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Nice white parents is brought to you by several productions, a New York Times company.
From serial productions iconography, Walt, this is Nice White Parents, a series about the 60 year relationship between white parents and the public school down the block, a series that was meant to be told in four episodes.
And yet I'm still talking. I never expected to make a fifth episode. I had already gone back to the beginning of the school and all the way through the present day, 60 years in one building, I felt like I'd seen all the various ways nice white parents will participate in public education and the limits of that participation. I understood that nice white parents might opt in to certain integrated schools under certain circumstances, but they we we're not going to make way for a fully integrated, equitable school system because an equitable school system would likely mean the schools our kids go to would get less money, not more.
Our kids might get less access to the most experienced teachers and the best facilities. So, of course, we were not going to make way for that and nobody was going to force us. Way parents will stand in the way of truly equal schools, the end. That's how I plan to end this. I mean, let's keep trying, but basically the end. Have a nice day. But then something big happened in the very same school system I'd been looking at for years, New York City is broken up into a bunch of school districts.
The school I've been focusing on is 293 Nathan Hale s, I guess, because whatever you want to call it, that school is in District 15. And just recently after I finished my reporting, District 15 rolled out a diversity plan to integrate its schools. And it was a real plan not just for a few curated schools, but every single middle school in this one district that on its own is larger than the entire school system of St. Louis. This new diversity plan upended middle school admissions, replaced the old system with one that would break up racial segregation in concentrations of wealth and poverty, would commit all the schools to the kind of anti-racism initiatives they had in place at Viejas and actually integrate the schools, all of them.
I confess I completely missed this when it happened two years ago in twenty eighteen, when I started to see fliers for meetings to talk about a new diversity plan, I waved it off. Such were the depths of my own cynicism. Over the years I was reporting this story. A growing number of white people in the district and across the city were starting to talk about school segregation, school inequality, framing discussion groups and book groups.
But I was skeptical any of that would turn into action. So then Flyer's meetings a diversity plan. I just thought more people talking about diversity.
I never expected an overhaul, a large scale plan that would address the problems I'd seen persist in this district for half a century, one that seemed to go through without any huge raucous battle or protests or boycotts.
How they pull this off? Could this be a model for school systems across the country? 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 talk 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 school is 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 white people would say. That's who Miriam was talking to. People called them the big three sisters, 15 actually had 15 middle schools.
But white parents, if there aren't enough middle schools, because that's what everybody said was their only 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 joke. Why did you create. And I did, yeah.
Before her older child even entered kindergarten, Miriam began making plans for a new middle school, exactly what Judy Aronson had done 20 years earlier when she dreamed up the School for Global Studies. In 2007, Miriam would be at the park or in the coffee shop. I just would start talking to people like, Hey, let's start a school. You want to tell me? People threw out ideas. What about an urban gardening school project based camping the outdoors?
We could call it the School of Natural Literacy.
And I was like, oh, my God, that's perfect. Let's do it.
They put together a planning committee just as Judy Aronson had developed a vision for the school. We were really committed to being as diverse as possible.
Was the planning committee diverse? Not very. A little bit.
Definitely. Predominantly white for sure. They wrote up a proposal, decided to make it a charter school. They'd have more control. They asked the city for approval. It happened with it.
It happened once. We have put in the application. It 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 white parents before her ever did, best as I can tell, what happened was Miriam's view of the entire school system started to change. First, she started attending middle school fairs and information sessions in District 15, she 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 these middle school events, how the school selected students sounded her civil rights alarm bells like there was a principal of one of the middle schools, one of the selective ones who said, we'll screen 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 cultural bias in your brain when you were deciding that one kid is nice and another kid isn't?
There was another time when for one of the schools that interviewed the 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. Marum couldn't believe this is how it worked.
Every school had its own complex and ever changing criteria for admission. Some looked at attendance and required auditions, interviews, portfolios for 10 year olds. It seemed outrageous and she thought likely violated student civil rights.
Then in 2014, Miriam son didn't get into the big three. He also didn't win a spot in the school his mom created, but he didn't want to go there anyway. Miriam's 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 white parents who found themselves in the same situation left out of the Big Three.
One of them was Amelia Kosygin. Her twin sons were ejected from the Big Three the same year as Miriam. And Amelia told me.
As soon as it happened, we all went online to anyone else not get your choice or was anybody else going to school or that school or is there any way to appeal?
I mean, people were slowly coming out and 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 listservs. 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 advantaged parents do, making phone calls to principals, sharing tips on how to appeal, who to talk to.
And somewhere in that process, both of them began having doubts, Miriam told me.
It seems like her efforts to circumvent her school assignment were probably going to 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 says that to you people who were high level and at my kids' school and and other high level people in our district had said to me, like, I could probably get you in if, you know, it's like, well, how is that OK?
Again, she thought, this is how it works. Amelia had a similar experience the summer before 6th 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 self-absorbed about my own family. And and I just think about the bigger picture. Like, what did that mean for all the kids of color?
We weren't the means used. 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 it is a wonderful school that I was glad that my children were able to 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 won someone else's children, we lost somebody else.
Is that really the you know, like, I. I won. For Miriam, it was another word. In 2014, the year her son and Amelia's son started middle school. A report came out from the UCLA Civil Rights Project and it made huge news. It looked at segregation in American schools 60 years after Brown vs. Board of Education. If 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 it was really like a light bulb went off like, well, why is New York City so segregated? And, well, 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, 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 are you going to rank? Are you going to 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 Brooklyn Collaborative and then somebody would say, but there aren't any white kids there.
People talked blatantly and explicit racial terms about schools. But to Miriam, this hadn't felt like segregation until it was attached to the word segregation. In my experience, part of being a white parent is rarely being asked to account for what we have or how we got it, rarely being treated as a demographic. So no one questions our investment in our children's education. No one blames our culture, who we are as people for our educational shortcomings. No one writes research papers that call us a, quote, hard to reach population or lacking in college bound mindset.
White parents get to be individuals making rational, thoughtful choices.
We aren't forced to consider all the ways we act as a group. So for a long time, Miriam didn't. Even though Miriam is a civil rights lawyer, even though she created a school and knew the way middle school admissions work better than most people do. Even though she was part of the public school system, she couldn't see what was right in front of her until the word segregation was lifted out of 1950s Alabama and stamped onto her life. And then she could.
A million Miriam joined forces with a few other advantage moms for majority white schools to create an organization called the District 15 Parents for Middle School Equity, PMSE PMS's. It was unintentional, but they embraced it. PM has demanded the district deal with two problems the stress of middle school admissions and the segregation it created. RPM's wanted a new admissions process. In 2014 2015, RPM's wielded their power. They took their complaints directly to the most powerful people in the school system.
They got meetings with the District 15 superintendent, the city council person and the deputy schools chancellor for all of New York City. And then, quite unexpectedly to me at least, they were shut down. The PMS moms were told most people like the system as it is.
They like having school choice. So the women presented results from a survey they'd sent around showing parents did oppose the current system. The district superintendent looked at it and said, How do I know these aren't all parents from the same neighborhood? There are no zip codes or addresses. So Amelia, the mom who felt weird about winning a spot for her twin boys, said, we did the survey again.
We had two social scientists review it to make sure, like, OK, we're going to do this right. So that we, you know, can't be told that we don't you know, we didn't do it right. And so we got over 450 signatures and we made sure that we got, you know, every part of the district.
They presented it again to Department of Ed officials.
You know, we got very lukewarm response and some eye rolls. They asked if we had done it in Spanish, which we had, and they asked if we had done it in Mandarin, which we had not. And then they kind of pooh poohed it and that we thought they thought that was the end of it, but it wasn't.
At this point, your kid is in one of the winning schools, right? Like, what do you care at this point?
Yeah, I know. I well, as I said, I felt a responsibility because at this point I didn't have any younger kids coming up. I mean, I was done with the whole middle school thing, so I was just kind of like, what the hell are you people doing? Uh huh, why aren't you doing anything? Why do you think they weren't doing anything?
I think it's because, you know, I think a bureaucracy, you just get comfortable. You know, it's going to be a big headache to make a change. I think fear I think people are close to retirement ages. And I do believe, you know, it was obviously set up to to keep white families in Brooklyn.
And you just got you're the superintendent. Why weren't you doing anything? But we were doing things.
District Fifteen Superintendent Anita Skop told me they were not ignoring this problem. She says from the moment she started the job eleven years ago, she understood that the way they started kids into middle school was, quote, morally wrong. She told me she was making changes. For instance, she told her principals that they needed to stop considering letters of recommendation the parents would solicit from scout leaders and pastors on behalf of their ten year olds, superintendents, guptill, their principals.
You can't look at those when choosing who to admit.
That doesn't mean parents didn't send them any way. But we chipped away at that. We did away with the tour preference.
We said meaning if you go on a tour, you get preference for admission. And you said you can't do that anymore. Can't do that anymore. Why didn't you just get rid of the process?
So first of all, it's not my decision to get rid of the process. This has to be approved by the chancellor and. We ask to get rid of the process we went through to chancellors in this, and we have a lot of parents who vehemently did not want to get rid of the process.
I have been reading the words of New York City schools, chancellors and board of education officials and speeches and quotes and reports going all the way back to the 1950s. But this is the first time I had actually sat with one and finally got to ask why not act on segregation? Anita Skop opposes segregation board officials half a century ago opposed segregation, and yet segregation persists. But Anita Scott did say something I hadn't heard from a New York City education official before, she said she recognized these women.
It is a piece of privilege to think that because you have a plan and you have an idea that that's what should be implemented immediately, if not sooner, and saying, well, we think this is a good idea and therefore do it. And that was kind of my response to that.
She wasn't going to jump because they said so. She wasn't sure there was widespread support for a major overhaul of the middle schools.
When you come to a district that has thirty one thousand kids and you say you've you've surveyed 475 people or something like that. Yeah, I don't think it's a really great survey, and I also didn't know how the survey was done, and so it isn't that I pooh poohed it, I just did not see it as credible, as valid and reliable.
It's the same thing when you deal with gifted and talented. It's the same thing when you deal with specialized high schools. They were parents who were adamantly for this and their parents who are adamantly against it.
And you are against it. You thought it was morally wrong?
I thought it was morally wrong and I still do. And it wasn't about me making a decision and putting it on people. It wasn't about a small group making a decision, putting it on people. It was about canvasing as many people as humanly possible within our district to hear what the district wanted. That's what I see my role as.
I think this is where I'm getting Hopp youth. You thought it was morally wrong.
And if you're in charge of a district, I mean, if kids start bringing some new weapon you've never heard of to school and you think it's harming kids, you just ban the weapon. You don't canvass the community. And it doesn't work like that. In New York City. In New York City, we are under the chancellor and the chancellor would be the one banning the weapon. And I would reach out to the safety office. This is a concern and they would make a decision.
So did you do that on this issue?
We talked a lot with the enrollment office about what we can do.
We talked a lot about how can we change this process so that ultimately we would do something with the approval of the central office.
But in twenty fifteen, the central office of the Department of Education was not interested in putting forward desegregation plans. Word from Central was any diversity plans would have to arise, quote, organically from local communities. This was especially frustrating to the PM's women who felt like here we are, we're organic. They told me they saw Anita Skop as the main obstacle to change. They didn't believe she was pushing this agenda with the higher ups. I understood being frustrated at a passive Department of Education, especially given the history of the DOJ.
But I was also curious about Anita Scarps frustration with these women. PMS was a group of mostly white moms, white moms who are saying they wanted to undo segregation. But did they actually care about segregation or were they just saying they did because they couldn't cram all their white kids into the same three schools anymore? I asked Miriam Nunberg about this and she said it came up all the time.
When they talk, the question of how much do we focus on actually integrating the schools was really like a huge part of sort of our own internal debates. Who are we? What's our motivation? What are we looking for?
So like is this about segregation or is this about a bad process that happens to cause segregation? When you look at them?
Actually, are we going to use the segregation to kind of motivate change in something when we're actually motivated by changing the process? And segregation is just sort of a cover to get the thing that we want cynical.
I mean, I think I come to my cynicism from history point of.
But yeah, well, people people would be like, so you're a bunch of white women, you know, sort of arguing for school desegregation, like, who are you and why? And so we kept sort of that was our debate all the time. Like, should we stop until we can diversify our group?
Yes. They decided, yes, they should try to diversify their group.
And it was just a catastrophe. That's coming up after the break. Support comes from better help online counseling, better help offers licensed counselors who specialize in issues including depression and anxiety, as well as relationships, trauma, anger and more, you can connect privately with a counselor through text chat, phone or video calls, and you'll get help on your own time, at your own pace and at an affordable rate for a special offer. Visit better help dotcom parents.
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This is Monica Drake, assistant managing editor at The New York Times. We are living through a moment of global uncertainty with life changing so quickly. We know that journalism quality, well sourced, fact checked journalism can play a crucial role in helping us navigate it all. We're reporting on the virus for more than 20 countries, providing live updates and answering pressing questions. Our journalists are writing about how the pandemic has intensified racial inequalities in America and are following protests against police violence, which have become a global civil rights movement.
Across our newsroom, our colleagues are also thinking about how we can adapt to the new demands of daily life as we seek new ways to find joy coverage. This comprehensive would be impossible to accomplish without our subscribers. If you'd like to subscribe, go to NY Times Dotcom Subscribe. Something I've noticed about white parents who want to create change in schools is often they only talk to other white parents because that's who they know, even if they live in New York City, where the vast majority of public school families are not white, white parents talk to white parents.
It was true in 2015 with Rob Hansen and the parents of ISIS who created the dual language French program. It was true with Judy Aronson in 1994 when she came up with the School for Global Studies all the way back to the white parents in 1963 who decided where I is to 93 was built supposedly so it could be integrated. White parents talked to other white parents and come up with improvement plans for schools populated by mostly black and brown students. But RPM's, they actually recognized that this was a problem and they wanted to fix it, they wanted to be working with parents of color.
So they started showing up a majority black and Latino schools with stacks of flyers at school meetings and at school drop off.
This didn't go well.
Amelia says they got either disinterest or vague interest from a distance.
You know, just people are like, oh, yeah, I believe in everything you do, but, oh, I really believe it. You guys do such great work. Keep at it. No, I don't have time.
They send out invitations to meetings, but their communication was all by email and in English in a district where 41 percent of the people speak a language other than English. At home, a white mom named Carrie MacLaren got connected to RPM's.
Kerry had her own Google group of white parents trying to push for equity in the schools, and she was running into similar problems. She'd reached out to parents of color, to school. She'd held meetings in black and brown neighborhoods in the district. But mostly her meetings were not well attended except one time, one meeting. Kerry says they got strong turnout. People of all different backgrounds showed up and sat in a room together.
And it's like, oh, gosh, you know, we we the three of us, the three white women who plan this have literally no idea what we were doing. We thought to have translated fliers, but we didn't have actual translators at the meeting and we didn't have a plan for making sure that it wasn't just people sitting next to each other grouping together so that, you know, we didn't have a plan really for having facilitate conversations. And we really had no we didn't know how to move forward without being a group of white people, which is not what we wanted to do.
It was easy to understand why black and Latino parents would be lukewarm to Kerry and RPM's or put off by their clumsy efforts. But there is another reason for a lot of parents of color, diversity was not their issue. One Latina mom, Laura Espinosa, told me for her, the most important problem was overcrowding in her neighborhoods, elementary schools, packed classrooms and school buildings. That is what mattered to her. She showed up at a meeting about creating more equity in District 15 schools, but she says the room was full of white people, professionals, and they spent the whole time talking about diversity.
They are saying, oh, they wanted to give opportunity for other kids, more equity, more diversity. So. I don't understand that that was a political me. Laura was confused because she was hearing white parents say they wanted their kids in schools that were diverse, but the schools in her neighborhood had almost no white students. The vast majority were Latino and Asian. And every morning she'd watched Latino kids leave her neighborhood to go to the white schools on the other side of the district.
But Laura never saw white kids come to her neighborhood. So that's why a little I don't I didn't understand that because some of the mistake that is speaking. But they are not looking. I see. So you're hearing white parents say we care about diversity, but then they don't actually seem to be doing the thing that they say they care about.
Yes, just saying that these not like I am. I was sitting there and I said, what are you doing here?
One of the main organizers for RPM's, alongside Amelia and Miriam, was a woman named Trayvon Martin, Rayhan said after months of lobbying parents of color about diversity and changing the middle schools, the protest leaders were starting to question that they knew what most parents wanted.
We thought we knew we we had no idea. And even at that point, we had no idea.
Do you actually think that the district superintendent was right, that you didn't know what you were talking about?
Yeah, she was right that we didn't know what we're talking about. But she was wrong, that she knew anything. We didn't know anything and she didn't know anything. So half of what she told us was right on the money.
PMAs determined actually it was not their job to speak for everyone to know what everyone wanted. But it was somebodies job. It was the job of the school district. Where were they in these neighborhoods? Why weren't they out serving everyone or listening to the priorities of all families? Here's Miriam.
We started to feel like, well, we were a small group. So what gives us the right to say, you know, this is what you should do? So I think we finally came to the decision that, like, if we weren't speaking for the whole district and we couldn't, then we didn't have we didn't see ourselves as kind of having the authority to ask for a specific solution any more than what was currently in place.
So we really felt like, well, you have to ask the community, you, the school district, have to do your job. Miriam and the other RPM's leaders finally realized they didn't have the moral authority or the actual authority to represent everyone in District 15. That authority rests with one institution only the Department of Education. So RPM's, stop trying to draw parents of color into their meetings with their agendas. They didn't forge ahead with misplaced confidence, nor did they disengage.
They pivoted. They focused all of their attention on shaming the Department of Education. RPM's stopped acting like pissed off customers and started acting like outraged citizens.
They settled on a multipronged political strategy. They pulled in supporters wherever they could. They connected to other groups that were pushing for integration citywide, redefined themselves as part of a larger movement. They weaponized a little known voting body in the district called the Community Education Council that had the power to approve zoning changes. They stacked it with allies. They thought about going the legal route. Remember Myriam's, a lawyer, but that would take too long. Instead, they went to the media again and again and they stayed on message.
Hey, Dewey, this is a problem and it's your job to fix it.
The very same thing a judge said to the very same school system in nineteen fifty eight when Mae Mallory saw the conditions in her kid's school in Harlem and sued.
By now, it was twenty seventeen, and suddenly Mayor Bill de Blasio found himself under tremendous pressure from advocates across the city from the UCLA report, calling the schools segregated from journalists, asking about it, from well-organized students of color, all pushing the mayor to do something about segregation. De Blasio was still saying that top down desegregation mandates were not feasible because of white resistance. At one point, he referenced angry white mobs protesting busing in his hometown of Boston in the 1970s.
I'm telling you, he said, history is on my side here. You do not want to create a series of conflicts. But now here was his opportunity, District 15 right there in Brooklyn, where a bunch of white parents were saying they wanted this. Superintendent Anita Scott got word from Central, the city was ready to create a new middle school admissions system in District 15. Anita Scott conceded in our interview this never would have happened without white advantaged parents lobbying for it, which is not how it should be.
But I appreciated her honesty.
So there was political will finally. Now, what if District 15 was going to scrap its current system? What was going to replace it? What did people want to see?
Pinkard remembers hearing that the GOP wanted to address the urgent problem of segregation.
I'm 51 years old and I'm like, are you kidding me? Like, this is nothing new.
Tracy grew up in the Gowanus Houses. She's black and is two ninety three graduate.
So people have now decided that they need to do something about this. Why now?
It wasn't hard to figure out that this all started with white parents. Tracy was skeptical about that. But more importantly, she didn't trust the Dowi, remember, this is the school district that undermined and neglected to 93 for years at the same time as it built a special gifted program for white kids, the same district that had allowed white parents to dominate school board meetings and public meetings and policy decisions. This stuff had gone on for as long as he could remember because many of the players that have been in place have been in place for a long time.
Mm hmm. So I just begin to kind of question like, what's what's happening now? Are we going to actually publicly acknowledge the fact that this has been an issue for how many years and how many how many families have suffered from this type of lack of diversity or resources in schools?
No, the Department of Education was not going to be acknowledging the harm that had been done for generations. It was simply saying, we want you involved. We want to hear your voices without having demonstrated a history of ever listening to those voices.
The we had no credibility and it seemed to know this.
The Deery had outsourced the whole District 15 community engagement process to a consulting firm and urban planning firm called Zwi, which told me when it went to do outreach, it went out of its way to emphasize that it was not the Dowi. The firm would be doing things differently than the Department of Education. Why I put together a working group from across the district, RPM's had one seat on the working group, the D, we got two seats and the other 13 seats went to teachers, principals, community advocates, parents and students, almost all people of color.
Then there was the problem of how to make sure advantaged white parents still didn't dominate the conversation, they had a solution for this, which basically boiled down to don't let them speak. The working group decided instead of public meetings where you put a mic in the aisle and people come up and yell or get booed or cheered by a crowd, they'd run workshops, control the conversation. Parents came to these workshops, sat at small tables and shared their experiences in district schools.
They talked about sending their kids to school sick so they wouldn't get a mark against their attendance. That might hurt their chances at a good middle school. They talked about preparing for auditions, emailing principals, calling in favors, private sessions with guidance counselors, tours in the middle of a workday, while other parents said they had no idea people were doing any of these things.
I wasn't at these workshops. Christina Vega, an excellent reporter who writes for an education news site called Chalk Feet, went to many of them. And she told me they were unlike anything she'd seen in city government before.
These were actual conversations at one table away, Dad said. But isn't it good that the system rewards working hard and merit a Latina mom responded. But does it reward merit? Doesn't it just reward access to resources?
If you audition for the performing arts school and your kid has been getting dance programming since she was three?
My kid never had that at her elementary school.
Christina, the reporter, says the workshops were thoughtful, was the first time she heard the word integration spoken in Spanish at a public meeting. Everyone wore simultaneous translation earpieces and it really didn't feel like English was the default language.
People learned things. Everyone got a chance to speak. They ate sandwiches. She felt like our democracy.
Wait, parents did not entirely dominate or derail these conversations. There was no angry opposition, no protesting, and that was thanks to careful planning and facilitation maybe or I heard another theory from a few people about why there wasn't more resistance from white parents at these workshops.
Right in the middle of the public meetings for District 15, a video of an angry white mom at a school meeting in Manhattan went viral. The video is of a parent at one of the city's whitest schools on the Upper West Side. And she's angry about a proposal that would have made more space for black and Latino kids at some of the most sought after middle schools in her neighborhood.
She was captured on local TV, New York one standing up and shouting at a city official. You're punishing 11 year olds for working hard.
You're telling them school. It's not going to educate you in the same way you've been educated. Your life sucks. Is that what do you want to say? Antonia Ferraro, a white member of the parent council in District 15, says she watched the video. Everyone she knew watched it.
When it came out, I said to my counsel, I said, we're not going to have any problem because nobody wants to be the white lady on the on Twitter. Do you think that actually did like that, Bay? Yeah, absolutely. Maybe that was it, liberal white fear of being seen as racists kept people in check. I mentioned this theory to a black member of the Dystrophin Working Group and parent council, a dad named Neil Zafrin.
Well, I don't think it checked people enough. You know, you don't know.
I mean, you still had, you know, parents that were well, you know, my my kid's going to suffer in the classroom and, you know, behavioral issues are going to occur. And, you know, the school academic standards is going to go down. And and to me, you know, I look at that as a code word, you know, code language, you know, and, you know, people were basically scared that, you know, their white kids were going to be in class and but other black kids, maybe more than one black kid, that's going to be like eight black kids as opposed to one black kid and one black kid in the class of twenty twenty five white students is palatable.
But you got eight. Wait, wait a second. So, yeah, you said some of the white people were still fully themselves. It's just that they weren't the only ones talking or being listened to. June twenty eighteen, after ten months of meetings, the District Working Group came up with a plan to desegregate middle schools, or rather, should I say, four years after Miriam and RPM's first asked for a district wide plan to address segregation. Fifty four years after thousands of black and Puerto Rican parents demanded a citywide plan to address segregation, and 64 years after Brown vs.
Board of Education ruled that school segregation across the entire country was unconstitutional. There was a plan in one New York City school district for 11 middle schools. The District 15 integration plan scrapped the current system. No more screening kids for test scores or attendance or for being nice. Middle school admission would proceed by lottery. Every parent would still get to rank their top choices, but every school would be required to offer 52 percent of its seats to kids who are poor, speak English as a second language, or live in temporary housing.
As part of the new plan, the district would expand anti-racism and anti bias training for administrators, staff, parents and students, create equity teams in schools, create more culturally responsive curriculum and hire more teachers of color all things that parents of color had pushed for during the workshop process.
As soon as the new plan was approved, there was pushback parents who hadn't been paying attention before began paying attention, and some of them were mad.
They demanded a slower timetable for rolling this out. So this all happened too fast. They hadn't been consulted and they needed more time to understand this new system. It was a lottery. The whole point was no gaming required, but parents found that hard to believe. The most consistent argument people made against the new lottery system was that it wasn't meritocratic, the old system was preferable because it rewarded kids for working hard. And isn't that what schools are supposed to do?
Cristina Vega, the education reporter for Cockpit, told me her news they got emails from parents, many of them anonymous, warning that the lottery sent the wrong message to students. One letter says just use the example of two white students, one of whom sacrificed to get to school on time every day, even while sick, the other who took vacations on school time, one who's well-behaved and works hard in school, the other who starts fights and bullies.
Other students, one who studied hours more to get good grades and the other didn't bother. Should they really both have the same shot at a seat in the school? For what it's worth, I believe the answer to this question is yes, I do believe that a nine year old who messed around in third grade is still entitled to the same opportunity in a public school as the nine year old who sat in her seat. I think this is what it means when we say each child is entitled to an equal public education.
Last fall, September twenty nineteen twenty two hundred children began sixth grade in District 15 middle schools, white families did not leave the school system. There was no mass exodus. The target for the new admissions plan in District 15 was for every middle school to serve a mix of vulnerable and advantaged students. Within five years.
There are 11 middle schools that first year, eight of them hit the city's target.
The new system will be in place this fall.
But as for what it will actually look like, who knows when I was anything? Will well-off parents stick with the city's public schools through a global pandemic, a budget crisis through half school, remote school or whatever is actually going to happen? I don't know. But sometime there will be real school again. And when there is, this will be the system for middle school admissions in the district.
It's not a fad. It's not easy to undo.
It's enshrined policy, a system that is more fair and more equal.
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 at desegregation had failed, scrolling through my pessimism. But here is 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 good stories. This is what I do in my free time.
I floated the notion with Miriam that maybe she'd created a model other white parents could follow in other districts, other cities.
But Miriam Bubley can do. Miriam Nunberg was suddenly. 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 advantaged parents, Miriam is saying, is only when 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 interests converge with white Americans don't see something in it for themselves, nothing changes.
I had 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 no larger takeaway about the possibility of integration.
I mean, I like to think there is I would love it if we started this tidal wave. 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 the 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 an effect as well. Yeah. I think I was wanting something from Miriam that depending on who you are, you may be wanting for me right now a how to guide. But what Miriam is saying is the only reason why parents supported the change in DISTORTER team is because things have gotten so intense and so competitive that even the most advantaged people were losing. How do you replicate that?
Weight children are the minority in District 15 and in New York City public schools and in American public schools. What about the interests 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 cared 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 can we have equitable schools if our public institutions will only 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 her kid into a good school, but then she developed a new self interest.
She didn't want to be complicit in segregation. She felt compromised by a system that made her into someone she did not want to be. I recognized that feeling. It's a shame. I 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. The shame is telling us we have a choice.
We can choose to hoard resources 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 might not, but we should know it's within our power to help create it.
Nice White Parents is produced by Julie Snyder and me with editing on this episode from Sarah Koenig and IRA Glass, Neil Drumming is our managing editor Eve Ewing and Rachel Lissi are editorial consultants, fact checking and research by Ben Feiglin. Music supervision and mixing by St. Nelson with production help from Aviva de Kornfeld and music clearance from Anthony Roman. Our director of operations is Seth Lind.
Julie Whitaker is our digital manager, finance management by Kasey Whouley and production management by Frances Swanson. Original music for nice white parents is by the Bad, plus the additional music written and performed by Matt McGinley. Special thanks to all the fantastic education reporters at Chalke beat. Also thanks to Katie Fuchs, Alexia Webster, Mattie Fox, Brad Lander, Michael J. Studeman Narva et Shalom. Christina Barritt, Rick Kahlenberg. David Kirkland. Benjamin Justice. Muhammad Boki Tameka Nurse Carter.
Andrea Jumma, Kim Djuanda. McCuistion Richards, Schwannoma Hansford, Matt Gonzalez, Javier Salamanca, David Rafaelle, Rebecca Vitale DeCola and Lincoln Rehder and a huge thank you to my incredibly talented and generous colleagues at this American life. Nice way Parents is produced by Serial Productions, a New York Times company.