Saturday, September 21, 2013

Keep calm and don't White flight

I love positive affirmation. Who doesn't? But I also get that the design of social media allows us to present ourselves only in a positive light. Even when we write about our weaknesses, we are afforded the exact words, phrasing, and humor to make ourselves seem just slightly less than perfect.

So in that spirit, I would like to invite all of you over to my house each weekend to see me cry, threaten to quit everything, and go back on all my principles.

Can't make it? Okay, here's the next best thing:

That time I freaked out and applied to a magnet school.

For those of you not from St. Louis, you should know that a magnet school, true to its name, is a school designed to attract White families to St. Louis Public School (SLPS) district and St. Louis City. Like a magnet. Get it?

It's sounds kind of far-fetched now that we are all "post-racial" (or not), but it wasn't at the time of it's creation. Magnet schools were part of the desegregation program, the Voluntary Interdistrict Transfer Program (VICC), begun in the 1970s. The program had a few goals: 1) increase White student population in the city, 2) increase Black student population in the county, and 3) increase the number of Black teachers. Unfortunately, the last objective has failed miserably. But a limited number of White students did come to the city. However, the Black students who left the city to go to school in the county were the predominant participants of this program, and they continue to be.

*Read "Stepping over the color line: African American Students in White suburban schools" by Wells and Crain for an in-depth look at this phenomenon in St. Louis.

At this point in time, very few White students come from the county into the city. Middle-class White people have been slowly moving back into the city, and magnet schools serve as their first choice for their children. Also, getting into a magnet school requires entering a complicated lottery system. The result is the resegregation of SLPS, as parents with high-status networks navigate the complicated system of magnet and charter schools.

For example, in the Lafayette Square area (i.e. gentrified, upper-class neighborhood) word on the street (i.e. my mother-in-law) has it that a bunch of upper middle-class families (i.e. mostly White) were going to leave the city if they couldn't start a charter school for their kids. In the end, they were able to start a charter school, so we can enjoy their tax dollars for years to come.

Do I sound cynical? Yes, that would be my principles talking.

Because when reality meets my principles, apparently I freak out. Only a few weeks into sending my son to the neighborhood school, I panicked. He was having a really hard time adjusting to school. I felt that the school might not have all the resources that he needed. And so I applied to a magnet school.

Now again, the lottery system is super complex, so to increase your odds of getting in there are a few tricks. Apply early. Select your top two choices carefully. Alter your racial identity if needed. No, seriously, that is the advice that White parents have suggested, only sort of jokingly. Because that last one is illegal.

After I had carefully weighed my options, entered my choices, and maximized the possibility of getting selected, I submitted my application. And then I did some actual research about the magnet schools.

And oh, my gosh, I just replicated the research on school choice.

As a middle-class, White parent, I relied primarily on the reputation of schools rather than concrete information. And what I found in terms of information was disheartening.

While it is true that Metro and Kennard are at the top of the state in terms of test scores, there are quite a few magnet schools that are "failing" according to MSIP, the state accreditation organization. Additionally, the schools that have been labeled as "failing" are also the schools which White middle-class parents have mostly abandoned. Curiouser and curiouser.

This realization shocked me back to my principles. It made me angry. Because while I know you can't tell the whole story from an MSIP score or MAP test results, you would be hard pressed to convince the general public of that. What they see in terms of statistics is what they believe. At the same time, it was a reminder that school quality is largely a social construction. And magnet schools have been perceived as yet another magic bullet, when in fact, they are not.

It made me realize that my son is just a well off in a neighborhood school that actually has a passing MSIP score. And it reminded me that my school is what I put into it. As much as we have already invested in the school in terms of time and money, we will have to stick around for the long haul to see the pay off. Because school reform is a long, slow burn. Solidarity is a commitment.

This leads me to my final point. I had a conversation with a friend recently who suggested that I am really advocating for gentrification. In other words, sustainable social justice requires some that people with resources to join arms with people who have fewer resources. At the time, I internally resisted but couldn't see the nuance for all rehabbers. Here is my delayed come-back.

Absolutely, there is a place for privileged folks like me. However, I see gentrification as a move to replace the local population with privileged people. Solidarity, on the other hand, focuses on low turn-over rates and sustainable growth. It's a subtle, but important different.

So to all my White and middle-class people working for social justice in marginalized spaces (and to myself):

Keep Calm Font Poster

and solidarity on.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The blog post that lost friends

I was going through my old blog posts and noticed a big shift starting last summer.  Not only did I dramatically change topics, from granola and chickens to the social construction of "race," but I picked up quite a few more readers along the way.  Not that granola and chickens aren't interesting.

I think the major change was my level of passion.  And by passion, I may mean that I got angry.  Really angry.  See, there was this blog post.  This "look-mom-I-went-to-the-library" blog post.  I was excited.  I was motivated.

And White people attacked me.  People I knew.  People I cared about.  They said that racism wasn't real.  They said, if racism did exist it was because people like me went to grad school and got brainwashed.  If I could just stop reading about it, it would all go away.  I actually lost friends over this first post.

But then there were other friends who were intrigued.  Specifically, one friend, a Black woman, asked me to write about what I was reading.  She wanted to know more.  So I kept writing, clunky at first, figuring things out as I went along.  It was dry.  But I was learning.

I have stopped being so shocked and hurt about that initial reaction.  I am better at seeing through the rhetoric.  I don't get confused when people go all "colorblind" on me.  I try to remember the positive dialogues that have happened, the encouragement along the way.  I'm still angry, but I have more compassion. 

So I've come a long way.  I have a long way to go. And we have new chickens.

My question for my readers: What would you like to see more of?  Do you have questions about my journey, urban education, anti-racism, or anything else? Let me know!