English but the White and Asian students were told their native language, English, was valuable with the added support for their developing second language. The message seemed to be “being bilingual is sophisticated, but not if you speak Spanish and live in poverty.”
There were other problems in the school I haven’t mentioned. There were differences in opinion with the PTA. Disagreements about what snacks to sell at bake-sales, or what events to have for the children. Overall, I feel that an opportunity was missed. This was, after-all, the most diverse school I had ever worked at. I have regrets about leaving. Maybe if I stayed I could have done something. I wish I knew then what I know now.
Some questions and thoughts:
- How can we educate white families to not “steam roll” over families that have lived in the community forever?
I understand that everyone wants the best for their kids. If your family has resources and money, why wouldn’t you try and help? It’s understandable. The problem is with the type of help. The money and resources are only helping white kids. The money is perpetuating “whiteness” instead of contributing to a community equally.
- Why would a Latinx or Black principal say yes to a program like this?
Because getting funding is fucking impossible. Public schools barely have enough to pay their teachers and para-professionals. Having White parents typically means having more support, resources, time and action for the school. Basically, schools need more funding. Sometimes, these added programs are created out of desperation.
- How do you make a equitable program supported by the connected community? How can we get away from relying on white power and money? How can we enable schools to have multiple income streams to benefit their own communities?
Reach out to the student population and the communities they live in. How do they want to see their community grow? What could be better? What do they want for the young people of the community? This may be the first step in understanding what would be supported. What I know for sure is that teachers and parents need to make it their mission to engage with the surrounding neighborhoods. It may be difficult because of work hours and schedules, but this needs to be a priority.
- Why didn’t they pick Spanish for the dual-language program?
I started thinking about the function of whiteness and privilege. How sometimes schools can’t avoid saying “no” to additional money and resources.
I started thinking about how to encourage a dual language program that represents the community. A program that is driven by the community is more meaningful than a program pushed by someones privileged agenda.
White privilege is the larger problem here. White people typically feel empowered to take action without asking. They believe that they can make a difference. We tend to say “how can we use this privilege for good?”, but white people need to understand that this is not a way to dismantle racist structures. Society doesn’t need another “white savior”. White people need to give up the power they hold and listen to their communities. We need to be sure we are truly listening and hearing each other.
Time to continue my research…
After listening to ” Nice White Parents “, I’m inspired to think about how one can create equitable programs. How can one connect with white, upper class families on these issues? How we can create school programs that support communities, not separate and disproportionately support the new white residents?
If you have had a similar experience, run an equitable dual-language program, or have any suggestions on how to do so, please reach out to me. You can find me on Instagram or email me at [email protected] !