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Episode 5 of 5

5: ‘We Know It When We See It’

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station description If you want to understand what’s wrong with our public schools, you have to look at... read more
Nice White Parents
Duration: 52:22
This episode contains strong language.Chana has traced the history of the school from its founding and come to the present. But now: One unexpected last chapter. Last year, the school district for BHS mandated a change in the zoning process to ensure all of middle schools will be racially integrated
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This episode contains strong language.Chana has traced the history of the school from its founding and come to the present. But now: One unexpected last chapter. Last year, the school district for BHS mandated a change in the zoning process to ensure all of middle schools will be racially integrated. No longer can white families hoard resources in a few select schools. Black and Latino parents have been demanding this change since the late 1950s. The courts have mandated it. Chana asks: How did this happen? And is this a blueprint for real, systemic change?
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something actually changed here. Instead of trying to solve their individual problems, the women from PMS focused all of their attention on the system that created those problems and on solutions that would benefit all kids. These women surprised me. Miriam surprised me. By the time I got to the end of my interview with her, I was listing other places where attempts that desegregation had failed, scrolling through my pessimism. But here was Miriam sitting across from me, and her efforts hadn't failed, at least not yet. Let's get back to you, though, because you I feel like you are meeting my deep cynicism with a lot of optimistic this'll do with my free time. I floated the notion with Miriam that maybe she created a model other white parents could follow in other district's other cities. But Miriam Bubbly can do. Miriam Nunberg was suddenly all well. This was a unique set of circumstances, and I don't know if it's that easy to replicate, she said. It really helped that In this case. The system was clearly no longer working for advantaged parents either. So had it not become so competitive to get into the Big Three, do you think there would be an integration process? I don't know. I don't I mean, I don't think just in sort of telling my own story for how I came to it, I don't think I would have seen an opening, because there isn't that also that that problem that everybody faces. Poor families Families of color were shut out of the top schools in District 15 for decades, but this was not a problem for advantage, parents Mary Miss saying It's on Lee One white and privileged families began to be shut out to that. They became open to change. A legal scholar and civil rights advocate named Derrick Bell came up with this term interest convergence. He believed that the only times we ever see an expansion of rights for black Americans is when white Americans benefit when interest converge. White Americans don't see something in it for themselves. Nothing changes I'd wanted so badly to find something instructive in this one example where things actually changed something. But Miriam kept saying this just might not work in other situations. So there's like no larger take away about the possibility of integration. I mean, I like to think there is. I would love it if we started this tidal wave. Um, and I think that we've made it acceptable. We've brought it, you know, this into the consciousness of this district for sure. But, like, will it necessarily will people who've bought into school zones are they going to give that up willingly? I don't know. I like to think that people are when you present this story to them in a powerful enough way that they're going to be responsive. But I do think you have to. They have to. If they're giving something up, they have to benefit from something. I like to think that if you present the story to them in a way that has, um, effect as well. Yeah, yeah, I think I was wanting something from Miriam that depending on who you are, you may be wanting from me right now how to guide, But what Miriam is saying is the Onley reason why parents supported the change in District 13 is because things have gotten so intense and so competitive that even the most advantage people were losing. How do you replicate that? Wait. Children are the minority in district 15 and in New York City, public schools and in American public schools. What about the interest of all the other parents who are not white or not advantaged? What about parents like Laura Espinosa, who did not especially care about diversity but care deeply about smaller class sizes? How does that happen? What about parents whose primary concern is better reading instruction or better special ed services or sports programs or functioning air conditioning in their kids classrooms? How come we have equitable schools if our public institutions will Onley respond to these demands if they happen to align with the interests of white parents? When Derrick Bell coined the term interest convergence, what's interesting to me is he pointed to Brown versus Board of Education. He argued the unanimous ruling was possible because the government saw segregation as harming America's interests abroad. The country was trying to fight communism and sell democracy, liberty and justice for all. But the whole segregation thing was making us look bad. In some ways. I think this is what happened with Miriam. Miriam began with a material interest in getting your kid into a good school, but then she developed a new self interest. She didn't wanna be complicit in segregation. She felt compromised by a system that made her into someone she did not want to be. I recognize that feeling its shape. E think we should listen to that shame because what it's telling us is that we can't have it both ways. Nice white parents can't grab every advantage for our own Children and also maintain our identities as good citizens who believe in equitable schools. Shame is telling us we have a choice. We can choose to hoard resource is and segregate ourselves and flee the moment things feel uncomfortable or we can choose to be the people we say we are. But we can't have both. We can choose to remember. The goal of public schools is not to cater only to us, to keep us happy, but to serve every child. We've never had that school system, but we could We could demand it, right? Not, But we should know it's within our power to help create it.
because they ignored the District 15 diversity plan As it unfolded, I was left having to backtrack to understand how this came about. I didn't even know who started it. Miriam Nunberg. That was the name I kept hearing, talked to Miriam. When I did, Miriam started telling me how she got involved in all this and I began to hear a very familiar story. Miriam is white. When her kids were little people on the playground started warning Miriam about middle school, telling her, You think choosing an elementary schools difficult? Just wait until you get to middle school. And it was funny how it was. It was like became a thing. It was People were so anxious about it that that it was like all you had to do was say, say, I'm looking for school for my kid and it was like, Oh my God, just wait. There are only three good middle schools. That's what everyone would say. What wait? People would say that's who Miriam was talking Thio. People call them the Big Three. District 15 actually had 15 middle schools but white parents if there aren't enough middle schools, because that's what everybody said was there on Lee. Three good middle schools. And so I thought, Oh, well, we need another middle school. Let's start one because at that point it was jobs. Jobs. Did you create another? Yeah. Before her older child even entered kindergarten, Miriam began making plans for a new middle school. Exactly what Judie Aronson had done 20 years earlier when she dreamed up the school for Global Studies in 2007, Miriam would be at the park in the coffee shop. I just would start talking to people like, Hey, let's start school. You wanna help me? People throughout ideas? What about an urban gardening school project base camping the outdoors? We could call it the School of Natural Literacy on. I was like, Oh my God, that's perfect. Let's do it. They put together a planning committee. Justus Judie Aronson had developed division for the school. We were really committed to being as diverse as possible. Was the Planning Committee diverse? Not very. A little bit, definitely predominately white, for sure. They wrote up a proposal, decided to make it a charter school that have more control. They asked the city for approval. It happened with it happened once we put in the application. That happened the first time around, which we were just astonished by not me. Not astonished. The city opened a new school because a group of white parents wanted it not astonished by any of this. But then Miriam went through a change that none of the way parents before her ever did. Best as I could tell, what happened was Miriam's view of the entire school system started to change. First she started attending middle school fares and information sessions in District 15. She's trying to drum up parent interest in her new school. Miriam is a lawyer by profession, not just a lawyer. She was a lawyer for the U. S. Department of Education in the Office for Civil Rights. She says everything she saw at thes middle school events, how the school selected students sounded her civil rights alarm bells like there was a principle of one of the middle schools, one of the selected ones who said, Well screened for nice. We look for nice kids, you know, and I'm like, Oh my God, this is This is so discriminatory. How do you define nice? How could you possibly not have some sort of, you know, cultural bias in your brain when you were deciding that one kid is nice and another kid isn't, um there was another time when, um, for one of the schools that interviewed the um, parent coordinator was asked, Well, what are you looking for in these interviews? And she said, I can't tell you, but we know it when we see it. We know it when we see it. These were public schools. Miriam couldn't believe this is how it worked. Every school had its own complex and ever changing criteria for admission. Some looked attendance and required auditions, interviews, portfolios for 10 year olds. It seemed outrageous and, she thought, likely violated students civil rights. Then, in 2014, Miriam son didn't get into the Big Three. He also didn't want a spot in the school his mom created, but he didn't want to go there Anyway. Miriam son wanted to go where all his friends were going. When he didn't get in, he was devastated. Miriam was devastated, too. Miriam began connecting with the many other way parents who found themselves in the same situation, left out of the big 31 of them was Amelia Costigan. Her twin sons were ejected from the Big Three. The same year is Miriam and Amelia told me as soon as it happened, we all went online that anyone else not get your choice. Or was anybody else going to X school or that school? Or is there any way to appeal? I mean, people were slowly coming out, and, um, we sort of all connected a group of us, a group of mostly white parents who had not gotten their choice of mostly white schools, meeting in private Google groups and list serves. I do believe Google groups are the most underappreciated tool for maintaining school segregation. Anyway, Miriam and Amelia found each other and some other parents and began doing all the things White Advantage Parents dio making phone calls to principles, sharing tips on how to appeal, who to talk Thio. And somewhere in that process, both of them began having doubts. Miriam told me it seems like her efforts to circumvent her school assignment. We're probably gonna work like maybe she could get her son into the most sought after school that made her question herself and the power she had. I was told that, you know, different people could pull strings for me, And it was that two people who were high level at my kids school and and other high level people in our district, um, had said to me like, I could probably get you in if you know, it's like, Well, how is that okay again? She thought, This is how it works. Amelia had a similar experience the summer before sixth grade. Her twins got off the waiting list for one of the big three, just by luck. Initially, Amelia was thrilled, she says. Her first thought was, We won. And then she stopped herself. And I started to think about why I had been so like, self absorbed about my own family. And and I don't think about the bigger picture like, What does that mean for all the kids of color? We? What made you do that seems like a really big leap. How did you make that transition? Well, it's almost like, you know, you just kind of lose your path in life. And I think I just lost what? What? What was important to me and then, you know, once I won. I started to realize this is really fucked up. You know, like, this is what I got. I mean, it is It is a wonderful school. And I was glad that my Children were ableto have that. But then it was like, What does that mean? Amelia got stuck on that word. Winning she won disturbed her. If her kids one someone else's Children, lost somebody else. Is that really the you know, like I want For Miriam, it was another word. In 2014 year, her son and Amelia son started middle school. A report came out from the U. C. L. A civil rights project, and it made huge news. It looked at segregation in American schools. 60 years after Brown versus Board of Education, it found public school students are increasingly isolated by race and class. This trend was particularly pronounced in liberal states, the very worst being. New York New York state, the report declared, had the most segregated school system in the country. Segregation. That's what Miriam was a part of. It was like, Oh my God, this is exactly the issue, like was really like a light bulb went off like Well, why is New York City so segregated? And we'll look at our district. This is system wide. Why do you think it took you until then to think about segregation? I don't know, but I It's just like when you literally day one of fifth grade on the playground, people are just going crazy. Like, have you started touring schools? You know where you're going to rank? Are you gonna look at anything other than the big Three schools and and all of this buzz, right? And then, inevitably, it comes up that well, that's cool. You know, I went and looked at, um, Brooklyn Collaborative. And then somebody would say, But there aren't any way kids there. People talked blatantly. An explicit racial terms about schools. But to Miriam, this hadn't felt like segregation until it was attached to the word segregation. Oh,
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