The Q at Parkside

(for those for whom the Parkside Q is their hometrain)

News and Nonsense from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Lefferts and environs, or more specifically a neighborhood once known as Melrose Park. Sometimes called Lefferts Gardens. Or Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Or PLG. Or North Flatbush. Or Caledonia (west of Ocean). Or West Pigtown. Across From Park Slope. Under Crown Heights. Near Drummer's Grove. The Side of the Park With the McDonalds. Jackie Robinson Town. Home of Lefferts Manor. West Wingate. Near Kings County Hospital. Or if you're coming from the airport in taxi, maybe just Flatbush is best.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Q In the News

They say that in a humble life your name appears in print three times: at birth, marriage and death. Apparently the Q is not succeeding in his pursuit of humility, because there I was today being quoted in the Old Gray Lady herself. It's an uncomfortable quote with which to be associated, even if I'm merely repeating things I've heard over the past couple years. I believe that the writer's quoting of me quoting others would be considered hearsay in a court of law. In the court of public opinion, I doubt anyone will question the veracity of the remarks that I've heard. When people react to being quoted in the Times they usually say "I was misquoted" or "taken out of context." In my case, neither was true. He got it right, though of course he pulled the most provocative quote, basically suggesting that white folk have a hard time being the first to "integrate" an overwhelmingly non-white public school. Nearly 60 years since Board v Brown, I reckon no one would gasp at that statement.

Sonny (N.R.,) Kleinfield happened to be researching his story the same day I was at the school in question - Explore Charter School on Parkside at Nostrand - writing my bitty little post on the school. We talked, and he was obviously on a totally different trip than me that day. The school was suspicious he might be focused solely on race, and in fact he was. His piece might shock some a few people, but not anyone who's paid the least bit of attention to what's going on in urban elementary schools. The system's way segregated, and not just by race. Frankly Kleinfield's story is not terribly new or interesting to me, but his quotes from students are outa-the-park eyebrow raising. I hope some of the things kids said will resonate in the larger conversation about race and schools. It seems like the students are the last ones to be asked about ANYTHING happening in the schools. Weird, right?

What Sonny left out was the more nuanced parts of the conversation (fancy that) about the things that freak parents out about going to their local zoned school. One is culture - middle-class-college-educated folks feeling uncomfortable in un-middle-class-college-educated environments. Some folks, too, are probably intimidated by majority immigrant populations, be they Mexican, Arab, Asian or Caribbean. Yes, culture plays a role, and you'd miss that point if you looked only at skin color. Even within the "black" environment around here the variety is staggering. A recent Haitian refugee from the 'quake, an African doctor, a Guyanese grandmother, a mixed-race Brooklyn College student, an African-American veteran from Michigan? Check.

Then there's "class." It's a tricky thing in American culture to draw the lines definitively, since it's not always about money. But most people know the difference even if they have trouble assigning particulars...and the fact remains that people have always been more comfortable hanging with their own. Americans also suffer from class and money envy, and it can warp our sense of who we are in the pecking order. If you went to a prestigious college, say, but don't make much money, you might feel "entitled" to an upper-class life, even if your earnings don't measure up. Tons of people end up in serious debt by living outside their means, and it's not just carelessness - it can go deeper than that. They even have 12-step groups for "under-earners." That is, people who feel entitled to a certain lifestyle, but don't earn enough to support it. Intense. And totally common.

A huge factor often overlooked in the discussion is that, particularly in NYC and particularly particularly in Flatbush/PLG, multi-racial families are a big part of the mix too. Are the kids mostly white or mostly black? I know it's an absurd question, but it comes up, and people struggle with identity in a racially dichotomous world. As the races blur, perhaps we're moving towards other "signifiers" when assigning "race." Or maybe sometimes race is a stand-in for other qualities. I'll leave that to the sociologists and anthropologists, cause it gets pretty tangled. Needless to say, it throws a wrench into the black-school white-school schism.

And what does it mean when a school claims "diversity" of race, but the families are more The Obamas (Harvard) than The Jeffersons (nouveau-riche), or Good Times (the projects)? Movin' on up indeed. I know mixed-race couples who have heavy mixed-feelings about the whole school thing...sometimes a black parent feels even MORE obliged to send their kid to a mostly white environment. One African-American friend told me a couple years ago that his parents would be devastated to see their grandkids in a mostly black public school. Devastated.

And then there's money, or rather lack thereof. When a school population is overwhelmingly poor, the middle-class parents in the zone cringe at the thought. They associate abject poverty with crime, pathology, violence, single-parenthood and depravity. Think I'm exaggerating? Though those words apply to a small fraction of the folks living on my hardscrabble block, folks often conjure the worst when they imagine sending their little one to school locally. "See that gang of hoodlums down the block? That's probably the best that school to produce." Okay, no one actually said that, but they sure could have. I'll be honest...on my way to work I see nothing but sweet little kids heading off to grammar school - maybe a bully or two, just like when I was a kid. And frankly, even most of the really bad high school aged kids aren't going to school at all. Least not as far as I can tell.

[Another freakout point for middle-class white families? If they DID manage to scrape together enough dough for a well-appointed high-cost private school, they might end up being one of the poorest families there. Even if in the neighborhood they live, they're among the top-earners. Welcome to NYC.  What's up can be down, and there's simply no escaping the strata.]

But hey now...reality check. When we talk about the local school, what we're talking about is not the bogeymen...it's kindergartners. Five-year-olds. These are the beasts we'd be sending our kids to school with. Oh, and a bunch of adult teachers and administrators, most, though not all, with a career's worth of wisdom to impart. With degrees in education. Who might be white, might be black, might be greenish blue and turn into fire-breathing trolls at midnight. Put another way...what if the difference between the good and bad public schools wasn't as stark as all that? Would it even matter, given that so many of us see through race-and-class fogged glasses?

Or maybe it's all just fear and ignorance. Same as it ever was.

(So Q, you have young white kids. What are YOU gonna do, Mr. Smarty Pants? Well, unless I lose my nerve or forget my password, I'll be happy to tell you as it all happens. I mean if you're gonna write non-fiction, you better tell the truth, right? Or then it becomes fiction, like some of those addresses people use when getting into a "good" public school out of zone. I hear some pediatricians are lending out their addresses now to their patients. It's a weird world out there folks. And getting weirder. Noticed the weather much?)

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

The article also painted this school as not making an effort to hire black teachers. It failed to point out that this particular school's staff of roughly 40% "diverse" staff is WAAAYYYY higher than just about every charter school in NYC. In my opinion, an article about the lack of black teachers in schools would benefit from a look into the lack of black students studying to become teachers. If a tiny fraction of applicants are black, it seems disingenuous to criticize a school who has managed to at least triple that fraction in its staff.

Anonymous said...

Explore is a great school in a troubled district. Kleinfield came to do a hatchet job and he succeeded. Even great schools occasionally get a low grade in the year over year comparisons. And the school only just moved into its new facilities and is trying to work out the logistics. They did a remarkable job this year despite not being welcomed as an equal partner in the building that given to them by the DOE. Some people are convinced nothing good is happening in the public schools and can't even see the points of light when they see them.

Mama Amanda said...

I really appreciate all of the careful and thoughtful things that you have to say on this issue. I was also deeply interested in the content of the NY Times article, particularly because I am a white mother of two living in this neighborhood, and I just completed the public school application process for my son who will be attending kindergarten in the fall. I did not apply to Explore, didn't even consider applying. And to me, diversity is incredibly important. I want my son to grow up in a diverse-- both racially and socio-economically--community. But it is equally important to me to find a school that has a curriculum that teaches creative and critical thinking and encourages students to allow their minds to soar, rather than to sit at a desk and go through their test-taking skill drills. I honestly felt that Explore, diversity issues aside, might not fit the bill. I ended up settling on the New American Academy, also in the district, also mostly black and economically disadvantaged, but with a curriculum that seems truly progressive and interesting, and to come closer to meeting the standards that I would like my son's education to meet, more so than even many of the mostly white schools in Park Slope that so many people I know choose. It is rare that an issue that has been central to my ever waking thought is also out there in the media, so thank you for continuing this discussion beyond what the NYT had to offer.

MadMommaCarmen said...

Q, I thought your quote on the article was spot-on. I have had the very same conversation with parents in our community who outright refuse to even consider schools within our district due to the "guinea pig" belief. Its always rubbed me the wrong way 'cause in the same breath they talk about the Park Slope, Ft Greene and Prospect Heights schools as preferred due to their lack of diversity.

While certainly each parent will choose what is best for their child, we all need to be aware of the fact that not enrolling in one's local schools takes money and resources away from said schools. This, in turn, causes a cascade effect which oftentimes dooms the school to failure.

MadMommaCarmen said...

I just want to clarify, that the preferred lack of diversity that some parents have expressed to me has specifically been in regard to less poor black kids. True story.

Anonymous said...

Great post, and great response to the article. There's quite a wave of babies in all these newly arrived PLGers, many of whom are not of the means to send kids to private school. Will be interesting to see what happens in the coming years!
- Paul (who is leaning towards sending his boy to local public school when the time comes)

Brenda from Flatbush said...

It's a darn shame the diocese is shuttering so many Catholic schools. They're a great alternative to the public/private dilemma: low-tech, safe, disciplined, and often diverse. Holy Name of Jesus in Windsor Terrace is merging with Immaculate Heart of Mary in Kensington, staying in the Holy Name bldg (PPW/Prospect Ave) and getting renamed "St. Joseph the Worker Academy." They should do well; might want to check them out. (Many students are non-Catholic, it's not shoved down your throat.) That said, kudos to Q for a very thoughtful post. It certainly reflects the kinds of paradoxes I've experienced over 25 years in nearby--diverse--Caton Park.

carrie said...

The story isn't about privileged white people and the decisions we make; it's about the lack of opportunities and cultural capital of kids whose only options are schools where everyone is black and poor.

I empathize with those kids who feel that, by schooling exclusively with other poor black kids, they are missing out. It made me think that perhaps Brooklyn public school students could use a cultural exchange program - one where poor black and Hispanic public school kids visit the affluent, white public schools!

babs said...

Brenda, you are so right. I attended 12 years of Catholic school in suburban LI in the 1960s and 1970s and got a FAR better education, culturally as well as academically, than did any of my neighbors who attended the local (extremely segregated) public schools. And this being the era, our teachers, Dominican sisters for grammar school and Josephites and Ursulines for high school, were way cooler and more liberal than any of the public school teachers. I hope today's Catholic schools are as good.

babs said...

Carrie I believe you're referring to busing. I can just imagine the furor if some PS 321 kids were sent to Brownsville (and vice-versa) after their 'rents sprang for a $3 million brownstone to keep them away from the free lunch crowd.

ElizabethC said...

I'm not sure why avoiding the public school system by sending your kids to Catholic school is any different than avoiding it by sending them to private school. More economical maybe. But the refusal to invest in, and thus improve the public school system is still the same. I found this article to be really sad, in this day and age, in a neighbourhood that I value FOR it's diversity.

Clarkson FlatBed said...

The idea of running Cultural Exchanges like we do between first and third world nations, would be an admission that we're essentially a 1st and 3rd world society in one borough. That's simply too true and scary for anyone to admit openly. So I thank you for putting it so bluntly, Carrie.

Skei said...

I'm coming to the convo late, but what always irks me is- it's not about skin color- it's about resources. I'm from a black dad- and my freed slave great great grandmother went to college and therefore quickly became part of the upper middle class, and a white mother, she's the first on that side to graduate from college. As a biracial middle class Brooklynite- it boiled down to numbers for me- free lunch qualifications actually. If the number of free lunches was over 70% (I think the lowest in our district is 92%) I decided the school wouldn't be right for my daughter. This was a tough choice, I want to send my child to public school, I'd much rather save money for college, then spend it on Pre-K! But when you have a majority of kids whose parents are struggling to make ends meet, it's in such stark contrast to the reality of a middle class life. If we lived in Appalachia, I would make the same decision. For me it's not about race, it's about socio-economics. And frankly, it's insulting to think that because a school is black, it's poor. The majority of black people in this country aren't poor! And my father's family, would never consider many of the schools in our nabe simply based on the number of families that qualify for a free lunch, but I know just like me, they would search for a racially diverse school, with a more balanced socio-economic base. And that's exactly what I did. I do hope to have my daughter in a public school in our zone someday. I don't think it benefits anyone from having all of any one group in class with one another, people grow from learning about new and different experiences, and that's limited when you put wealthy people, poor people, middle class people, of any race -with a majority of their socio-economic group. Just my two cents....

babs said...

In my (albeit not current) experience with Catholic education, and in my observation of the Catholic school population here and in Park Slope (chiefly St Saviour's on Eighth Ave and St Francis Xavier on President St), the schools are openly pro-diversity and work hard to achieve cross-cultural and cross-class mixing. Yes, the schools are (much) less expensive than private schools, but there are a great many need-based scholarship students who pay even less or nothing at all. Furthermore, while Catholic religious education is by no means compulsory, the best parts of its spirit infuse all aspects of the school. Religion is still important to many people; wanting a religious education for one's child is another reason for choosing a Catholic school (or other religious facility, although I find most yeshivas to hardly be models of diversity). Finally, the public school teaching system is so broken by all the myriad union rules, regulations, politics, and disaffected/burned out number of teachers that only an active and vigilant PTA can force it to perform - and you're not likely to get that in a school where most parents have little time to do anything beyond scramble on a daily basis just to keep a roof over the kids' heads and food on the table.

ElizabethC said...

But I think this WAS an article about how those who can afford to jump out of the system DO. Thus leaving children who can't afford to go private as the sole attendants (which explains why the number of free lunches would be higher). I can understand why parents who want to send their kids to a Catholic school for religious reasons might do so. But let's be frank ...many do so simply to avoid the public system, for a lower price. And this cycle will not change or improve until families commit more fully to the communities they live in...and to me, that means investing in the public school system. Investing with time, with energy, and with money. IMHO.

mary said...

It's fear and ignorance and I would add bigotry, same as it ever was.

White people don't like to live around too many non-white people. Even when those non-white people are of the same socioeconomic status. See the link below. Extending that, white people wouldn't want their kids to go to school with too many people of color either.

http://sf.oxfordjournals.org/content/89/4/1385.abstract

sarah said...

My child will attend a NYC public school. I want that school to be diverse. Not all white. Not all black. I'm not sure I am ready to make my 3 year old(which is what he will be when he starts pre-k)or even 4 year-old kindergartner the first white student in a school. It's not the other pre-k students that would worry me, but it is daunting to think of a three or four year-old having all that pressure on him in a school where he will already be one of the youngest students. In the case of the Explore Charter School, the students go up to eighth grade so we are not just talking about sending a kid to school with 5 year olds. I want a school that includes many races, cultures, and people from all walks of life. If I can't get that in NYC, where can I?

Clarkson FlatBed said...

Whether you call it race or resources, it boils down to the same thing for the kids left behind. The "pariah" class of America gets shafted and shunned. I can totally understand a middle class or college educated parent not wanting to hang out with a less "civilized" bunch in the PTA meeting. We're adults; we've had plenty of time to develop our biases. But doesn't it break your heart a little to think that our choices, based on whatever rationale we prefer - free lunches, test scores, racial diversity - leave a bunch of 5 year olds with little chance of growing up with friends and learning partners from the dominant culture?

I've watched people at the Park Slope Food Coop go to great lengths to avoid using a single piece of un-biodegradable plastic. But when it comes to education, we've decided that our choices must not come at the expense of our own children's perfect upbringing - a perfect upbringing which we go to great lengths to manage and ensure, though ultimately we can never know for sure which choice or lesson is truly best and which one merely accentuates our own neuroses and biases. It's all a guess, with real consequences for individuals and for society. In other words, why sweat the plastic bag? We've already failed the greatest moral challenge - to treat our blameless children as equals.

Anonymous said...

"Doesn't it break your heart a little to think that our choices, based on whatever rationale we prefer... leave a bunch of 5 year olds with little chance of growing up with friends and learning partners from the dominant culture?"

Is there is no ethical school choice when, as a gentrifier, you are part of a campaign of ethnic and economic displacement? I don't think so. Worry about the biodegradable baggies.

ElizabethC said...

So does being a race other than black or latino automatically makes you a gentrifier? Or does having enough money to avoid the school system qualify you as a gentrifier no mater what your race is?

MadMommaCarmen said...

Once again, very well said, Q!

Skei said...

"We find no evidence of in-group preferences; rather, results suggest that whites express negative out-group preferences toward black and Hispanic neighborhoods."

This quote is from the link Mary provided. I can tell you, that while I would never dare to speak for an entire population of people, I know my family growing up were very outspoken when they would even see poor blacks in their neighborhood, and would not speak too kindly about them. So for my family this study is not true. I wonder if it's a north/midwest contrast since the study was conducted in Houston.

But again, I have no problem having my kids be in a school where a majority of kids are of one color, but I do have a problem having my kids in a school where the majority is of a lower or higher socio economic status. I went to a very exclusive private school in DC with children of Presidents, VP's and the Rockerfeller's(to name a few). I was not poor- far from it, but at my school, I might as well have been on food stamps. So, you see it goes both ways, I think it behooves all of our kids to be exposed to a spectrum so they can learn about all types of experiences, and not simply have the norms of their world experiences overly reinforced.

Clarkson FlatBed said...

Thanks Skei as always for your candor. You bring a lot to the conversation, particularly given your unique heritage.

I think most parents around here would prefer the kind of diversity Skei describes. The fact is though that it is very much not happening. And since the government has given up on the business of forcing integration (cultural, economic AND racial) that leaves it to us to make it happen. My point from the git-go was: very few parents are willing to be part of that integration effort. They prefer others to lead the way, meaning that change in the public school and ultimately societally happens much too slowly for today's poor to reap any benefits. And parents scramble to find a semblance of the vaunted diversity outside of their zoned schools, rather than working in tandem to make the local school better. This, I've seen, is a fact, not speculation.

The Times nails the problem in its Week In Review piece, essentially calling the integration experiment long dead. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/20/opinion/sunday/integration-worked-why-have-we-rejected-it.html?smid=pl-share


And what is the true feature of the long-running Brooklyn brownstone housing experiment? Million-dollar-plus homes in largely poor, stabilized rent or Section 8 neighborhoods...this is the reality that confronts today's Modern Gentrifier. And it seems that no amount of liberal politics prepares us for the stark choices that must be made in the real world, where so few of us are willing to put our own lives and families to the service of others. And so we betray our ideals, and expect others to do the hard work of social change.

Really, I'm not trying to be harsh. I'm trying to tell the truth. I know of very few people, and it saddens me, who are committed to the goals of MLK (or JC for that matter). I feel like I have no role models, and I'm too scared to be one. When parents say they don't want their child to be a guinea pig, they're expecting everything from the schools and offering nothing in return. It's child-eat-child thinking and it means waiting for another generation to step up to the task. I wonder how we'll view ourselves twenty years hence.

In the culture of $250 roped-off Extra Mooga in supposedly public parks, I expect nothing more.

MadMommaCarmen said...

You need a "like" button, Q :)

While certainly we all want what is best for our children, the "best" is oftentimes muddled by our own life experiences, our insecurities, fears and miscellaneous biases and preferences. When it comes down to it, the vast majority of the time the children don't care. They don't care unless they see us, their parents, getting worked up about things.

On numerous occasions, my daughter had been the only non-white student in her class, whether it was dance, science, gardening or even her playgroup. Up to this day she has yet to notice this fact and even though its my preference that she be in an equally diverse environment, the fact is that my daughter doesn't care. And so I take my lead from her and let her enjoy her friends and the program she's enrolled in without me putting my own two cents into the mix.

Sometimes it is our children who are willing to boldly lead the way down a path that we adults may sometimes be afraid to travel.

babs said...

Like!

Anonymous said...

As an "African American" parent what I value over everything is a quality education in a safe environment for my children. Unfortunately I have not been able to find that at P.S. 92 where I have two children. No moving and shaking going on at that school, and it is just taking up space in a great building. Even though it is nearby, I will homeschool just to get my kids out of there. Lack of discipline among staff and children alike makes the environment unsafe. Applying to public schools in more integrated neighborhoods did not help. Sometimes we give a school a fair shake and it's just not worth it.