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.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Schools and the Racism Discount

To read the rest of my award winning essay (the Q at Parkside Award for Dynamic Bloggering) be sure to go to Romper.

We wanted to live in the big city. We wanted to stay in the City. Then we wanted a house or big apartment in which to raise kids. Seemed straightforward. But that's when the struggle for our very souls began in earnest. The next big question facing us is existential: which school will we send our children to?

Who's we? We are the mostly white, mostly middle- and upper-middle class, schooled in liberal arts, culturally attuned to NPR and the New York Times, The Atlantic and the New Yorker, with a smattering of Mother Jones or The Nation issues in our lobby mail slots. We can go to parties and talk about racism and bemoan white supremacy in a gorgeously renovated living room with a Black Lives Matter placard in the window. We want to fix X and Y problems, and yet when it comes down to it, we support charter schools, “forest schooling,” and testing our children into the “gifted” school.

Living in Hipville, USA, is exhilarating and challenging in equal measures. Smart, funny, fascinating, and quirky people are everywhere. Jobs come in every style, size, and income. Culture and cultures surround us, making us feel like a citizens of the world. We're never more than a subway or bus ride from intellectual stimulation. We become hooked on the daily high of intense, tightly-packed living, full of surprises and adventure. We're often car-less, and take pride that we're leaving less of a carbon footprint than our rural and suburban brethren. We try hard to hide our smugness.

Having developed a pair-bond with a like-minded mate, we decide to mate and spawn offspring. But having a child upended our carefully calibrated sense of moral balance. This was the first time we looked up from our navels and took full stock of where and how we lived. Is the neighborhood safe? Is it clean? Is it too noisy or hectic? Are there other new families to bond with, playgrounds nearby, nurturing day-cares and good schools?

Most of our specific "settling down" decisions were informed by how much money we had or could poach from relatives. (In the minds of every city-dweller you'll find a collectively determined running list of best and worst neighborhoods to live in if you have kids. The personalized version of the list fluctuates with one's own financial condition, the vagaries of hipness, trends, age, and various insecurities and prejudices.) A round of musical chairs ensued, and we all sat down in our various neighborhoods, though some couldn't find an affordable "chair" and had to leave the game. A bonus: we were finally able to confirm our suspicions about who was actually wealthy; you can't hide a four-bedroom townhouse in the middle of a real estate boom.

The rich friends moved to their first-choice neighborhoods, and bragged of the good schools therein. The middle-classes began to re-assess previously undesirable neighborhoods or assail the pricier zip codes as "over" and dull. We started talking about real estate — obsessively. We started to become our parents even before we became parents ourselves. But we're NOT our parents, we'd say. We're more progressive, more open-minded, more attuned to the needs of others and the world's ills. So we convinced ourselves it's desirable to live around other races and cultures and economic classes. We liked to chastise others for living in nearly all-white enclaves.

The RD was greatest for the first to arrive — the Early Bird Special. My wife and I weren't even married when we purchased our house in the Lefferts Gardens area of Flatbush back in 2003. There were just two other white folks on the block, as far we could tell, a block with somewhere close to 1,500 residents living in 30 old town-houses and nearly 500 pre-war apartments. We were a serious minority, and we took great pride in our ability to look past race and poverty. The whites didn't show up in numbers ‘til years later. In all honesty, those early years were awesome, and the least soul-crushing. We were welcomed, and we felt alive.

The black and brown residents of our block were as varied as the world itself. A great number were African-Americans whose families arrived during the Great Migration, some sending their kids down South in the summers to be with relatives, some making plans to move back down permanently once retired. Like immigrants from within their own country. There were hundreds of Caribbeans from every nation, lots of Yemenis, some Puerto Ricans, Africans, mostly citizens but plenty were just residents. No one cared about such things. And not everyone was poor.

Still living four doors down is the two-home-owning gay, black judge, and the Vietnam War veteran who was the first black electrician in the union, the black female sanitation worker who won a multi-million dollar lawsuit, lots of nurses, salespeople, social workers, business owners. There were also lots of Section 8 families, folks with little or no income but who possessed the prized housing vouchers. (Back 15 years ago, landlords would still accept them readily, as the vouchers were a steady and certain source of rental income.)

Some of the single-family homes had become boarding houses. Our three-floor 20-foot-wide row house had eight separate one-room apartments when we bought it — "SROs" in the lingo. It was mostly immigrant men living there, looking only for a place to lay their heads at night while working three, maybe four jobs.

We didn't think about the schools. We thought about how lucky we were to live near the subway, the Park, the Botanic Garden, the Museum. The other side of the park cost three times as much. The racism discount was steep then; the price differential is closer to double now, as more and more white folks have moved east. It's incredible how one can quantify people's discomfort with minorities, but there it is, right on the Zillow listings.

The schools? Education was being delivered, for sure. But our zoned school and the others nearby were nearly all black and all poor. Even the wealthier black and mixed-race couples we'd met sent their kids out of the neighborhood, many to private or parochial schools. Solid, progressive liberal arts grads would say, with straight faces, that their conscience told them to go local, but they didn't want their own kids to be guinea pigs for a school's diversification. It should be noted that most of these parents have still never set foot in any of these schools, let alone taken the time to meet the principal or take a tour. Many used test scores to decide whether a school met the acceptable threshold, even though, as Leonie Haimsen wrote in the New York Times, they are vulnerable to cheating and tend to respond directly to injections of money. On top of which, “the National Academy of Sciences has not once but twice spoken out against imposing this sort of high stakes accountability scheme on our schools.”

A few white parents went as far as to create a charter school to address the lack of good options in the area. Initially, a fair number of white families proudly attended the newly minted Charter School, which had been gracelessly co-located into a beautiful old school building housing longtime neighborhood school PSXY, which was suffering a steep drop-off in attendance. Which, by the way, was a direct result of the accelerating gentrification in the neighborhood that was bringing more school-aged families - plenty to fill the seats at the two under-enrolled zoned schools. But not one (quite literally, not one) of the newcomers felt comfortable sending their kids to the local-zoned schools. The excuses were always a variation on the guinea-pig defense.

I tried to convince playground friends to give it a shot — together if necessary — to just go to the zoned school. A few meetings were held, but one by one our preschool friends chose other options. A couple Montessories here, a couple fancy private schools there, a few homeschoolers and lots of out-of-neighborhood schoolers. The well-regarded local private pre-school actively encouraged parents to go out of zone, even out of district. That well-regarded school leader coached parents on how to "work the system" legally, and how to find schools that were still accepting out-of-zone students to fill their seats. The unstated irony? Her own children were bi-racial.

As in any massive clandestine effort, code words were used to hide the issue facing parents. The Racism Discount had provided for cheaper housing. But it didn't mean the local public schools would also gradually add new wealthier residents at the rate of home equity increase, and the longtime local proud experienced principals weren't going to beg parents to come "save" their schools from lack of cultural and fiscal capital. For many well-bred whites, this was the first time their privilege met a dead-end. Local elected officials weren't much help either. They, too, were black and proud, or white and smarter than to play race games, and they weren't interested in hearing solutions that didn't involve parents simply crossing out of their comfort zones and going local...

To the read the rest of my award winning essay (the Q at Parkside Spot On Award For Accuracy In Bloggiphying) be sure to go to Romper.


Anonymous said...

My wife set foot in the local school, took a tour and met the principal. When it was clear the school was not meant for us, we were asked whether it was because the kids were predominantly black. The answer is no. It was because the classes were taught in an open space and we had a hard time appreciating whether kids could learn in such a hectic environment. Also, since many of these kids are under-served and from poorer families, we theorized, perhaps incorrectly, the student body at large would have behavioral problems because of poor nutrition or not getting enough sleep the night before. If these kids were like the Huxtables, this would be a totally different conversation. I am surprised you mentioned in your article that the public schools are not more white these days. The integration usually comes out of necessity. Q, what will you do when it's time to decide on middle school?

Anonymous said...

The racial demographics of the NY City public school system are as follows:

Hispanic -- 40%
Black -- 30%
Asian -- 15%
White -- 15%

Regarding student achievement -- Asians have set a new high standard every other group should attempt to emulate. The student body at Stuyvesant High School, the leading "exam school" is 75% Asian. Their success is not a function of money. It is a function of the culture and value system found in Asian families.

From Flushing to Brooklyn's Chinatown to Chinatown in Manhattan, places where there is plenty of poverty, the kids are banging the books and leading in the classrooms.

Regarding Brooklyn and middle school -- the goal should be Mark Twain Intermediate School in Coney Island. A middle school with an entrance exam, which is presented as a check for "talent." There are 11 talents for which kids are accepted.

Mark Twain is the primary feeder for the High School of Performing Arts, for the High School for Music & Art, for Stuyvesant, for Brooklyn Tech and for the other "exam schools."

Back to elementary school -- the Gifted Program is the place to be. Stronger students benefit. The kids are smart and more manageable. Their parents care.

But, as my experience has shown, a rift opens in third grade. The Asian and white students move ahead faster than the black and Hispanic students. The rift widens and is crystal clear when kids take the "exam" -- the entrance test for the top high schools.

Asians dominate by a wide margin, followed by whites. Lagging far, far behind are blacks and Hispanics.

Anonymous said...

@10:14 Anon, I hope you're not suggesting that asians are a model minority, which they are not. Yes, some perform statistically better academically compared to other people of color. (But if you drill down to some immigrant Brooklyn neighborhoods these Asian kids are struggling in English terribly). And yes, there is a cultural focus on academics. Among some immigrant Asians, there may an extreme focus that only tests matter and that's not exactly healthy, either. But you touch on I believe a very important point: their parents care. A lot. It goes the same for yuppie white parents. And I see the same for buppie parents in the nabe. So why the rift that opens up in 3rd grade? Too many single young moms? Too few role models? Historical discrimination? If we accept that rift exists, are we as parents willing to toss our delicate flowers and allow for our kids to come out on the right side of the rift? Do you think the Q would send his girls to Mark Twain if they got in? I truly believe that racial balancing will occur in the next several years in our neighborhood. There needs to be more saturation/gentrification before that happens. From at least my perspective, that's not exactly a bad thing if we want our kids to be successful across the racial boards.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:14,
I must agree with you. I used to work in a specialized high school and I can conquer that many of the students of Asian descent face numerous academic challenges; especially with courses requiring writing and reading. This is often reflected on their PSAT and SAT writing and verbal scores. Yes, they are academically focus, and their parents care, and their parents put a lot of pressure on them to succeed. However, they are not necessarily smarter than other ethnic groups. Moreover, that extreme pressure is not necessarily good either. Often, these students face numerous mental challenges as a result.

Anonymous said...

Anon 4:44. Yes, I'm stating Asians are, without a doubt, the current model minority. They replaced the previous model minority -- Jews.

What the heck is "racial balancing"? If you're suggesting having equal percentages of each racial/ethnic group in the top schools, well, you can kiss those schools goodbye.

Our clown mayor and his new clown chancellor should increase the number of specialized schools, creating new ones for those kids whose test scores were not quite high enough for Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, etc.

Of course, attending Mark Twain Intermediate school is a good way for a student to improve the likelihood he will pass the test for the top schools. Any parent who does not steer his kid toward that school is making a grave mistake. The curriculum focuses on talent -- from athletics, to music, art, science, math and creative writing. It's also one of only two schools in the city that teaches Italian.

Are Asians smarter? Does it matter? If they're not smarter, then they prove that hard work pays off in school. If they're not smarter, then their success is available to all.

Anonymous said...

anon 11:05 -- True. Some Asian students have to put extra effort into improving their English. And many succeed.

One of my kids wanted to attend Hunter College High School. The test for that school involves a math section and an English section including an essay. To prepare for that test there are prep courses. Most of them are held in Flushing. The local capital of cram schools.

My kid sat for an evaluation test to identify his weak spots. He aced the math, but his essay needed work. Most -- probably over 90% -- of the kids in these cram schools are Asian.

Bottom line, he didn't take the review course. He took the Hunter test without prep. Once again, he aced the math, but his essay wasn't good enough. He wasn't offered a seat. But he's a science geek and Hunter is not a hard science school. Thus, he wasn't crushed. He went to one of the exam schools, built a great record and was accepted by an outstanding university.

But, guess what? Once again, at that school, Asians are the largest group, though they're not a majority.

Anonymous said...

I agree that family dynamic and emphasis on school is important, but let's be clear: Asians, as a model minority, is a myth. There are numerous media and academic articles that make this conclusion. For ease of reference:

A very important factor to appreciate is USA has over the last several decades selectively recruited highly educated Asian immigrants which has played in Asian American success.

I'm the OP. And by racial balancing, I just mean more diverse, where one race/ethnicity does not make up the overwhelming student body.

PVW said...

I grew up attending a local public elementary school, Caribbean immigrant parents.

There were still white children going to school there, in the 70s before the white flight became complete. It was a local school, no one knew about gaming any systems. If anything, busing was what I remember hearing about at parent-teacher meetings.

But my parents made sure to send me to Catholic junior high and then out of the district for high school. They sent me to one of the specialized schools that required interviews. I can remember it well. They were looking for articulate and bright children. One question I can recall from my interview, how would you get here to school in the mornings? My aunt lived nearby so I used to take the bus with my mom to visit. So I just told them, the xyz bus, get off at abc stop, walk down.

In any event, my parents were not going to send me local for junior high nor high school, they didn't want me around the riff-raff and wanted me to be in environments that reinforced their conservative values.

My parents didn't feel guilty, and they are of African descent. Why feel guilty? You are doing what any parent will do when they have options, exercise them. That is your right and prerogative. Privilege? It is all contextual, how privilege is defined, which you have made clear.

Anonymous said...

anon 12:53 says: "...but let's be clear: Asians, as a model minority, is a myth."

Oh. Your argument seems to boil down to claiming that since Asians are not perfect they cannot be the model minority. Sorry. They are. Other than Jews, no group has come so far as fast.

If people in this city want a program to follow for improving the academic success of kids, they should follow the Asian program. Because it works.

As every parent of a college-bound kid knows, the Ivy League could fill its entire freshman class with high achieving Asians. But, that doesn't happen. Because the Ivies step outside the standard SAT-and-Grades measurements to assess kids on additional criteria. But even then, it's hard to beat the Asians.

Don't sweat it. Just encourage your kid to step it up.

Anonymous said...

re:"Regarding Brooklyn and middle school -- the goal should be Mark Twain Intermediate School in Coney Island. A middle school with an entrance exam, which is presented as a check for "talent." There are 11 talents for which kids are accepted."

There is another gifted and talented middle school in Brooklyn: Philippa Schuyler, I.S. 383 out in Bushwick.

Anonymous said...

Philippa Schuyler, I.S. 383 vs Mark Twain I.S. 239 -- The results are clear. The differences are stark. The Twain students are miles ahead of the Philippa Schuyler students. By every measure, including the ultimate test -- where the kids attend high school. Twain is the school for the kids who've got the right stuff.

Philippa Schuyler

Mark Twain

Anonymous said...

The school-quality issue gets wilder and wilder. Now the commie brigade in the neighborhood is putting in its two cents. The following was written by an English teacher at the charmingly named High School for Public Service.

Robin Bacigalupo(@robinbaci)sums things up this way:

Eliminating school choice would help diversify classrooms, compelling those who purchase real estate in gentrifying neighborhoods like this one to likewise invest in their educational infrastructure.

Hmmm. The re-education camps. Seems Robin is the kind of dummy who does not understand how responsible parents would respond to such nuttiness.