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.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Q's School Tool: Part 6: Rocket Scientists Agree: It Ain't Rocket Science

First come the middle-classers, then come the researchers. Jennifer Burns Stillman is a PhD research analyst employed by the NYC DOE in its "Office of Innovation," a term that sounds like a bit of an Orwellian oxymoron. Why not "Bureau of New Ideas" or "Department of Interdepartmental Innovation Diagnostics and Achievement Coordination?" (I mean, does anyone ever actually think about how these things sound to the outside world? At my job, once a month I have to log in to the federal governments Payment Management System, using it's acronym. Once a month. Unbelievable...)

Back to the PhD in question.

Ever wonder what the eggheads are saying about the process of gentrification in schools? Stillman wrote "Gentrification and Schools: The Process of Integration When Whites Reverse Flight."  I'm linking to her book on Amazon so I'll feel better about reprinting the piece she offered up to By all means, buy the book! But, if you're as lazy as I am, what you'll get from the below, if I may paraphrase, is basically the same reasoning that any yuppie-esque (not quite yuppie, but not quite not) parent looking at public schools in Brooklyn can pretty much recognize without the advanced degree. Still, it's helpful to have the ideas laid out by someone who's put time into the analysis. Along with Lance Freeman's book "There Goes the Hood," which she name checks, it's nice to see a rational assessment of the plusses and pitfalls of neighborhood integration. I'm sure there are those who see only the positive or only the negative, but there are rational cases to be made for a more nuanced view. Here's Dr. Stillman's:

I researched the process of school integration in gentrifying neighborhoods because I think school integration remains an important societal goal, despite the dismantling of racial integration programs across the nation. Gentrifying neighborhoods seem full of potential.

I wanted to figure out how a school without any white, middle-class families goes through the process of integration. What does it take to attract the first white families to a school in a gentrifying neighborhood? And the next wave? And the next? Why do these families stay or go? Is there a point at which we can say the school has successfully integrated? My research question was one of process, not outcomes, relying on existing literature that links integration with positive effects. I am a “gentry parent” myself (which I define as white, middle and upper-middle class, highly educated parents who are gentrifying a neighborhood with their presence and wealth), and I understand why neighborhood gentrification is controversial.  

Long-time neighborhood residents might be displaced as rents increase, and the neighborhood might lose whatever was considered its authentic character. But I think there is a lot of possibility wrapped up in the demographic mixing happening in these neighborhoods, if only the people living in these neighborhoods could figure out how to engage in some sort of meaningful social mixing. My hope is that if the schools in gentrifying neighborhoods integrate along with the neighborhood, some common ground can be found between the opponents and proponents of gentrification.

How did you conduct your research?
I decided to allow the racial aspects of gentrification guide my research, even though gentrification is primarily an issue of class.  Lance Freeman, author of “There Goes the Hood,” argues that while middle-class black and Hispanic families can be — and usually are — part of the gentrification process, it is the entrance of white families into a neighborhood that overtly signals a neighborhood’s gentrification, and causes the non-gentry residents to take note and react. I decided the same reasoning would apply to schools.

I interviewed more than 50 white, middle-class “gentry parents” in three different New York City gentrifying neighborhoods about their elementary school choice process — those who were utilizing their neighborhood school, those who were sending their children elsewhere, and those who had tried their neighborhood school and left.  Because these families typically have the ability to choose something other than their zone school, I hypothesized that school integration in a gentrifying neighborhood must happen through the collective choices of the more privileged group.

What were your major discoveries?
School integration in gentrifying neighborhoods does happen, but rarely. It happens through a chain of actions and reactions of different types of gentry parents, each with a different threshold for tolerating their own minority status, each with a different idea about whether they can and should try to change a school to better match their preferences.

The first gentry parents who enroll their children in a segregated school usually find some sort of enclave program where they can concentrate their presence, like a Gifted and Talented, Dual Language, or preschool program. If this first group of gentry parents feels welcomed by the principal, and if the principal can successfully bridge the “gentry/non-gentry culture gap” that exists between the new type of parents who are coming in and the existing parent community, this first wave of gentry parents will keep their children enrolled in the school, and they will work to attract the next wave of gentry families with a flurry of activity and outreach, primarily through staging impressive school tours, all of which will give the school the label “changing” in the gentry neighborhood network.
“Changing” schools are difficult to move to the final stage of integration. Many gentry parents enter a “changing” school because it appears to have already changed enough to match their most important school preferences — diversity and progressive pedagogy. Often, however, they discover it actually hasn’t changed enough for them to feel comfortable. The school feels too traditional, too authoritarian in tone, and these less tolerant gentry parents take their children out, looking for a school that can give them what they want. If this skeptical group does stay, the final wave of gentry families will soon arrive, and the school successfully tips and becomes integrated, or “diverse,” as the gentry would say.

Schools that have the easiest time integrating seem to have the following two characteristics: First, a school with a diverse non-gentry composition appears to be more welcoming of gentry families, as there is not a single, dominant culture that already exists in the school beyond the school culture. The principal is already skilled in managing a diverse constituency, and adding the gentry to the mix is not jarring in the way it is when a school is primarily one ethnic/racial group. Second, a school that is in a neighborhood much further along in the gentrification process has a surrounding community much more accepting of school change, which gives the principal political room to adjust the school’s culture to better match the preferences of the gentry.
What can policy makers learn from your work?

Enclaves are an important tool for gentry parents who need to concentrate their presence to feel comfortable in a school. But, those enclaves that screen children, such as G&T programs, risk alienating the existing school community and usually fail to achieve socio-economic integration. To facilitate enclaves without screening, I propose the creation of Urban Education Cooperatives (UECs). As conceived, UECs would be groups of parents, formally organized by a school district (in the case of  New York City, the Community Education Council would likely be the organizing force), who are committed to public education, but who don’t feel comfortable with their zone school, and are willing to enter a district school that is underutilized by zone families if they are guaranteed two things: 1) That their children will be in the same kindergarten classroom with other members of the UEC, and 2) That they get to decide, as a group, which school they would like to attend after meeting with the principals and parent leaders of each school in the district that is identified as an option.

An alternative to UECs would be to target new charter schools in gentrifying neighborhoods, with the intentional goal of recruiting a diverse student body from day one. If the goal is integration, changing a school is much more difficult than starting a new one, especially when the new school is not restricted by zone lines and can cast a wider net for students. In New York City, there is a nonprofit organization that has recently been formed to achieve this goal, the Tapestry Project. It is currently recruiting school leaders to found racially and socio-economically diverse charter schools, and I am hopeful about its potential to foster a new crop of diverse schools in gentrifying neighborhoods.

I was going to leave her analysis alone to fend for itself, but I gotta point out that I'm not crazy about her use of the word gentry. As far as I'm concerned, neighborhoods like ours already HAVE gentry. It's not like no one was here before discovered the neighborhood! If "gentry" is to have any useful meaning in the non-British-coat-of-arms-nobility sort of way, I think it has to refer to leadership and commitment to the civic betterment of a neighborhood or place. And there have always been people who match that description, regardless of their background or wealth. I understand the use of the word of gentrification in all its glory, but if the word "gentry" is going to be used to describe anyone, it's the people who have held positions of stable esteem for decades, not newcomers. (Also, someone able to buy a house for $150,000 back in 1980 probably WAS wealthier than most people around them! I remember when $150,000 seemed like a fortune to me. When I was making $19,000 a year anyway, and interest rates were way higher, there's no way I could have afforded a $150,000 house! And I certainly didn't consider myself "poor" back then. Oh Einstein, with your damn relativity! Can't thou just let me be?)

Also, I continue to be amazed how supposed liberals have completely given up on the idea of subsidized or controlled rental schemes. We now just take it for granted that capitalism will do its thing, that there's nothing to be done about it, so why even bother. There was a time when people banded together to create things like rent control and stabilization and public housing and Medicaid and Medicare and folks, it wasn't that long ago. A lot of people who led those fights are still with us. Maybe some of them are the current "gentry" of our very neighborhood. Rather than fight, we're all just looking for a good cup of coffee and nice sit down restaurant. Sound harsh? It's meant to! In fact, most "liberals" I know have firm arguments in hand for dismantling unions (teachers, other City workers) and laissez faire housing strategies, like the elimination of rent stabilization. What a long strange trip it's been, indeed.

By the way, I'm not even sure where I stand myself on any of it anymore. The propaganda is so deep on all sides I can hardly think straight.

All that chatter aside, I like the fact the Skillman calls it like she sees it. She's looking at the "gentry" from their perspective, which happens to be her own, and she's describing the view very well. Now, for the other view...perhaps someone wants to take it from here? If you want to write it as a full blown essay, write me here and I'll create a separate post out of it.






The Snob said...

I admire your dedication to unpacking this thorny topic.

I also somewhat loathe her use of the word "gentry" -- it's so typical of the mindset that says nothing exists before white people get there (colonialism, right?). I also find her policy conclusion a little off-putting (why such special treatment?). However, as a white person, I can reflect on my own reality and the challenge is, as she puts it, spot-on: You have to be comfortable with being a minority, and having your children be minorities. Personally, I think that's character-building, and it's a big part of why we are city people. But we are also lucky to be in an educational setting where we feel comfortable, which speaks to school culture and not just superficials of race.

As to your observations about our market-driven way of life, that fight, unfortunately, seems very much over.

Nice job, as always.

JDB said...

Snob perhaps race will one day be something that is "superficial" but I doubt many non-whites would make the statement that race is "superficial." I am not saying that it is right but race very much matters. Being a minority in any circumstance will, in part, shape your view of those around you and shape the views of others towards you. I am not trying to be critical of your statement because I obviously hope we can get to a point where race is not a defining issue but we are certainly a long way off.

I grew up in a very white school and was at times one of one non-white students and at other times I was one of a few non-whites. I'm not sure I would say it was an exercise in "character-building."

I agree with the author in that there must be a critical mass of minorities in a situation in order for them to have some comfort level but the idea of separating out the white kids in the school does not seem to be meaningful integration.

As to the Q's point about the fight over the Great Society ideas - I think that is a fight that is still very much alive but with any grand theories there comes a time to reevaluate and discard things that don't work. As an example, does anyone think it would be a good idea to build new giant public housing projects that would be administered by the geniuses at NYCHA. When there is enough evidence that something doesn't work, I would much rather move to a new idea then continue to throw money at bad ideas no matter how noble the stated goal.

Anonymous said...

JDB, I think you make a very good point.
There is a huge difference between being a white "minority" as a relatively wealthy kid among people of color in your school/ neighborhood, versus being a person of color, well pretty much anywhere in America. White privilege is such a strong force, it allows people to analogize themselves to being a minority when really - they are still a member of the white majority with all attendant white privilege in this country, and this city. The neighborhood/school they are in at that moment has just forced them to think about their own race -- for once. In that way - perhaps it is "character building"!

The Snob said...

JDB -- you are right. When I said "superficials of race" I didn't mean it to read as trivial. I meant "on the surface," as in white-skin and brown-skin, when the issues are more complex. And as far as character building, you are again right. I think it's character building for white people to be minorities sometimes.

Getting that critical mass is important. I think the author's goal was to give all the "gentry" a safety net so they could be sure that they would all jump in together. It seems a little contrived. And a little priveledged.

Anonymous said...

Being a minority as a white person has been an amazing experience. Every piece I've read including now this one about how to change and/or improve public schools lists an open-minded principal as being essential. PS 92 does not have that kind of principal. Just pointing it out.

Anonymous said...

Re: She's looking at the "gentry" from their perspective, which happens to be her own, and she's describing the view very well.

At least she disclosed her own bias as a researcher. I'm not sure though how this will affect the validity of the research.