From Chicago, it's this American Life, I'm IRA Glass. So one of our producers, Chana Joffe Walt, has spent a few years reporting on the history of one school. It's a public school in a big city. And at the beginning, kind of thought the story was about segregation and inequality in public schools.
But the more she spoke to people and researched what had happened at this one school, the more she realized it was actually about the inordinate amount of power that white parents had at this one school.
And she found so many stories there that we realized we couldn't fit it all into one episode of our program and that we would need to release it as its own little mini series podcast.
So last week, a little three minute trailer was released.
The name of the show is Nice White Parents, and even before the first episodes appeared, it became this war.
Thousands of ratings and comments online at Apple podcasts, people saying it's divisive, that it's racist to talk about white parents giving the show one star reviews, other people giving it five star reviews to cancel out the one star reviews.
Remember, nobody had heard the show yet.
The comments were about some imagined thing that people thought that the show would be rather than the actual story that Hannah tells. Which is, you know, kind of funny, I think it also speaks to how the entire subject freaks people out so much white parents, how rarely that is explicitly named as the subject of reporting.
There is so much reporting on people of color as people of color and so little reporting on white people as white people, even when they're at the heart of a story as they are with this one. And when you listen to what Hannah found, you feel how rare it is.
I personally found it illuminating, you can listen and judge for yourself.
Today, we're presenting right here one of the stories that kind of tells in her series about one of the big turning points in the school's recent history. Before we start, I want to note everything you're going to hear this hour was recorded before coronavirus arrived.
So it is a world where people, you know, get together in person with no mask or anything. Don't be shocked. All right. Here's one.
I started reporting this story at the very same moment as I was trying to figure out my own relationship to the subject of this story. White parents in New York City public schools. I was about to be one of them. When my kid was old enough. I started learning about my options and many there was our zoned public school in Brooklyn. Or I could apply to a handful of specialty programs, a gifted program or a magnet school or a language program.
So I started to look around. This was five years ago now, but I vividly remember these tours. I'd show up in the lobby of a school at the time, listed on the website. Look around and notice that all or almost all of the other parents who'd shown up for the 11:00 a.m. middle of the workday early in the shopping season school tour were other white parents. As a group, we'd walk the halls following a school administrator, almost always a man or woman of color through a school full of black and brown kids.
We'd peer into classroom windows, watch the kids sit in a circle on the rug, ask questions about the lunch menu, homework, policy, discipline. Some of us would take notes and the administrators would sell. The whole thing was essentially a pitch. We offer STEM. We have a partnership with Lincoln Center. We have a dance studio. They were pleading with us to please take part in this public school.
I don't think I've ever felt my own consumer power more viscerally than I did shopping for a public school as a white parent. We were entering schools that people like us had ignored for decades. They were not our places, but we were being invaded to make them ours.
The whole thing was made so much more awkward by the fact that nobody on those tours ever acknowledged the obvious racial difference that roughly 100 percent of the parents in this group did not match, say, 90 percent of the kids in this building. I remember one time being guided into a classroom and being told that this was the class for gifted kids and noticing, oh, here's where all the white kids are. Everyone on our tour saw this, all of us parents, but nobody said anything, including me.
We walked out into the hallway. A mom raised her hand and said, I do have one question I've been meaning to ask. And the group got quiet. I was thinking, OK, here comes, but then she said, do the kids here play outside every day?
I knew the schools were segregated. I shouldn't have been surprised by the time I was touring schools as a parent, I'd spent a fair amount of time in schools. As a reporter, I'd done stories on the stark inequality in public education, and I'd looked at some of the many programs and reforms we've tried to fix our schools. So many ideas. We've tried standardized tests and charter schools. We've tried smaller classes, longer school days, stricter discipline, looser discipline, tracking differentiation.
We've decided the problem is teachers. The problem is parents. What is true about almost all of these reforms is that when we look for what's broken, for how our schools are failing, we focus on who they're failing. Poor kids, black kids and brown kids. We ask, why aren't they performing better? Why aren't they achieving more? Those are not the right questions. There is a powerful force that is shaping our public schools, arguably the most powerful force.
It's there even when we pretend not to notice it, like on that school tour. If you want to understand why our schools aren't better, that's where you have to look. You have to look at white parents.
That's what this story is about, I'm going to take you inside a public school building an utterly ordinary squat three story New York City public school building not too far from where I live.
This isn't one of the schools I toured. And my own kids don't go here. They're too little. This is a middle and high school called the School for International Studies S.A.S.. The story of the school and its relationship with white parents down the block spanned 60 years. But the part I want to tell you begins at S.A.S. in the spring of 2015, right before everything at the school changed.
In 2015, the students at S.A.S. were black, Latino and Middle Eastern kids, mostly from working class and poor families that year, like the year before and the year before that, the school was shrinking. The principal, Julian Juman, was worried.
Yeah. So last two years we had 30 students in our sixth grade class. And so we really have room for 100 or so numbers I think are hard.
Misjudgements started to reach out to families from the neighborhood, inviting them to please come take a look. Parents started showing up for tours of ISIS, mostly groups of white parents. Mr Newman was thrilled and relieved. She watched parents through the building saying, stop me any time. If anyone has any questions, really anything, I want you to feel comfortable. And Misjudgements says they did have questions mostly about the poor test scores that was fair mistreatment expected those questions she did not expect.
The other set of questions she got a lot from parents is their weapons.
Is there you know, are you scanning are you a scanning school? Because kids are dangerous and they're have weapons. I've heard that they're scanning like metal detectors. Right. I heard there's fights and, you know, those kinds of things. I don't I don't know what school you're talking about. I have never heard of that incident ever happening, ever. So the fears of what this building is and what this building has represented has kind of transcended itself.
We only we there's a different story of international studies outside this building.
How much of that do you think is racism? I think our entire society is fearful of the unknown excellent principal answer, Principal Juman is black, by the way. She needed these parents schools get money per student. A shrinking school means a shrinking budget. Mr Man was worried if this continued, the middle school could be in danger of being shut down by the city. S.A.S. is in Kabul Hill, Brooklyn. Leafy streets, brownstones. It's a wealthy white neighborhood that's gotten wealthier and whiter in the last decade.
But white families were not sending their kids to S.A.S., Mr Newman told these parents, choose S.A.S.. We're turning things around. We're in the process of bringing in a new prestigious International Baccalaureate curriculum, renovating the library.
Here's the new gorgeous yard. It's an excellent school.
The parents seemed interested, but I believe that might have had just as much to do with what was happening outside of the school as what they were seeing inside the building.
Sure. So my name is Robert Hanssen and I'm a parent. So we were the middle school process is interesting.
Rob lives nearby S.A.S., but he had never heard of the school. Probably he's in his district. Rob could choose from eleven middle schools. The majority of white families sent their kids to the same three schools. Rob's white. Those are the schools he'd heard of and those were the schools.
He toured space, but they were packed.
There were too many wealthy white families in the district to continue cramming into just three schools.
There's a couple of citywide ones where we went and we stood on line for like an hour, an hour and a half, and then joined in an auditorium full of parents and then had them announced that they were accepting fifteen students in the following in the coming class and they'd been running tours all day.
Most cities have some amount of school choice like this, tours and options.
New York City, though, is an amped up version of what happens elsewhere, the level of competition, the level of wealth, the diversity of people sorting into different schools. Everything is more intense. Rob found this process frustrating, although Rob is very even tempered, even when he's frustrated, he's Canadian, when he gets especially hot, he starts calling things interesting. And this whole middle school thing was very interesting. He asked other parents on school tours, what are we going to do?
Someone said, have you guys heard of SARS, that building down the block? Rob, hadn't the others hadn't they decided to all go check it out together?
I walked away and lots of parents walked away from those tours thinking, wow, you know, people jamming up into some schools and and you're leaving 60 or 70 seats empty, empty all year long. Give 30 kids. It doesn't that's how you spread them out around it. And that's a big school. Then all of a sudden you're sort of like, wait a second, what's there's nobody here.
As Rob toured S.A.S., he had an idea that night. He emailed Principal Juman and he asked, would she be open to starting a dual language French program at S.A.S.? They had one at the elementary school kids went to and everyone loved it. Sure, Principal German was open, so Rob started spreading the word. SARS is starting a dual language French program. We should all go. Rob says there was interest, but a lot of people he talked to had this question.
What are other people going? And that families have that kind of fear, like, what if I'm you know, if I look around, nobody else came with me and and I came for something that's not here because nobody. So it's a collective action problem.
Why a collective act? Why why do you need a collective just on the just I think overall there is a collective action issue. But if you're interested in this, in part because of the French dual language, part of it, if if you're the only one to show up, there's no French teacher for one student, but there's a program if 15, if 20 come. But we all have to then take one step forward exactly the same time. The vision requires people to come.
And what if nobody comes?
When it came time to choose middle schools, parents are supposed to rank their top choices right before they did, before everyone chose their schools. Rabson sent a survey out to the families you've been talking to to try to ensure that a group of them would choose S.A.S. together. It was a simple survey monkey. If enough people said yes, they'd rank S.A.S. as one of their top picks and they would be able to act as a collective, people said. Yes, the numbers were stunning.
In 2014, there'd been thirty sixth graders at S.A.S..
In 2015 there would be one hundred and three. That two hundred percent increase was almost entirely white kids.
Did you think about yourself as integrators?
Did you think about my past was because I was trying to think if that had gone through and I didn't know. No, the not integrators, participants in a school that was was going to hopefully be diverse. Um. But did not that's not a framing or a way of thinking about it that it would have occurred to me at the time, um, nobody I talked to you from S.A.S. characterized what was happening there as integration.
But here's why integration was on my mind. The New York City Department of Education was aware their schools were segregated. It was also aware that desegregation is the most effective way to close the gap in achievement between black and white students. But it did not want to mandate racial integration through zoning or school placements. The city was trying to make integration happen through choice, hoping to lure white families into segregated schools.
The school tours I went on for my own kids, those sparkly programs and amenities, that was the new approach to integration. But can this work for white parents to opt in to integration? Not because we have to or because it's the right thing to do, but because it's a selling point, because we get a dance studio and STEM and a school that was hopefully diverse integration without talking about race.
The kids at S.A.S., though, they did talk about race, immediately fall 2015, the first few weeks of school, a senior named Kristen leans over to her classmate Chris and mumbles. There are a lot of white kids in the school. And Chris says, Oh, yeah, a teacher warned me about that over the summer.
Like you told me, like, oh, there's going to be a lot of white kids coming in. French white kids from upper economic statuses are prepared for that.
Kristen nods Yeah, I guess we were prepared. And then she turns to me to say, I should have been ready for that. We saw the parents on the tours last year.
We would see them walk through the hall, but we never knew it was so serious that a whole group of Caucasians would come in like it would be so diverse. But was such a big change, like not to be prejudiced or anything. But I noticed, like the big change, the high schoolers are more Hispanics and blacks and the few Caucasians. I like the new group that came in, all Caucasians like they're trying to make it so diverse, diverse.
This was a word I heard over and over in the first few weeks of school diversity.
I love diversity. So it doesn't like so when I just see, like other white kids, I'm like, so diversity seem to have two different definitions.
White families would talk about all the diversity at ISIS and they were talking about black and Hispanic kids. When kids of color noted the diversity, they were referring to the new white kids.
For a lot of kids of color, this looked a lot like something they'd already seen happen in their neighborhoods. White families showing up in large numbers, taking over stores, familiar spots. There's a word for that. It's gentrification. But I noticed that no one was using that word about the school. What was happening here was diversity. That's how the adults talked about it. Diversity is a good thing, something you're supposed to be OK with. For the most part, the kids were it was different for the parents.
Some of them saw specific advantages to the diversity, like Kenya Blunt, the co vice president of the PTA.
It says he was excited having the new parents coming in and the diversity that particularly maybe comes from the the new south called the new neighborhood.
The way that things are changing in the neighborhood is that we have a gentleman who is. Profession is fundraising, Rob Hansen, the dad who started the survey, Monkey Rob, raises money for nonprofits and foundations for a living. Over the course of the year, I'll hear Rob Hansen referred to as Todd Hanson, Ted Manson, Mr. Handsome, Kenya was the only one who went with the gentleman whose profession is fundraising. The most common was just the guy who gets the money.
Rob told the PTA he was eager to raise money for the school to Kenya. This meant more resources at his own kid's school, his boys and all the kids could benefit.
He has brought on the challenge and taken it upon himself to raise fifty thousand dollars. So five zero with three zeros after that.
Yes, 50000 dollars, which again, this again goes back to the whole. I'll say the first thing new people who are thinking outside the box as our PTA. I don't think that we were thinking that big.
They were definitely not thinking that big because the PTA was run by Amy Hernandez and her co president, Susan Mosca. Amy is not a gentleman who fundraises. She's a social worker. The first time I met, I mean, she was wearing a T-shirt that said, I'm not spoiled. My husband just loves me. She's Puerto Rican, grew up in Brooklyn. Her husband, Maurice, is Puerto Rican and black and really does adore her. He grew up in Brooklyn, too.
They have one daughter, one pitbull, one Persian cat and one school.
I make it my business to stick myself in her school. For me, the new diversity, because he gave her pause like what I saw in September, the population that came in, I was like, Oh, that's a little frightening.
And even the social workers describe it for people who.
Oh, on the radio and don't know what you saw.
I saw a lot of white people with very high socio socio economic backgrounds. You know, they have money and that's great. But money tends to scare people.
And I'm one of the people it scares me. I'm one of the people.
It scares because it twists everything around. And I don't like that. I don't like that. I don't like that.
I'd rather have a dinner where people of different cultures bring their food and we share together, then have somebody else catering. Like, that's how I feel. You build community. I'm a social worker. That's my background. And that's what I believe in.
I knew it was in her second year at the school the year before she put on community events, teacher appreciation, a spring carnival with face painting and hot dogs. There is some money here and there, but I'm his vision for the PTA. It wasn't really about fundraising. The new parents, though. They wanted to be active in their new school and they were accustomed to supporting their kids schools by fundraising. The two approaches came face to face at a PTA meeting in October.
Three more minutes and then it's up to everyone. Yes, I'm sure y'all got your home. Let's go home.
There are about a dozen grownups sitting on small plastic chairs around a classroom table.
The PTA executive board principal Juman is here to Amy's leading and the principal jumps in. She says she wants a minute to share how much the new fundraising committee had raised so far.
Amy looks confused. Principal Juman goes on to say The new fundraising committee has had a lot of success, but total they have raised, according to ROVA, eighteen thousand dollars.
And then we just had a donation from a family a couple weeks ago who want to be anonymous that they're going to give you the five to ten, ten grand in December. So this is this is big money.
People seem unclear what to do with their faces. This is good news. Right. But also we what's the fundraising committee? Amy turns to her husband, Morris, a retired cop. Morris is also the treasurer of the PTA because when he retired, his wife told him he couldn't just sit around at home. Maury shrugs that Amy doesn't seem to know anything about this new money. Amy turns back to Principal Juman. So can we use that money?
That was a question of the PTA can have access to this money because I know already like. But what is the PTA? So that's that's the question that keeps going around. So this eighteen thousand dollars Rob has raised under the umbrella of PTA. That's Principal Juman. OK, so I think.
But whose whose don't. Who's got it.
Where is this idea? Remember, I don't know nothing about it. So, you know, how can I be successful to go?
Morris asks, how can that money be accessed for Mr. Negron, who wants new gym uniforms or Mr. Low to get his microscopes?
I mean, that's I mean, God bless Robin.
More power to him. Yeah, but he's not an official member. Right. So I think that's what makes it confusing, at least for me. You know, he is a PTA member because he's a parent, but he's not part of the executive board. I think that's what makes it. That's probably true. Yeah, it makes it tricky. I mean, and again, I'm not. I know. I mean, he could give my money.
You know, I'm not really the principal Geminids repeats, but she wishes Rob had been able to make it. She was hoping everyone could be here and get on the same page about money. But Rob is chaperoning a sixth grade overnight trip. They're late getting back one mom, a white woman who came in with the new. A group of sixth graders says, look, I know Rob, he means well, so I think Rob is a professional fundraiser for us.
He's made money by the fundraising gap and I think that's great, but I don't think he should communicate with me. And my impression is I don't think he's meaning to offend you. You know, I think he's sort of Silly's of what is it that he's not thinking about? Like, well, maybe, you know, he's been amazing. He really, I think is. Yeah, yeah.
I that's Principal Juman. At this point, everyone seems to feel a little weird about how long they've spent talking about a fellow parent who is not present. And anyway, it's money for the school. We're all for that. We just need better communication.
I mean, he says, yeah, it's just usually money raised by parents goes through the PTA so we can all talk about where to spend it, because you have to decide who has to say, because if it's a collect pay, then there is then it would have made it.
After Rob walks into the room, he just got back from the sixth grade trip. He sits down and they all start to talk.
We need to sort out some questions about money. Then Amum from the fundraising committee says she's worried about me recording and asked me to stop.
So I do going on Fehmi question, but we don't know.
Then let me stay, though. I take notes, Rob apologizes and then explains a group of them have been meeting to raise money for the school. The new dual language French program is expensive, and they promised the principal they'd help raise money to cover it. They were just eager to help, Rob says. So they formed a committee. He's really sorry. He should have communicated and coordinated better with the PTA. But good news is it's going great.
Someone has a contact with the French embassy, a guy at the cultural services arm in New York, and he says he wants to help cover the costs of new French teachers and books. They've already kicked in around ten grand at this point. In my notes, I wrote lots of books, big money. Rob says the embassy suggested we do a fundraiser, an event they can help here. I wrote looks confused, mad, nobody really talking. Amy says this fundraiser will be at the school, though, right?
And free for everyone. Rob says yes. Good, good. She asks one more time free. I just want to make sure everyone can go. Lots of nuts. Rob says totally. This is a community event for our community. After about 20 minutes, Amy says, We're out of time. Guys, I can't tell if this is out of a professional commitment. Amy has to stick to the schedule or a personal commitment to getting out of that room.
Before I came to S.A.S., I never thought much about the role of PITAs ever at S.A.S. early on, I had this feeling of, oh, a pet is actually critical to the success of an integrated school. A PTA has a very simple democratic structure. Every parent has an equal vote smart. It's like a built in system to equalize power, to help them make a budget together, make decisions, set priorities collectively. Or not, so we're lucky enough, we have Rob here who has really taken over fundraising to try to bring it to the next level here at our school.
So it's another PTA meeting and the whole collective thing is not really happening at the last. It seems like the new parents are still raising money separate from the PTA, and the communication problems do not seem to be resolved. And some of the new parents have an idea.
They propose a formal separation, the PTA and the people doing fundraising. Raheb says this way there be two organizations collecting money for S.A.S..
There would be two sorts of ways dollars are raised. One would be a community raise, bake sales, direct gifts.
So that would be the PTA side, the community funds. Then there would be a separate organization that would go after grants and big donors. Up until this point, there seem to be tension bubbling under the surface between the new parents and the old parents. But it wasn't really until this moment that the unsaid started to get said mostly by Amy's husband, Maurice.
I think a lot of us feels all day there's two different groups is the fundraising group and PTA, which is, you know, that's what it looks like. You guys have this goal of making fifty thousand dollars and it's going to be different for them now. Suzanne, what about the rest of the school, which was money going?
We are going into and I know it's very easy to feel steamrolls.
That's Maureen, a white mom who's new. There are lots of nods. And Maurice is asking, is this new money you're talking about? Is it just for the new French dual language program, which is another way of asking, is this money just for your kids or is it for everybody? Rahab says emphatically, it's for everybody. Marie says, really? I mean, that that that's being naive.
OK, they're going to donate money to the French embassy if we're going to. OK, what? We're going to buy new chalkboards with that. That's kind of being I now you're saying the town is going to be for the PTA community to say we're going to go. So, I mean, I hear what you're saying, which is sounds great. But again, maybe I'm still thinking about the last meeting when Julia say, OK, well, we only have to get a percentage of that, so we still don't have an answer.
Leader Talking to Rob, I learned that the new separate fundraising arm he's talking about is actually a foundation. They want to create a school based foundation at S.A.S.. The plan is to call it the Brooklyn World Project. I asked Rob, why do you need another way to raise money?
There's a there's a PTA. Most people I've heard of a school PTA. Why do you need a separate organization? That's not the PTA. Yeah.
So the probably the easiest way to explain it is to not think about it from the school side, but to think about it from the potential donor side.
So basic idea that we're following is that the let's say that in that international says we want to do extend today and we want to do theater. And so we go and we find a donor who loves theater and loves the French language and loves the idea that kids who have never spoke in French and had no exposure will get the chance to go and compete actually against some of the most established schools in the city. And I don't I just love that, like, I love it.
I love giving that kind of opportunity to kids. I'm going to cover all of that because I think it's that important. If that money goes to the PTA, you could have a situation. The PTA says or members of the PTA say, I don't know that we really like the theater program. I'm not sure. I think that we should be using those dollars to do X or Y or Z. Now, normally, you'd be able to say, well, donor intent is what it is.
You should probably use it towards what it was intended for and normally in another fundraising meeting in nonprofits. So there's a basic kind of morality of a nonprofit to say if a donor gives you it to you to do something, you should try to do that donor intense, an important part of it.
It's sort of a trust that's established, Rob says, because the PTA is a democracy, it makes things complicated. The very thing I saw as a strength of a PTA, one parent, one vote to rob, that's a problem for fundraising. Parents come and go and change their minds about what's important. A private donor wants stability, and Rob is trying to raise money for the kind of programming that was available at his son's wealthy elementary school.
At that school, Rob was co president of the PTA and the previous year his PTA pulled in close to hundred thousand dollars eight hundred thousand dollars, money that paid for after school programming and ballroom dancing, chess, art, music, a garden. Eight hundred thousand dollars for a school that is seventy five percent white and serves a tiny fraction of the poor kids in the district. There aren't enough wealthy parents that ISIS to raise that kind of money. That year Rob helped raise eight hundred thousand.
The suspects raised two thousand, so Rob was trying to be creative, a foundation was a way for his new school to catch up.
The school leadership, the principal was behind the idea. Mr Newman told me she saw the foundation as a path to equity and access. More resources meant they'd be able to provide all kids with opportunities like, say, a school trip to France.
But the parent leadership, they found it annoying. I mean, you the new parents were trying to help the school, but she already left the school. She felt like she was being saved against her will. Plus, they're new. She said, shouldn't we be the ones helping them? She was fine with them bringing in ideas, but she didn't understand why they hadn't brought them to her first. They hadn't thought to consult her. She said to me multiple times, why are they coming up with all these private plans and meeting in secret committees?
You were pissed about that?
Totally. Yeah, because I was involved. I mean, why were you angry about that?
Because here I am trying to build something with the school. Why didn't you just involve me? Why didn't you just tell me about it? Like it felt like it was a secret? I don't know if it was if it wasn't.
I'm invested in the school and clearly have proven to you I'm invested in the school. And you couldn't tell us that you wanted to fundraise in a different way.
Rob and the new parents did tell the principal that they wanted to fundraise in a different way. But I really felt like, what about the rest of us? She felt like the PTA was ignored. At that last meeting, Amy went quiet, she told me she just felt enraged and then embarrassed for feeling so enraged.
I guess I just threw a tantrum and I just didn't want to be a part of it, which is not right. But I think, again, in the moment, I just felt like, you know, I was hurt.
Did you throw it was the tantrum thing I saw because that did not seem like a tantrum. No, that was not a tantrum. I could have been a lot worse. And I was really, really trying to restrain myself. Yeah, I really was. That was really under control.
Really, really under control. And it wasn't. But it was really, really under control.
I asked, was there another time tantrum. Yeah. At home.
And my husband, that's when I threw my tantrum. So it was tense among the parents. But this is a school for children.
Did it matter if the adults were not getting along or who controlled which pot of money? Yes.
Yes, it did. That's coming up after the break. WBCSD, Chicago, when our program continues.
To American Life, I'm IRA Glass. Today's program, nice white parents, kind of choppy waters, telling the story of parents and their influence over the workings of one public school, a public school in Brooklyn called SARS, the School of International Studies, how to pick up now where she left off the school year, moved forward. Robbs fundraising committee moved forward with the French embassy to plan the fundraiser. It was now being called a gala. The PTA moved forward with parent volunteers to plan a spring carnival.
It was being called the Spring Carnival. Quiet, resentment's locked in place. Here's what I was talking on the phone one night to Amy's co president on the PTA, Susan Mosca. She told me she was worried the school was changing in ways that were damaging to the community. Susan is white herself, but she didn't come in with the new parents when she started. Her son was one of the only white kids in the school. Now, Susan felt like they were all being written into a narrative that wasn't true, that ISIS was a bad school before.
And now that the new white families had arrived, it was being turned around. It is noticeable. I think it is something that even my child has picked up on, you know, just like a very different, you know, different feeling among some of the students and some of the parents. You know, this real sense, again, that here they come to save our poor struggling school that couldn't possibly make it on its own without their money and their vision.
And we do not all feel that that is necessarily the case.
What do you feel? This was a long conversation, the upshot, she's not happy with the way the new parents are behaving. It was true a new narrative was taking hold that ISIS it's not like the kids, we're talking about it all the time, but it was in the air and the kids were starting to pick up on who was valued and why in the cafeteria at your middle school are saying the French kids could kill someone and they get away with it upstairs in the high school and hear kids complain.
All the attention has shifted to the new middle schoolers.
We're being pushed aside and down in the library. I met three sixth grade boys, white boys, due to assess their sweaty from playing soccer and looking very small against their huge backpacks.
These boys, even at 11 years old, they've absorbed the same messages that ISIS wasn't so good before it was a bad school.
The kids wouldn't pay attention and they had like, ah, like zone out every little thing. And I bet they learned very little. And now we're just now this generation with us. I think we're doing a lot better and I think that we're learning a much faster pace.
He and his friends, they've turned the school around.
That's what he's learning is going to be one of the top choices, like already in the book, like like when you're applying to middle schools, you get like a book sort of like on Saturdays and stuff. And I think the school is actually like really high up in the statuses.
Nobody calls it the book on statuses. They call it a directory of schools with info like enrollment numbers for different schools, test scores and special programs. But I love that he calls it the book on statuses because this is what happened at S.A.S.. The school had a bad reputation among white families and then suddenly it was in demand. Its status had changed because of the white kids. A powerful draw for white families into any school is other white families. Once you have a critical mass of white kids, you pass what one city calls a bliss point.
This is a real thing. Researchers study how many white kids are needed at a school to make other white families feel comfortable choosing it. That no, the bliss point is twenty six percent that fall. White families were crowding the school tours. Is it S.A.S. not because the test scores had improved. The new scores hadn't even come out yet, but because the other white families made them feel blissfully comfortable.
Of course, the thing that made the new white parents comfortable coming to S.A.S. in the first place was the promise of a French program. They wanted French and they got French. So now all the sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth graders are learning French. It wasn't a true dual language program where kids learned in French for half the day or whatever that first year, most of the French was happening. In the after school program. You sign up for a regular after school stuff like Colaneri or soccer drama, and it would be conducted in French.
I would probably say, hey, everybody, you have to listen. OK, we're in the auditorium and it's sweet. The kids are on stage rehearsing this play. They wrote in French. It looks like they're having fun, but I couldn't help feeling like there's something off balance about this.
Most of the kids doing this drama program seem to be native French speakers, but not all French. A sixth grader named Maya is standing to the side of the stage script in hand.
Waiting for her line for me is like weird because I have no idea what they're saying. Yeah, really. Even even in the play that you've been practicing, you don't know what they're hearing. They're saying. So, yeah. But like, sometimes when a teacher talks in French to the class, I don't understand. And do you figure it out or is it like confusing? But still, she's excited.
She's grinning, watching the other kids on stage. She's hanging out with her friend Constance. Eye gets up to deliver her lines.
Well, oh, you did wrong. Yeah. What did you just say? I don't know. And then I realized after that, Constance, a native French speaker, tells me you set the wrong thing.
Constance corrects her, pronounces it for her.
OK, as you know, I shouldn't. But it's OK. Yeah. Yeah. Because, like, I can't see myself.
I can't. And her friend says I'll do it for you.
OK, I'll just as you know, she's just learning another language is not new to Maya. My dad speaks Arabic and my mom's Turkish. And now you're learning French. Yes. It's a confusing three languages at the same time. Yeah. When the new white parents asked for a dual language French program at S.A.S., Principal Juman said, yes, S.A.S. was supposedly an international school, but she told me they didn't really have a lot of international programming. So it seemed like a good idea to her.
But there was no school wide debate about it or consensus. The community didn't decide what if they had more than a third of the families that S.A.S. are Hispanic? What if the dual language program was Spanish or Arabic? 10 percent of the students speak Arabic. If they had made a different choice, if ISIS had a dual language Arabic program, Maya would be teaching Constance how to read her lines. She'd be the one explaining the cultural references and teasing her friend about her terrible accent.
She'd be the one translating the teacher stage directions. There was money for a French program which meant that a S.A.S. French had value. Arabic didn't, Spanish didn't. That's something Maya is learning at school along with her French script.
From the very beginning, Amy and the others had insisted on three things from the new parents and the fundraising committee that the gala fundraiser they were planning with the French embassy would no one be open to everyone? No. To take place at the school. And number three, be free. Then four weeks before the gala, the PTA asked for an update and a parent named Deb showed up, a mom to a new sixth grader, part of Rob's fundraising committee.
So I will start with the fact that I had a nice conversation with Fabrice. Is it for. Yeah.
Deb volunteered early on to help organize the party, and she tells everyone I met with our partner Fabrice at the French embassy and the event can't be at the school.
The embassy won't be able to draw their supporters to Brooklyn.
It'll be at the cultural services building on the Upper East Side, Manhattan, 45 minutes away.
I apologize if I'm saying things that you guys already know, but I didn't know some of this info, so it was good. But the event is really it's their event. It's not really our event.
Oh, it's their event.
That's Susan with the. Oh, Moreese leans forward, elbows on the table.
Amy is not here. She knew the meeting would be almost entirely about fundraising and she's sitting this one out. Maury's is now concentrating on Rob, who turns to Deb and says, in what sense is it their event?
They they make the rules, she says, with our input.
But there are certain things that are not flexible. The biggest thing is nobody will be allowed in at the door. You have to be on a list. You have to RSVP, you have to be on the list. All names, security.
It's a government building.
After all, he sends out the invitation to twenty two thousand people on his mailing list. So now I'm making it a free event. It's a problem because now we're inviting twenty two thousand people for free to drink wine and eat food that may not have any interest in us. So we thought the best thing to do would be a suggested donation. Can't afford to go there.
Yeah, that's Rob asking to give a variant, which is how about we have a separate invitation for our people that doesn't ask for any money suggested donation. Rob seems to be picking up on the instant irritation in this room and he's adding many variants to Deb's report.
It's either a modified version or just a clarity that that everybody in this community, he won't they'll be one invite. It will say the same. That's what I suggested. I suggested to her outside, even if we simply put a cover note saying, no, no charge, you know, we want you to come join us.
All right. But on the invite, it will say suggested donation. Then if you want to, however, we want to forward it, we can say that, but they will only do one invite.
Deb hasn't been able to make previous PTA meetings. So all Deb knows is she got an email from the fundraising committee at her kids new school, which she assumed was part of the PTA. She's volunteering her time a ton of her time to organize a huge event. She does not understand that. The email list she's on is for a separate fundraising committee that just became even more unpopular with the official PTA leadership. I think I stopped moving watching Deb. It's so tense.
She's like a porcupine who's just wandered into a balloon store, the serving wine, water and then French waters. As far as the auction, we have a couple of cleanses. We have restaurants. We have a soccer camp. We have a vacation rental in California. We got a couple of hair salons, very few from the community here.
And that's really what I wanted to talk about from the parent community or geographic community and community and geographic community.
Deb says at her kids elementary school, they got a lot more donated items from parents. She tells the room, you can ask at the restaurants you go to if they do gift certificates, the salon, your employers, you'd be surprised what people can offer.
Just ask, you know, and that's what I do with my friends and my most of my friends. So, you know, they're all in other schools.
I'm just new here. I don't really know many people. So the only people I've been able to reach out to the thirty six on Rob's email list and then end of a quarter of them gave of donated something already like found something.
So I'm telling you, that house in Sonoma County is gorgeous. Four bedrooms, three baths, beautiful.
I think about a PTA meeting a few months before where I watched Amy gently explain to one of the new parents why it might be hard for some families to throw in five dollars for classroom supplies that even being asked to donate can feel alienating.
We're going to have a lot of some people in this room seem to be experiencing this whole thing as a routine update about public school volunteering. Others look like someone who's walked into the wrong room and is now looking around the friends they came with for affirmation. We're in the wrong room, right? How do we get out?
Usually I get more tickets to shows, games, things like I've gotten Broadway tickets, but I haven't gotten anything in the ticket arena.
Knicks, I have a contract with the Nets. I'm going to reach out then.
Yeah, they always go everybody wants to go to a game. There's always somebody and they also make great Christmas gifts. And that's the other thing where we're lacking is actual items. We used to have a partner. Will we still have the parent? But I'm not in my school that were to Tiffany and we always had some beautiful Tiffany pieces or, you know, coach bag some products. Makes it look nice.
It's been a small chunk of that meeting occupied by an admittedly sentimental thought, just looking around the room was kind of incredible.
People with homes in Sonoma and people who live in public housing, sitting together at a long wooden table in the library of a public school that they all share.
That never happens. And I didn't want them to mess it up. But of course, they are. This is not something we have a lot of practice in. New York City has one of the most segregated school systems in the country.
White parents here have very little practice sharing public schools. Maybe this is all to be expected.
White parents will charge ahead, will sometimes be careless, secretive or entitled in response. Parents of color will sometimes be cautious or distrustful, defensive. These are well-established patterns repeated over generations. It's easier for us to continue operating on separate tracks because it's what we already know how to do.
Like the guy from the French embassy apparently has a mailing list of 22000 people in the New York area, 300 people RSVP to the gala for S.A.S..
I couldn't believe it and I couldn't believe that one of them was Amy.
They look lovely. Yeah.
Amy Moreese and Susan Karpal together to the Upper East Side. It's winter. Central Park is across the street. It's cold. Amy told me she decided she needed to be a grown up and come.
They got stuck in traffic, so they're rushing up the sidewalk.
Obviously not serious enough that the cultural services building is ivy covered with columns.
The doors are wrought iron. The entryway is marble.
I. All right. A huge marble staircase winds up the side of the room. Later, I look up the architectural style, Italian renaissance palazzo style.
It's a palace. There are people milling, sampling 17 different cheeses.
I don't recognize anyone else from the school. Who are these people who have chosen to come out on a weekday evening for a fundraising event for a not prominent or well-known at all public school in Brooklyn?
I'm not involved with the school, but my wife is involved. I started asking people how they heard about the event and what brought you here to me, actually, an invitation by my wonderful French professor, a lady named Barbara tells me she's never heard of S.A.S. like most people here, but she loves French and she loves Paris.
And it sounded like a fun night with other people who do, too. She goes to France every year.
October is my says one family. Actually, I found this October to warm, but I like it when it's a nice fall crisp and you wear your scarf.
Fula, I enjoy a person who likes to talk where you can just get on the ride and sit back. Barbara is definitely that kind of person and my apartment in Paris is sort of I'm confused. Sometimes I say, am I in Gramercy Park or am I in? Sounds romantic to say it's got a similar ambience of being a neighborhood. It's great. Have you been there? Oh, my God. She hasn't been to Paris. Barbara's looking around for her French teacher to tell her the news.
Barbara's teacher, it turns out, heard about this evening the same way most people here did. She was invited by this man, Fabrice, for the School for International Studies.
We are hoping we will raise a hundred thousand dollars each year for the next seven years.
Fabrice Jomon works for the cultural services arm of the French Embassy. He tells me he's fundraising for dual language programs and public schools because his mission is to promote French language and culture. He called it soft power, which I was kind of surprised, he said out loud, since I associate that with something we do in developing countries, not something you're allowed to do in American public schools.
After Fabris and I talked, I walked into the main room and immediately saw Maurice. Maurice was so skeptical of this whole embassy thing. But there he is at a table selling raffle tickets next to Amy, cheerfully raising money for a program neither of them ever wanted at their school. We are raffling off two airline tickets to France. Warmblood is going to win. It could be yours. Moreese, amiable as ever, is trying and mostly failing to convert ticket sales into social connections.
He asks everyone, So if you win, when are you thinking of going, oh, you're going anyway for Easter? Oh, nice. How's the weather there in. So yes, I am from France. The weather then Easter. Good for this year. Before we do it, I have a question. Can I from here, from these tickets, buy something to go from Paris to Marseilles when I'm living?
I know Barbara from Gramercy Park. The woman who loves fall in Paris wanders across the marble floor toward the raffle table, the side where I'm sitting. And I thought, oh, no, it's a pleasure to meet you.
Hi, how are you? Your parents of bilingual students, she's not bilingual, but she does not go to the school. She will be bilingual eventually. Yes, eventually. What a wonderful thing. Are you pleased with the program? Yes, I love the school. It's so important to learn another language. It opens the world for you. What is your name? I was just telling Ana, when I go to Paris, which I do every year, it is cool and it's cooler because I can speak the language and you have entree into the society.
Not totally. One will never have total entourage, but you can interact with your neighbors. You can interact in a restaurant. You can interact at the dry cleaner at the supermarket. And they so appreciate an American who can speak French. Yes, yes. And the language is beautiful.
And Amy starts looking around. Moreese moves closer and leans in to hear why his wife is doing that. Nervous laugh as Barbara explains to Amy, a Puerto Rican woman, that being bilingual makes a person more sophisticated. Amy is exceedingly polite.
Paris is the lodestar. And if you really want to enjoy it, you've got to speak the language. It was a pleasure. Thank you. That entire conversation I never mentioned to Barbara that she does speak another language Spanish leader. I ask her why she shrugs it off. No, just let her talk. OK. All right. So you remember when you were telling me about the silent tantrum that you're having? How would I know if that was happening to you?
Would it only my husband. What if I'm throwing a silent tantrum? He would know if I'm throwing a tantrum. Is that happening right now? No, not right now.
I mean, turns her back to her husband facing me and behind her, Moreese is looking right at me, nodding vigorously. Yes.
So here we were in our fancy clothes on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, raising money for a French program at an utterly normal Brooklyn public school that was already weird.
But the toasts, the toasts were when the cognitive dissonance of the evening really kicked in for me. Fabrice steps up onto the marble staircase and clinks his glass, announces it's time to celebrate what we've created and raise some money.
It takes a village. It takes a dedicated principal. She's here with us. It takes yes, yes, yes.
Fairbreeze hands the make to Principal Juman. Why?
It's so nice to see all of you.
And I think, you know, the number one thing is I think all of us standing here believe in public education and believe that all suggests one by one, people are talking about equality and diversity and community and the meaning of public education here at the cultural services palatial palace full of white people.
So I went on the sixth grade trip, 11 year olds going over and I trip up into the Catskills. I would not recommend doing that. So Rob gives a toast about that time he went on the overnight trip.
It starts off OK, but then veers into strange and sort of cringe territory. He's on the ropes course, 40 feet up, looking down below me.
Where was that diverse group of kids? They were diverse kids bullying me, making sure that when I jumped, they would actually cushioned my fall that day. Each of those kids was going to climb up that hole and I was going to have the same opportunity and the same challenge. And it made me think that that's what this school is about. It's about the opportunity to do the International Baccalaureate, the challenge of it. So with the opportunity to explore French and the challenge of it for all kids, you know, I agree with Rob.
It's great to give kids equal access to opportunity.
But what they're being given access to are the opportunities that Rob and the other white parents care about downstairs.
Even Susan Amys, PTA co president on a bench by herself, she's near the band drinking wine, looking a little dumbstruck. Ask if she's OK. This is something else, she says. And then she adds, It's just hard to explain how this is a public school fundraiser.
When the founder of American Public Education, Horace Mann, laid out his vision for public schools back in the day, he rode his horse around Massachusetts podium to podium and his pitch was common schools would make democracy possible. They would bind us to one another, indoctrinate us, give us the skills and tools we'd need for democratic living. Public schools, he believed would be the great equalizer. Rich and poor would come together and develop what he called fellow feeling and in doing so, quote, obliterate factitious distinctions in society.
For that to happen, you need everyone in the same school together at S.A.S., they've gotten that far.
Everyone was in the same school together, but there was no equalizing. We can be in the same school together and not be equal, just like we can be in the same country together. It's not enough. After the gala, money poured into S.A.S. and more white families enrolled their kids at the school. But in the years after that, there was a backlash and SARS changed in ways that made Rob question himself, he wondered if he'd made mistakes. He told me he thought they all wanted the same thing for the kids.
He just didn't know. Not knowing that happens a lot with white parents, most of us, we don't understand the buildings we walk into, we don't know what came before. I looked into the history of this school and I learned that this wasn't the first time white parents showed up here, white parents have been involved all along, all the way back to the very beginning of the school half a century ago, doing the same kinds of things I'd just seen.
It happens again and again. White parents wielding their power without even noticing, like a guy wandering through a crowded store with a huge backpack, knocking things over every time he turns. Poorest man believed public schools would make us equal, but it doesn't work. I'm not sure how to fix that. But I want to lay out the story, the whole story of this one American public school, because what I am sure of is that in order to address inequality in our public schools, we are going to need a shared sense of reality.
At the very least, it's a place to start. How much after that mission is what Hannah takes up and the other episodes in her series, Nice White Parents, it's produced by her colleagues who made the serial podcast with and distributed by The New York Times episodes one and two are out right now.
And can I say episode two is a completely different kind of story about a different and very idealistic group of white parents.
Right when the school was founded, you can find nice white parents wherever you get your podcasts.
So one hundred million home to a signals civil war episode today was produced by Julie Snyder with editing by Sarah Koenig, Neil Drumming and me editorial consulting from Rachel Glassie interviewing, fact checking by Ben Feiglin Stonehouse and makes the show special thanks to David Kohana Jones, Scott Zagreb, Jackie Carrier and Lenny Garcia.
Well, we still haven't figured out how to fit their show into an episode of our show with production help from that Tierney and Catherine Raimondo. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by Parks. The Public Radio Exchange.
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Your program's cofounder, Mr Malatya, you know, on his vacation, he spotted some Dolphins. But dude, don't get him started on dolphins.
He is not into them.
He is like that. Weird because I have no idea what they're saying. Yeah.
I'm IRA Glass back next week with more stories of this American Life. Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Next week on the podcast of This American Life, so the Uber drivers in Kenya went on strike wanting Uber to pay them more of the money that comes in. One of the strikers pointed out that the tough thing about an Uber strike is the guys who kept driving got surge pricing because of fewer cars on the road.
They made extra money. Can't be double the sum of the drivers new away. That next week on the podcast on your local public radio station.