Episode One: The Book of Statuses

We know American public schools do not guarantee each child an equal education. Two decades of school reform initiatives have not changed that. But when Chana Joffe-Walt, a reporter, looked at inequality in education, she saw that most reforms focused on whom schools were failing: Black and brown kids. But what about whom the schools are serving? In this five-part series, she turns her attention to what is arguably the most powerful force in our schools: white parents.

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It’s 2015, and one Brooklyn middle school is about to receive a huge influx of new students.

In the first episode, found above, Chana follows what happens when the School of International Studies’ sixth-grade class swells from 30 mostly Latino, Black and Middle Eastern students, to 103 — an influx driven almost entirely by white families.

Everyone wants “what’s best for the school,” but it becomes clear that they don’t share the same vision of what “best” means.

Here is the transcript for Episode One.

Image
Credit…Eddie Hausner/The New York Times

Listen to Episode Two.

White parents in the 1960s fought to be part of a new, racially integrated school in Brooklyn. So why did their children never attend?

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transcript

Listen to Episode Two.

Reported by Chana Joffe-Walt; produced by Julie Snyder; edited by Sarah Koenig, Neil Drumming and Ira Glass; editorial consulting by Eve L. Ewing and Rachel Lissy; and sound mix by Stowe Nelson

White parents in the 1960s fought to be part of a new, racially integrated school in Brooklyn. So why did their children never attend?

“Nice White Parents” is brought to you by Serial Productions, a New York Times Company.

chana joffe-walt

The New York City Board of Education has an archive of all of its records. Everything that goes into making thousands of schools run for years and years is sitting in boxes in the municipal building. I love the B.O.E. archive.

chana joffe-walt

Good morning. How are you doing?

chana joffe-walt

First of all, to look through it, you have to go to a century-old municipal building downtown. Arched doorways, lots of marble, an echo, vaulted ceilings really makes a person feel like she’s up to something important. You sit at a table, and then a librarian rolls your boxes up to you on a cart. Inside the boxes are all the dramas of a school system. Big ones, tiny ones, bureaucratic, personal, it’s all in there. There’s a union contract and then a zoning plan and special reports on teacher credentialing, a weird personal note from a bureaucrat to his assistant, a three-page single-spaced plea from Cindy’s grandmother, who would please like for her not to be held back in the second grade. An historian friend once pulled a folder out of the archive and a note fell out, something a teacher clearly made a kid write in the 1950s, that read, quote, “I am a lazy boy. Miss Fitzgerald says, when I go in the army, I will be expendable. Expendable means that the country doesn’t care whether I get killed or not. I do not like to be expendable. I’m going to do my work and improve.”

[music]

I came to the Board of Ed archive after I attended the gala thrown by the French embassy, the fundraiser for SIS organized by the new upper-class white families coming into the school. I felt like I’d just watched an unveiling ceremony for a brand-new school, but I didn’t really know what it was replacing. Everyone was talking as if this was the first time white parents were taking an interest in the School for International Studies. But at the archive, I found out it wasn’t the first time. White parents had invested in the school before, way before, at the very beginning of the school. Before the beginning. I found a folder labeled I.S. 293, Intermediate School 293, the original name for SIS. And this folder was filled with personal letters to the president of the New York City Board of Education, a man named Max Rubin, pleading with him to please make I.S. 293 an integrated school. “Dear Mr. Rubin, my husband and I were educated in public schools, and we very much want for our children to have this experience. However, we also want them to attend a school which will give them a good education, and today, that is synonymous with an integrated school.” “Dear Mr. Rubin, as a resident of Cobble Hill, a teacher and a parent, I want my child to attend schools which are desegregated. I do not want her to be in a situation in which she will be a member of a small, white, middle-income clique.” These are letters from parents — largely white parents, as far as I could tell — written in 1963, just a few years before I.S. 293 was built. At issue was where the school was going to be built. The Board of Education was proposing to build the school right next to some housing projects. The school would be almost entirely Black and Puerto Rican. These parents, white parents, came in and said, no, no, no, don’t build it there. Put it closer to the white neighborhood. That way, all our kids can go to school together. These parents wanted the school built in what was known as a fringe zone. This was a popular idea at the time, fringe schools to promote school integration. Comes up in the letters. “Dear Mr. Rubin, this neighborhood is changing with the influx of a middle-class group which is very interested in public education for their children.” “Dear Mr. Rubin, if there is a possibility of achieving some degree of integration, it is more likely if the Board of Education’s theory of fringe schools is applied.” And from another letter, “it is apparent from the opinion of the neighborhood groups involved that the situation is not at all hopeless.” This lobbying effort was so successful that the Board of Education did move the site of the school. This is why SIS is located where it is today, on the fringe, closer to the white side of town, so that it would be integrated.

I tried to imagine who these people were — young, idealistic white parents living in Brooklyn in the 1960s, feeling good about the future. They would have had their children around the time the Supreme Court ruled on Brown versus Board of Education. They probably followed the news of the Civil Rights Movement unfolding down South. Maybe they were supporters or active in the movement themselves. These were white parents saying, we understand we’re at a turning point and we have a choice to make right now, and we choose integration. One of my favorite letters was from a couple who left the suburbs to come to New York City for integration, the opposite of white flight. “Dear Mr. Rubin, we have recently moved into the home we purchased at the above address in Cobble Hill. It was our hope in moving into the neighborhood that our children would enjoy the advantages of mixing freely with children of other classes and races, which we were not able to provide to them when we lived in a Westchester suburb.”

chana joffe-walt

So this is the letter.

carol netzer

This is the letter that I wrote? I can’t believe it. OK.

chana joffe-walt

This is Carol Netzer. Most of the letter writers were not that hard to find.

carol netzer

We had moved to Scarsdale for the children, because Scarsdale has the best — it probably still does — the best school system in the country, but we hated it. We found that we were bored to death with it. It was bland. It was just homogeneous. But living — I don’t know if you’ve ever lived in a suburb. It’s just boring, tedious, you know? There’s nothing going on.

chana joffe-walt

She didn’t like the suburbs. So they moved to Brooklyn and wrote that letter, which I showed her, her 37-year-old self writing about her hopes for her young children, the choices she made back then.

carol netzer

But it sounds as though I was fairly impassioned about it. You know, that it meant something. But I — actually, I can’t think what it meant.

[music]

chana joffe-walt

I went through this box of letters and called as many parents as I could. Most of them didn’t remember writing these letters, which isn’t surprising, more than 50 years ago and all. What I did find surprising is that, by the time 293 opened, five years later, none of them, not a one, actually sent their kids to I.S. 293.

[music]

From Serial Productions, I’m Chana Joffe-Walt. This is “Nice White Parents,” a series about the 60-year relationship between white parents and the public school down the block, a relationship that began with a commitment to integration. In the 1960s, much like today, white people were surrounded by a movement for the civil rights of Black Americans. White people were forced to contend with systemic racism. And here was a group of white parents who supported the movement for school integration, threw their weight behind it. What happened in those five years between 1963, when these white parents planted an impassioned pro-integration flag on the school, and 1968, when it came time to enroll their children? Why didn’t they show up?

These white parents who wanted an integrated I.S. 293, they didn’t come to that idea on their own. They were part of a bigger story unfolding around them. I want to zoom out to that dramatic story because it takes us right up to the moment these parents wrote their letters, and then made the decision not to send their kids to the school. To begin, I’d like to introduce you to our main character in this historical, tale, the recipient of the parents’ letters, the New York City Board of Education. Back in the 1950s, the New York City Board of Ed was not one of those boring bureaucracies that chugs along in the background, keeping its head down. It had personality. It invested in self-image. For instance, in 1954, when the Supreme Court found school segregation unconstitutional, New York City didn’t just say we support that ruling, it celebrated the Brown v Board decision. And notably, it celebrated itself, calling Brown, quote, “a moral reaffirmation of our fundamental educational principles.” That same year, 1954, the New York City Board of Ed made a film honoring multiculturalism in its schools. [CHILDREN SINGING] The film opens with a multiracial choir of schoolchildren singing “Let Us Break Bread Together.” Like I said, the Board of Ed went the extra mile. The Schools Superintendent was a 66-year-old man named Dr. William Jansen, a man that newspapers described as slow and steady. And he definitely delivers on that promise here.

archived recording (william jansen)

The film you’re about to see tells the story of how the schools and community are working together to build brotherhood.

chana joffe-walt

A teacher addresses her classroom, filled with children of all races and ethnicities.

archived recording

Who among you can give some of the reasons why people left their native lands to come to the United States of America?

chana joffe-walt

The camera cuts to a white boy, maybe 9 or 10.

archived recording

Some came because they wanted to get away from the tyranny and cruelty of kings.

chana joffe-walt

Then a Black girl, around the same age.

archived recording

My people are free now. They are proud to be American. But the Negroes were brought here by wicked men who traded in slaves.

chana joffe-walt

This keeps going, kid to kid.

archived recording

We came a little while ago from Puerto Rico. My father wanted work. He wants to give me and my brother a good education. Japan is very overcrowded. The people have little land. So many Japanese came to this country because they wanted to farm.

chana joffe-walt

New York City was the biggest city in America, with the largest Black population in America, and it was saying in films, press releases, public speeches, Brown v Board, we agree. Separate but equal has no place in the field of public education. No problem here. It was also saying, you know who does have a problem? The South. New York City loved comparing itself to the backward South. There are plenty of examples of this in the Board archives, New Yorkers bragging about their superiority to places like Georgia or Virginia or Louisiana. This was the story the Board of Ed was telling. The South was ignorant and racist. New York City was enlightened and integrated. But here is what it was actually like to walk into a New York City school in a Black neighborhood at this time.

archived recording (mae mallory)

The school had an awful smell. It was just — oh, it smelled like this county abattoir.

chana joffe-walt

This is an archival recording of a woman named Mae Mallory. In the 1950s, Mallory’s two Black children were students in Harlem. And when Mallory walked into their school, she did not see children building brotherhood in interracial classrooms. She saw an all-Black and Puerto Rican school with terrible facilities, in disrepair.

archived recording (mae mallory)

So my kids told me, says, well, Mommy, this is what we’ve been trying to tell you all along, that this place is so dirty. And this is why we run home to the bathroom every night. So I went to the bathroom. And in 1957 in New York City, they had toilets that were worse than the toilets in the schools that I went to in Macon, Georgia in the heart of the South. The toilet was a thing that looked like horse stalls. And then it had one long board with holes cut in it. And then you’d have to go and use the toilet, but you couldn’t flush it. The water would come down periodically and flush, you know, whatever’s there. Now imagine what this is like, you know, dumping waste on top of waste that’s sitting there waiting, you know, accumulating till the water comes. This was why this place smelled so bad.

chana joffe-walt

Mae Mallory says the school had two bathrooms for 1,600 children. Mallory’s family fled racial violence in the South, like millions of other Black Americans, who headed to places like New York City, where everyone was supposed to be equal. Instead of welcoming these new students and spreading them out, creating interracial classrooms, the Board of Education kept Black and Puerto Rican students segregated in what were sometimes referred to as ghetto schools, schools that were often just blocks away from white schools. White schools in New York City had toilets that flushed. White children had classrooms with experienced teachers and principals, people who lived in their communities and looked like them. In Black and Puerto Rican schools, half the teachers were not certified to teach by the Board of Education. The buildings were in disrepair, and packed, sometimes more than 1,000 kids in a single hallway. The overcrowding got so bad the Board of Education decided to send kids to school in shifts. And mind you, this was not in the middle of a global pandemic. This was normal, non-crisis school for Black and Puerto Rican kids. One group of children would go to school in the morning until noon. The next group of kids would come in at noon, and stay until 3:00. The Board was literally giving Black kids half an education. In some schools in Harlem, they had triple shifts. This made it harder to learn elementary skills. Reading, for instance. Black parents complained that the schools were not teaching their kids basic literacy, that their white teachers didn’t care, that the summer reading programs were only in white communities, that their children were two years behind white children in reading. This at exactly the same time the Board of Education was making a film promoting the virtues of integration. It was effectively running a dual, segregated and unequal school system.

[music]

For many Black families, the Board of Education was not to be trusted. It did not care for Black children, and it didn’t respect the voices and concerns of Black parents. Mae Mallory says she visited her kids’ school that day because they’d come home the day before and told her a child had died at school. He was playing in the street at recess. Mallory hardly believed it, but she says when she visited the school, she learned, yes, indeed, this child was playing the street because the schoolyard was closed. He was hit by a beer truck. And she learned the schoolyard was closed because pieces of steel from the side of the building had fallen into the yard.

archived recording (mae mallory)

And when I found out that this was true, I went to the principal. So this principal told me that, well, Mrs. Mallory, you really don’t have anything to worry about. You see, our sunshine club went to see the mother, and we took her a bag of canned goods. So actually, she’s better off, because she had so many children to feed. And I couldn’t believe that here a white man is going to tell a Black woman in Harlem that a can of peaches is better than your child. I just didn’t know what to do or where to go. But I know you’re supposed to do something.

chana joffe-walt

It was 1957, three years after the Supreme Court declared segregation by law unconstitutional. New York City didn’t have Jim Crow laws on the books, but Mae Mallory would ask, the schools are segregated. What’s the difference? She didn’t care whether that segregation was codified by law or by convention. The harm was just as dire. And she wanted it addressed.

archived recording (mae mallory)

This was nothing to do with wanting to sit next to white folks. But it was obvious that a whole pattern of Black retardation was the program of the Board of Education. So I filed a suit against the Board of Education. And I just fought back.

chana joffe-walt

Integration, Mae Mallory would say, was about, quote, demanding a fair share of the pie. She said, our children want to learn, and they certainly have the ability to learn. What they need is the opportunity. The Board of Education had defined integration as a multiracial choir. It was a virtue in and of itself. Mae Mallory saw integration as a remedy, a way to get the same stuff everyone else had — functioning toilets, books, certified teachers, a full school day. Integration was a means to an end.

[music]

Mae Mallory won her lawsuit. She and a few other parents were allowed to transfer their kids out of segregated schools. As for the segregation in the entire system, the judge in the lawsuit turned to the Board of Ed and said, this segregation, it’s your responsibility. Fix it.

Now, on the question of responsibility, the Board of Education was cagey. And that caginess set the stage for the I.S. 293 parents when it came time to send their kids to the school. Here’s what happened. The Schools Superintendent, William Jansen, decided school segregation was not his problem. In fact, he rejected the idea that New York City had segregated schools in the first place. After all, New York City was not barring Black children from entering white schools. This wasn’t the South. Segregation, Jansen said, is such an unfortunate word. He preferred the phrase racial imbalance or racial separation. The way he saw it, racial imbalance in the schools was just a matter of housing. Neighborhoods were segregated. Again, unfortunate, but that had nothing to do with the schools. To make this argument, William Jansen had to ignore the many powerful tools available to the Board of Education. The Board of Education was responsible for where kids went to school. It decided where to build new schools. It drew zoning lines. It decided where experienced teachers teach. There were many ways the Board could have made schools less segregated. I know this because of the Board’s own reports. Jansen did very little to break up school segregation, but man, did he study it. He organized commissions that led to reports that led to further study. You see a pattern emerge, starting in the late 1950s, that looks something like this. Black parents and civil rights groups would pressure the Board to act on segregation. The Board would invite its critics to join a commission to investigate the problem. The commission would study the schools, discover extreme segregation, lay out solutions. The Board of Ed would then take a tiny step toward implementing some of the recommendations until white parents started to complain about the changes, at which point the Board would back off and say it needed more evidence. Another commission, another report. For instance, there’s the Report on the Committee on Integration, a Plan for Integration, the City’s Children and the Challenge of Racial Discrimination, Redoubling Efforts on Integration, the Board Commission on Integration, the Status of the Public School Education of Negro and Puerto Rican Children in New York City, and, my favorite, a bound little red book from 1960 called Toward Greater Opportunity, which summarizes the previous investigations with this groundbreaking conclusion. Quote, “we must integrate as much and as quickly as we can.” I want to pause for one second and step out of the past back into the world we all live in, just to point out that, over the last few years in New York City, we’ve been reliving this chapter of history. It’s eerie. New York City schools are segregated. There’s a growing movement to do something about that. And for the first five years of his administration, the city’s mayor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, responded in the following way. He refused to say the word segregation, commissioned a number of reports on school diversity. He’s pointed a finger at housing problems as a way to say this isn’t our fault, and he’s studying the problem deeply, which, again, is not segregation, no matter how many times reporters would ask the mayor at press conferences, why don’t you use that word?

archived recording (bill de blasio)

I don’t get lost in terminology. I think the notion of saying we have to diversify our schools is the best way to say it.

chana joffe-walt

I heard a live call-in show on WNYC, the public radio station. A young integration advocate, an 11th grader named Tiffani Torres, asked the mayor, how much longer until you do something?

archived recording (tiffani torres)

And how much more time do you need to study the issue? So to repeat my question, how much longer will it take?

archived recording (bill de blasio)

Tiffani, with all due respect, I really think you’re not hearing what we’re saying to you, so I’ll repeat it. There is a task force, an extraordinary task force, which I’ve met with. They are coming forward with their next report in a matter of weeks. So when that diversity task force comes out with their report, I think they’re amazing. I think they’ve done fantastic work. And so far, there’s a high level —

chana joffe-walt

Mayor de Blasio likes to point out that this was a problem created by people long before him, which is exactly what people long before him said, too.

[music]

In the late 1950s, when Black parents and civil rights activists also asked the Board of Ed, why is it taking so long, board members complained about the, quote, extremists who wanted instant integration. Superintendent Jansen said, “some people want us to build Rome in one day.” While the Board of Education was building Rome in 1956, ‘57, ‘59, and in 1960, 1962, ‘63, Black parents found each other on PTAs, in civil rights organizations, pro-integration groups. They formed new groups, organized sit-ins, boycotts, demanded the Board provide a timetable for citywide integration. They joined forces with Puerto Rican parents, and their numbers grew. These were volunteers, mothers mostly, who left their jobs at the end of a workday and headed directly to a meeting about how to get the Board to give their kids the education white children were already receiving. Finally, in 1964, 10 years after Brown versus Board, Black and Puerto Rican parents said, enough. They were sick of waiting, sick of lawsuits, sick of asking for a remedy, sick of being ignored. So they went big, spectacularly big. They shut down the schools. They organized a civil rights demonstration that was the largest in US history, larger than the March on Washington. It was called Freedom Day, a massive school boycott.

archived recording

(CHANTING) Freedom now!

chana joffe-walt

On February 3rd, 1964, parents headed out to schools in the morning before sunrise to spread the word about the boycott. It was freezing cold that day. There’s a brief TV news clip of a group of mothers picketing outside their kids’ school at the start of the school day. They’re holding up signs that say, “we demand a real integration timetable now,” and “integration means better schools for all.” They’re handing out leaflets to other parents about Freedom Day, looking spirited and cold. A white NBC news reporter in a fedora walks up to one of the women.

archived recording

Ma’am, it’s a little after eight o’clock now. How successful has the boycott been so far? Very effective. So far, about 10 children have gone in, and there would be ordinarily 240 children. And 10 have gone into the morning session, which begins at eight o’clock. So you think you’ve already seen the result? Yes, I think so. The school is just empty. Does it surprise you? No, because we knew how effective — We talked with the parents. We distributed leaflets. We’ve been working very hard. And we prayed that it would be effective.

chana joffe-walt

There were maps and charts and instructions with picket times and picket captains for hundreds of schools. There were volunteer shifts to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, to hand out thousands of leaflets and stencil posters. The boycott wasn’t just effective — it was extraordinarily effective. Half a million kids stayed home from school that day. Half a million, close to half the school system. But the press barely covered it. After searching every major TV network, I found only one kid who was interviewed, a teenage boy, maybe around 16, on the street with some friends, protesting. A white ABC News reporter doesn’t ask him why he’s there. The only thing he asks him about is violence. The kid responds.

archived recording

We’re coming down here today for a peaceful — peaceful— No comment! No, we’re not going to be violent. We’re just teenagers and kids. And — Do you expect violence here today? No, sir, not if — look at the blue uniforms. You ask me do I expect violence.

chana joffe-walt

He gestures to the police on horseback.

archived recording

None of us have any weapons, horses. And all we want is equal education. That’s all. Equal education. Thank you. You get all that?

chana joffe-walt

That was it. Every once in a while, I’ll hear a politician or friend or school administrator say, yeah, integration was a good idea, but there was no political will to make it happen. 460,000 kids, half the school system. The will was there. The majority wanted integration.

[music]

After Freedom Day, the Board of Education introduced some small-scale integration plans, and white parents protested. [CHILDREN SINGING] We love our children. Oh, yes, we do. We will not transfer —

chana joffe-walt

With their own marches, they put on their own school boycott. The flipside of freedom day, a white boycott. The white parents were far fewer in number. But as far as I can tell, they got a thousand times more press coverage.

archived recording

Mrs. Carcevski?

speaker

Yes? Are you going to send Johnny back to school now? No. She belongs here, and I want to send my child here. So nobody is going to tell me where to send my kid.

chana joffe-walt

This protest worked. The Board of Ed backed off. And in the decades since, the Board of Education has never proposed a city-wide integration plan. The schools have never been integrated. I think the fact of white moms in Queens in the 1960s yelling about zoning changes and busing, it’s not surprising they played a role in killing school integration efforts. But there was another group of white parents who played a quieter, but I’d argue more forceful, role in killing integration. The white parents who said they supported it, parents like the ones who wrote letters asking for an integrated I.S. 293. How did their vocal support for integration turn lethal? That’s after the break. In the American South, schools were desegregated with court orders. Cities and counties mandated desegregation, and the schools desegregated. By the early 1970s, the South was the most integrated region in the country. But New York City did not want to do it that way. No mandates. The New York City Board of Education wanted to appeal to hearts and minds. They wanted to sell white people on the virtues of integration. Have it all happen, quote, “naturally.” Some white people were sold. The white parents who wrote letters about I.S. 293. They believed in integration. So I made a lot of calls to ask, why’d you bail? They had a lot of different reasons. One couple got divorced, and moved. Another guy told me he had political ambitions that pulled him out of the city.

speaker

We loved our brownstone, but I was involved in a political race. And we needed some money for that.

chana joffe-walt

So he sold the house and moved the family to the suburbs, where he thought he’d have a better chance running against Republicans. Many white people moved to the suburbs for jobs, for newly paved roads and subsidized mortgages, leaving Brooklyn behind. I understood what happened there. But some explanations made less sense. Like one guy I called, he did stay in Brooklyn. On the phone, he was telling me why he believed it was important that I.S. 293 be integrated. But then he said his own kids went to Brooklyn Friends, a Quaker private school. I said, oh, they didn’t go to I.S. 293.

speaker

No. As I said, I’m a Quaker, and —

chana joffe-walt

But you were a Quaker when you wrote this letter, asking for an integrated 293.

speaker

I believed it. I believed in it, but —

chana joffe-walt

You weren’t planning to send your kid there?

speaker

No, no, no.

chana joffe-walt

What to make of that? When you get what you say you want and then, given the opportunity, don’t take it. Maybe you never really wanted it in the first place. Then I spoke to Elaine Hencke. Of all the people I spoke with, everything about Elaine indicated someone who did believe in integration, someone who would send her kids to 293. And yet, she didn’t. Elaine was a public school teacher. She taught in an integrated elementary school, until she had her own kids. She was looking forward to sending them to an integrated 293. When her daughter was old enough for junior high school, Elaine visited the school. She was the only letter writer I spoke with who actually went into the building. If this was going to work with anyone, it was going to be Elaine.

elaine hencke

I didn’t know quite what to make of it because the school had a nice plant. Physically, it was a nice school. But it just seemed chaotic and noisy, and kids were disruptive. And kids — [LAUGHS] — kids were doing the wrong things, you know? And kids do. I mean, it wasn’t that they were nasty kids or doing — it was not drugs. It was not drugs. It was just — it just seemed too chaotic to me at the time.

chana joffe-walt

Elaine and I talked for a long time I pushed her — not to make her feel bad, but to get to what felt like a more real answer. At the time that you are visiting, was it majority Black and Hispanic kids?

elaine hencke

Yes, I’m sure it was.

chana joffe-walt

And did that have anything to do with the way that you saw the classroom as disruptive and chaotic?

elaine hencke

I would hope not.

I’m not — I’m not sure how well educated they were, or — you know, I don’t know. I don’t know why I’m going into this.

chana joffe-walt

Well, did you have reason to think that they weren’t well educated?

elaine hencke

Before 293? Well, their reading levels were way down. You know.

chana joffe-walt

I’m just — when you say chaos and disruptive, I’m trusting that what you saw was chaotic and disruptive. But I also know that those are words white people use — we use to express our racial fears, to express real racial fears. Do you think that’s what was happening with you?

elaine hencke

I don’t think I would admit to that. I don’t think that was true. But what I may have thought was that these kids are not expected to do so well in school, all the way from the beginning of school. And here they are, really unprepared in some way, for junior high school or — I mean, the reading levels were low.

chana joffe-walt

Elaine told me when she wrote that letter to the Board of Education, she pictured her children becoming friends with Black kids, learning side-by-side, learning that all children are equal. That’s what motivated her to write that letter. She wanted the picture of integration the Board of Ed was promoting — the picture of harmonious integration. But when she visited I.S. 293, that didn’t seem possible. The reading levels were low. The kids were not entering the school on equal grounds. Her white children had received years of high quality teaching at well-resourced schools. The kids coming from segregated elementary schools had not had that experience.

elaine hencke

I mean, one of the problems is that many of the white kids had higher sort of academic skills, or skills. They could read better. I think — I mean, if the white kids knew how to read in first grade and — and I guess there were Black kids who also could. But it just seemed as if most of the black kids didn’t really learn — learn to read.

chana joffe-walt

But part of the — part of the vocal complaints of black parents at this period of time was that their kids were not learning how to read because schools were segregated, and their kids were kept in schools that were inferior. And that was part of the argument for integration.

elaine hencke

Yes, yes.

chana joffe-walt

That their kids were not going to get the resources, and quality teaching, and good facilities unless they were in the same buildings with kids like yours.

elaine hencke

Right.

I don’t know what to say to that. I just — I guess I just began to feel that things were really difficult for these kids. Schools were not made for them. If the schools were made for them, with their background, what would they be like?

I think there was — and that’s another whole thing. I don’t know about it. I think there was sort of anger in the black community at the white community. A lot of the teachers were white. There were more white teachers, I suppose. People said that that was racism. And of course, it was racism. But maybe the kids were a little angry at the school. I wouldn’t — I couldn’t fault them for that. But on the other hand, then they don’t get as much from the school. I don’t know. I thought the problems were kind of enormous. And I guess I just, at one point, I just decided that my kids should go — went to Brooklyn Friends. And we could afford to pay for it. It wasn’t easy, you know. It was — [LAUGHS] but —

chana joffe-walt

Did your feelings about integration change? Did you believe in it less?

elaine hencke

Maybe.

I think I would have said no, theoretically. But maybe they did. I guess I saw it as a more difficult project then. I sort of did back off from it. I just —

chana joffe-walt

Yeah. It felt when you guys wrote these letters like, this is — integration is this exciting ideal, and we can be part of it, and it’s going to be a meaningful project that’s also going to be kind of easy.

elaine hencke

I certainly didn’t think it would be so difficult. But I — I was, I was innocent, you know? I don’t know. I still believe in it. I do.

[music]

chana joffe-walt

I think what Elaine actually meant was not that she was innocent, but that she was naive. She was naive about the reality of segregation, the harm of it. And naive about what it would take to undo it. She did not know. And I think she didn’t want to know. When Elaine said the word innocent, I felt a jolt of recognition. I felt like Elaine had walked me right up to the truth about her, and about me.

When my own kids were old enough, I sent them to our zoned public school. It was racially mixed and economically mixed. I was excited about that. And it was nice walking to school with neighbors, people I likely never would have gotten to know otherwise. My kid’s first day of school was another boy’s first week in the country. He’d just moved from China, and his mom asked the neighbor where the school was. When she said goodbye that first morning, I think he thought I was a teacher, and he crawled into my lap. We had no words in common, so I just held him while he screamed and cried. By the holiday show three months later, I watched that same boy belt out “This Pretty Planet” on a stage with his classmates. He was the star. He nailed the hand motions. Every other kid up on stage was just following his lead, just trying to keep up. It was such a sweet picture, all of them up there — Black kids, and Mexican kids, and Colombian, and Asian and white kids. And all of us adults supporting all of them. It’s moving, to me, this picture of integration. It is also, I’m realizing right now, writing these words down, the very same picture the Board of Education put forth in 1954 — a multiracial choir singing together, building brotherhood. And it’s dangerous, I think, this picture of integration. It seems perfectly designed to preserve my innocence, to make me comfortable, not to remedy inequality, but a way to bypass it entirely. I can sit in that assembly and feel good about the gauzy display of integration without ever being asked to think about the fact that much of the time, white kids in the school building are having a different educational experience than kids of color. A large share of the white students at the school are clustered in a gifted program. They have separate classrooms and separate teachers. We all blithely call these white children gifted and talented, G&T, starting at four years old. White children are performing better at the school than black children and Latino children. White families are the loudest and most powerful voices in the building. The advantages white kids had back in the 1950s, they’re still in place. When Elaine said she was innocent, I thought about the things we say, nice, white parents, to each other about why we won’t send our kids to segregated schools — because they’re too strict, or too chaotic, or too disruptive. Because the test scores are bad, because we want more play. We want fewer worksheets. Because we don’t want to ride a bus. We don’t want uniforms. We don’t want tests. We want innocence. We need it, to protect us from the reality that we are the ones creating the segregation, and we’re not sure we’re ready to give it up.

[music]

Elaine was not for segregation. But in the end, she wasn’t really for integration, either. All of the choices she made, choices she had the luxury of making, were meant to advantage her own kids. And I understand that. That’s what parents do.

elaine

I remember thinking very clearly that OK, I believe in this. But I don’t sort of want to sacrifice my children to it. I have to look at what they will learn, and what they will do. And for people who sent their kids to 293, it seemed to work out well. So that made me think, well, maybe I made a mistake. Maybe they should have gone there. I know at one point it was very clear to me that I had beliefs that I thought were kind of contrary to my own children’s best interests. And I decided that I wasn’t going to use them to sort of extend my own beliefs. But then I regretted that, because that wasn’t really true.

chana joffe-walt

You regretted what?

elaine

Well, I kind of wish I had sent them to 293 because Joan’s kids had a good experience there.

chana joffe-walt

Elaine’s friend Joan, another white mom who did send her kids to I.S. 293. Elaine still feels bad about her choice. But not everyone felt bad.

carol netzer

We were not pious, kind of, oh, the kids have to go to public school. Not at all. I went to public schools, and there’s nothing to write about.

chana joffe-walt

Carol is the woman who wrote the letter about how she’d come to New York City from the suburbs for integration. I had a hard time reconciling her lack of piety with her letter, which I read back to her, about wanting her kids to mix freely with children of other classes and races. [READING] — which we were not able to provide for them when we lived in the Westchester suburb.

carol netzer

That was all true. Yeah, yeah.

chana joffe-walt

You remember feeling that way?

carol netzer

Well, I don’t really remember feeling that way. And I think that we say a lot of things that are politically correct, without even realizing that we are not telling exactly how we feel. So I can’t really guarantee that it was 100% the way I felt. I don’t really remember. Probably close to it, but I mean, I’m a liberal, you know?

chana joffe-walt

As a parent, did you — do you remember feeling like, I hope my kid has experiences outside of just people like them?

carol netzer

Not especially. I mean, we rushed right away to send them to private school, right? So what was most important to us was that they get the best education. But one of the things that changed it was St. Anne’s School, a sort of progressive school with this man, headmaster, who was brilliant. Opened up St. Anne’s. And if you keep working on this, you’ll hear a lot about St. Anne’s.

chana joffe-walt

I’m not going to tell you a lot about St. Anne’s, except to say this — it’s one of the most prominent private schools in Brooklyn. Upscale neighborhood, prime real estate, lots of heavy-hitters send their kids to St. Anne’s. I had heard of it. What I didn’t know is that St. Anne’s opened at the very same time that Black parents were waging their strongest fight for integration in New York City, in 1965. Right when a lot of the letter writers would have been looking for schools. And it wasn’t just St. Anne’s. New progressive private schools were opening and expanding all over the city. Brooklyn Friends School expanded into a new building, and would double its enrollment. They were opening private schools in the South, too. But down there, it was all very explicit. They became known as quote, unquote, “segregation academies,” schools for white people who were wholeheartedly committed to avoiding integration. In the North, private schools opened as if they were completely disconnected from everything else that was happening at that very moment. St. Anne’s marketed itself as a pioneer, a community of like-minded, gifted kids, no grades. Lots of talk about progressive, child-centered education, the whole child. At one point in my conversation with Carol Netzer I was talking about how integration was happening around his time. And she surprised me by saying, no, not at that time.

carol netzer

I think the — I think that you may be off on the timing for me, because it was too early. They didn’t start really any kind of crusade about integrating until well after I had left the neighborhood.

chana joffe-walt

No, they were integrating the schools in the ‘60s, though.

carol netzer

Oh. It didn’t make much of a splash. We weren’t against it. There was — it wasn’t a big item.

chana joffe-walt

That’s how easy it was to walk away from integration in New York City. You could do it without even knowing you’d thrown a bomb over your shoulder on the way out.

[music]

Here is what I think happened over those five years between the writing of the letters in 1963 and not sending their kids to the school in 1968. Those five years were a battle between the Board of Education’s definition of integration and the actual integration that black parents wanted. For black parents, integration was about safe schools for their children, with qualified teachers and functioning toilets, a full day of school. For them, integration was a remedy for injustice. The Board of Ed, though, took that definition and retooled it. Integration wasn’t a means to an end. It was about racial harmony and diversity. The Board spun integration into a virtue that white parents could feel good about. And their side triumphed. That’s the definition of integration that stuck, that’s still with us today. It’s the version of integration that was being celebrated 50 years later, at the French Cultural Services Building at the Gala for SAS.

In some of my calls with the white letter writers, a few people mentioned that yes, they wanted integration. But also, they wanted the school closer to them. They weren’t comfortable sending their kids over to the other side of the neighborhood. Which brings me to one final letter from the other side of the neighborhood. One I haven’t told you about, from the I.S. 293 folder in the archives. It’s one of the only letters, as far as I can tell, that is not from a white parent. It’s from the Tenants Association for the Gowanus Houses, a housing project, home to mostly Black and Puerto Rican families. They also wanted a school closer to them. The letter from the Tenants Association is formal and straightforward. It says, please build the school on the original site you proposed, right next to the projects. That way, they explained, our kids won’t have to cross many streets. We’ll get recreational facilities, which we desperately need. And it’ll be close to the people who will actually use it. The letter says they represent over 1,000 families. The white families, they numbered a couple dozen. Still, in the name of integration, the white letter writers got what they wanted — a new building close to where they lived, that they did not attend. Note the Black and Puerto Rican families we’re not asking to share a school with white people. They were not seeking integration. That’s not what their letter was about. They were asking for a school, period. The school they got was three blocks further than they wanted. And from the moment it opened, I.S. 293 was de facto segregated — an overwhelmingly Black and Puerto Rican school. What were those years like, once the white parents pushing their priorities went away? Once there were no more efforts at feel-good integration, and the community was finally left alone? Was that better? That’s next time, on “Nice White Parents.”

“Nice White Parents” is produced by Julie Snyder and me, with editing on this episode from Sarah Koenig, Nancy Updike and Ira Glass. Neil Drumming is our Managing Editor. Eve Ewing and Rachel Lissy are our editorial consultants. Fact-checking and research by Ben Phelan, with additional research from Lilly Sullivan. Archival research by Rebecca Kent. Music supervision and mixing by Stowe Nelson. Our Director of Operations is Seth Lind. Julie Whitaker is our Digital Manager. Finance management by Cassie Howley and production management by Frances Swanson. The original music for Nice White Parents is by The Bad Plus, with additional music written and performed by Matt McGinley. A thank you to all the people and organizations who helped provide archival sound for this episode, including the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Andy Lanset at WNYC, Ruta Abolins and the Walter J. Brown Media Archives at the University of Georgia and David Ment, Dwight Johnson and all the other people at the Board of Education archives. Special thanks to Francine Almash, Jeanne Theoharis, Matt Delmont, Paula Marie Seniors, Ashley Farmer, Sherrilyn Ifill, Monifa Edwards, Charles Isaacs, Noliwe Rooks, Jerald Podair and Judith Kafka.

“Nice White Parents” is produced by Serial Productions, a New York Times Company.

Chana searches the New York City Board of Education archives for more information about the School for International Studies, which was originally called I.S. 293.

In the process, she finds a folder of letters written in 1963 by mostly white families in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. They are asking for the board to change the proposed construction of the school to a site where it would be more likely to be racially integrated.

It’s less than a decade after Brown v. Board of Education, amid a growing civil rights movement, and the white parents writing letters are emphatic that they want an integrated school. They get their way and the school site changes — but after that, nothing else goes as planned.

Here is the transcript for Episode Two.

Image

Credit…The New York Times

Listen to Episode Three.

We saw what happened when white families came into one Brooklyn middle school. But what happens when they stay out?

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transcript

Listen to Episode Three.

Reported by Chana Joffe-Walt; produced by Julie Snyder; edited by Sarah Koenig, Neil Drumming and Ira Glass; editorial consulting by Eve L. Ewing and Rachel Lissy; and sound mix by Stowe Nelson

We saw what happened when white families came into one Brooklyn middle school. But what happens when they stay out?

announcer

“Nice White Parents” is brought to you by Serial Productions, a New York Times Company.

chana joffe-walt

I.S. 293 opened in 1968. Renee Flowers was part of the first generation of students to walk in the door.

renee flowers

And you’re talking about the building on Court Street. I went to school there. It was nice. And it was brand new. It was nice.

chana joffe-walt

Were you nervous about going?

renee flowers

Because all your friends — all your friends from the neighborhood was there.

chana joffe-walt

The Gowanus neighborhood where Renee grew up, and still lives — the housing project’s three blocks away from the school. Renee went to I.S. 293, graduated. And she kept going back to the building to play handball, to vote, to attend graduations. Renee coaches the neighborhood drill team, and they’d perform at the school. For years, she’d regularly go watch the basketball tournament. Renee is in her 60s. She’s just retired from the post office. The school has been a fixture for most of her life. She knows every part of the building.

renee flowers

Actually, if you go in on the Baltic Street entrance, the school safety sitting. Then when you walk actually into the building, the auditorium is right to your right.

chana joffe-walt

As we we’re talking, she closes her eyes. She can see it.

renee flowers

Walk up a little more and turn left. And another left, the gym is right there. I know exactly where everything is — the cafeteria —

chana joffe-walt

Renee has this stack of old I.S. 293 yearbooks in her apartment — even the years she wasn’t a student there.

She’ll take the yearbooks out for Gowanus Old Timers Day every August. Renee is Black. She has never wondered why I.S. 293 is located on Court Street; why they all had to walk to the edge of the white neighborhood to get to school. She never heard about the battle over where the building would be located or the white parents who wanted a fringe school. Renee just knew the school was theirs. Imani Gayle Gillison told me the same thing — 293 was ours.

imani gayle gillison

White folks were going to 29 or somewhere else. I don’t where they went really, but they weren’t even at 293. So we didn’t even see them.

chana joffe-walt

Imani was very eager to talk about 293, which I found charming because she didn’t even go there. She says she was one of the only Gowanus kids whose parents entered a Catholic school, and she’s never forgotten it. She was so jealous of her brothers, all her friends at I.S. 293. They called it I.S. or Nathan Hale Junior High School. The kids would all walk home together in a big group. And Imani remembers seeing them in their green Nathan Hale sweaters, hearing them sing the Nathan Hale school song.

imani gayle gillison

There was a pride in their school. They would sometimes be singing it on the way home and stuff.

chana joffe-walt

Really?

imani gayle gillison

Yeah.

chana joffe-walt

Little 10-year-old boys?

imani gayle gillison

[LAUGHS] Yeah, really. That was their anthem. (SINGING) in the Continental Army was a soldier of renown. Nathan Hale, his name was known to be. He was captured by the British in a lone, lone England town, so he died for his own country. So he died for his own country to keep his —

chana joffe-walt

From Serial Productions, I’m Chana Joffe-Walt. This is “Nice White Parents.” We’re telling the story of one public school building to see if it’s possible to create a school that is equal and integrated. This episode — what if we dropped the integrated part?

[music]

I was talking to an academic recently, a sociologist and writer who studies education, a Black woman named Eve Ewing. I was telling her what I was working on. And at some point in the conversation, she asked me, why are you so obsessed with integration? It threw me. I guess I’m obsessed with integration because it feels like an obvious goal. It’s the best way to equalize schools, empirically in terms of test scores and outcomes. But also, segregation is antithetical to the American promise — life, liberty. Segregation is anathema to all of that. It’s caste. But after seeing what happened at SIS, the year the new white families came in, and after learning about how the school was founded on a false ideal of integration, how unreliable white families were, how they paid no attention to the actual voices and needs of families of color, I don’t know. Why expend energy chasing white people who don’t actually want to participate or don’t even show up? Maybe it’s better to set aside integration entirely and focus instead on the kids who do show up. For decades after it opened, I.S. 293 was largely a segregated school. There weren’t any white parents pushing their wispy ideas of integration. The school was pretty much left alone. I’d seen what happens when nice white parents came inside the building. Was it better when they stayed out?

To start, I should say that I.S. 293 was not an experiment in Black self-governance. There were schools like that opening all over the country — schools founded on the premise that you didn’t need white families to get a good education. Integration was not the answer. These schools focused on Black power. They developed afrocentric curricula and insisted on people of color in leadership positions. I.S. 293 was not that. It was a pretty average 1970s public school. The principal was white. The teachers were almost all white. The local community school board, also white. The kids were Black and brown. There were always some white kids at 293, but they were a small minority. I wanted to know — was I.S. 293 a good school back then? There wasn’t much in the official record — some math and writing scores that weren’t great. But aside from that, there was curiously little written about the school. Most schools show up here and there in the archive or in news reports — not 293. which could mean everything was going just fine. Or it could mean the school was falling apart. I found names of some I.S. 293 alumni in Renee’s yearbooks.

chana joffe-walt

Was it a good school?

speaker

I don’t really remember. I think I was one of the first ones to wear pants.

chana joffe-walt

You were one of the first girls to wear pants?

speaker

Yeah, underneath a skirt. [LAUGHTER]

chana joffe-walt

The pants have nothing to do with how the school was. It’s just what she members of this time in her life. She wanted to wear pants. I had a lot of conversations like this. People had fond memories of I.S. 293. People had sad memories. But mostly, they had very specific memories.

rspeaker

Jomar Brandon — yeah, he was like the basketball superstar back then. I just thought he was the cutest thing ever.

chana joffe-walt

I heard about the song that was on repeat the summer before 7th grade, the lighting in the basement, Mr. Barringer, the scary dean, whom everyone called big head Barringer. One I.S. 293 graduate told me what she remembered was a teacher who used her long nails to eat pumpkin seeds in class. I met Sheila Saunders at a barbecue by the Gowanus Houses. She went to 293, so did all of her siblings, friends, nearly everyone else at this barbecue.

chana joffe-walt

Was 293 a good school?

sheila saunders

293 was — I would say it was good because I had nothing to compare it to. That was the local school that we had to go to. So what do we use to rate it?

chana joffe-walt

Was I.S. 293 a good school during this period of time? The more I asked it, I recognized what a modern-day question that is. This is the way we talk about public schools now — good schools and bad schools. At I.S. 293, there was no school choice. Every neighborhood was zoned to its designated middle school. Apart from the white families, most everyone from the community was there — middle class, working class, poor kids, Black kids, hispanic, dorky, goofy, arty kids. Everyone went. I.S. 293 wasn’t good or bad; it was just school. And then something happened at I.S. 293. When I was looking through the Board of Ed archives, the year 1984 stood out. It’s the year I.S. 293 starts showing up in the records. That year, a few parents from the school began asking the district superintendent for an investigation into the local community school board. One person, writing on behalf of the 293 Parent Association, suggests an investigation is critical because the board is planning in secret to harm the school. The board, this person says, is, quote, “controlled by people who are out for the real estate interest and have little regard for minorities.” Another parent writes, they’re unhappy with the local school board because it has, quote, “ceased to act in the best interest of our children.” I couldn’t really understand from the archive exactly what these parents we’re talking about. The first person I thought to ask was Dolores Hadden Smith. So many 293 alumni mentioned Ms. Smith. Ms. Smith worked at 293 longer than anyone else I talked to — 42 years.

dolores hadden smith

Everybody’s name — I knew everybody’s name. They said, Ms. Smith was my teacher. And the kids — in the projects would say, Ms. Smith was everybody’s teacher. I know them by name. I have their addresses.

chana joffe-walt

She grew up in the neighborhood. Her mom worked at the school, her sister, her brother.

dolores hadden smith

I called their parents right from the classroom. Our community, we were like one big family.

chana joffe-walt

Ms. Smith told me everything was fine. And then in the ‘80s, they started messing with us, started messing with who they sent to our school.

dolores hadden smith

I can’t say why. It’s just that you noticed it. It was blatant. You could see it for yourself. Nobody had to tell you that.

chana joffe-walt

How could you see it? What made it possible?

dolores hadden smith

Because the children they were putting in there were lower-functioning children. They weren’t at the top, the creme de la creme. They wasn’t those children anymore.

chana joffe-walt

There’s a local news article from 1987 where the principal of 293 says the same thing. He accuses the district of, quote, “skimming off the high-achieving students from his school,” specifically poaching white students. Ms. Smith says that just started disappearing.

dolores hadden smith

And they were offered, behind the curtain, other options that you could go to the places that maybe some of the other children weren’t afforded the chance to go.

chana joffe-walt

So there would be options for white kids that seemed like they were happening in —

dolores hayden-smith

Well, I know they offered some of the children positions that they could take, as opposed to come into our building. I know the Caucasian kids were offered other things. They started encouraging them to go other places, as opposed to coming to our school. And they’re behind closed doors. And they never come out and just say it.

[music]

chana joffe-walt

OK. So there was something happening behind closed doors, and the local community school board was part of it. I took these claims to Norm Fruchter. He was on the local school board around this time; although, I figured it was unlikely he’d say, why, yes, we did have a secret plot to steal 293’s high-achievers and white kids. And yet, that is basically what he said.

norm fruchter

There was a lot of trepidation, particularly at the middle school level, as to whether white parents would stay.

chana joffe-walt

Norm says white parents had left his district in the 1970s. They left the public schools entirely or moved out of the city. Black families were also leaving in large numbers, but the school board was completely preoccupied by the white flight. Norm says board members saw a decline in white students as a serious threat.

norm fruchter

They equated that with school quality. If you lost white students, your achievement levels would go down, right? Your schools would be less attractive places for teachers to come into because when they thought teachers, they thought white teachers and a whole bunch of spillover effects would happen — what the graduation rates would look like.

chana joffe-walt

Their solution? A gifted program.

norm fruchter

The district started the program explicitly to maintain a white population.

chana joffe-walt

That was the explicit goal?

norm fruchter

That was explicit because the unspoken assumption of the administration in our district and every district was that if you had a gifted program, it would attract white parents.

chana joffe-walt

To get into gifted programs, you had to take a test. Gifted kids would be taught in separate classrooms. They opened gifted programs in select elementary schools. And a new gifted program opened in a different middle school, a school called M.S. 51. This is part of what the people at I.S. 293 were seeing. Their strongest students were being siphoned off. White parents, even when they were not inside 293, were beginning to change the school.

norm fruchter

Because what you were creating was a predominantly white track within the schools, and their kids would get in, no matter what kind of testing you used.

[music]

Parents who were committed to getting their kids in the gifted program could do it.

chana joffe-walt

White parents?

norm fruchter

Yeah.

chana joffe-walt

And what about non-white parents who were committed to getting their kids into the gifted program?

norm fruchter

Well, what you had to also deal with there was a fair amount of bias in the testing administration.

chana joffe-walt

Norm says there were kids of color who were clearly qualified, but were not in the gifted program. And he says this was because the questions were biased, and the people administering the tests were sometimes biased. He also says parents were hiring their own psychologists to test their children and paying for test prep. But also, there was another reason Black and Latino kids were not in the gifted program.

nadine jackson

I was a nerd — yes. I was an honor student.

chana joffe-walt

Nadine Jackson might have been one of those kids who would have qualified as gifted. She was a student at I.S. 293, a Black kid from the Gowanus Projects.

nadine jackson

I was never absent — math honor roll all the time. I was on the dean’s list. I mean, I was that nerdy child. I’ve always wanted to be a professional. I’ve always wanted to be someone of importance.

chana joffe-walt

You’ve always wanted to be someone of importance?

nadine jackson

Always, always. I wanted to be an actress or a teacher.

chana joffe-walt

Nadine was not kept out of the gifted program because of bias or lack of test prep. She simply had never heard of the program. She went to the school everyone else went to. She started seventh grade at I.S. 293 in 1993. And Nadine was eager to jump in — ready to be delivered to importance with hard work which she put in. Nadine studied computer technology. She played first clarinet in the band. She played Whitney Houston, “I Have Nothing” on clarinet over and over. In her first year, the I.S. 293 band went to perform at another middle school nearby — M.S. 51, the school with the gifted program. When Nadine arrived there, she walked right into an experience a lot of kids have when they leave their school and enter a world of wealthier kids.

nadine jackson

We were amazed at just the way they operate was completely different. They had a huge orchestra there. We had a small one here. And we were just amazed how they would just outshine us. I mean, they have better resources. They have better equipment. They have better instruments. Everything was top-notch. And us, it was more like second-class hand me downs.

chana joffe-walt

M.S. 51 and I.S. 293 were in the same school district. They were governed by the same local community school board, and they were a mile and half away from each other. When I asked Nadine the same question I had asked previous graduates of I.S. 293, what was the school like, she described the feeling of being trapped. She told me, it was normal at 293 to have 42 kids in a class. She said teachers came and went frequently in the middle of the school year. She had six or seven social studies teachers in one year. I was skeptical about the numbers, but I looked into it. And all of this seems entirely plausible for those years. There was a recession. School budgets were decimated. In 1991, New York City proposed 250 million dollars in educational spending cuts. In 1992, 600 million. School programs are being cut mid-year; class sizes ballooned; teachers were moved around, a lot. At the same time, Nadine’s district was supporting gifted programs, bussing white kids out of their zoned schools, hiring separate teachers, administering special tests, running an entirely separate educational track. At M.S. 51, the gifted middle school, there were not 40 plus kids in a class; there were 30. The school was written up in a book from the 1990s called “New York City’s Best Public Middle Schools.” It describes the school’s leaders as masters at developing faculty, talent and enthusiasm. The M.S. 51 principal is quoted saying, “when we started the gifted program, we got parents who were more involved, more inquisitive.” He then goes on to say, “the gifted program shifted his whole educational approach. It made him recognize that children in early adolescence need close contact with nurturing adults.” And he began to hire teachers who he saw as, quote, “warm and comforting.” I.S. 293 and M.S. 51 were both public middle schools. But that day she visited M.S. 51, Nadine felt like this school — this is the school that’s preparing kids to be someone of importance.

nadine jackson

The education system is better.

The way they talked is different. They were so smart. The children there, they were taking their Regents at a very early stage.

chana joffe-walt

Regents are state tests kids normally take in high school.

nadine jackson

Then it’s like, oh, my goodness, the way that students carry themselves was different, as if they knew something that we didn’t know. Like, they had a secret we didn’t know of. And when were we going to find out?

chana joffe-walt

After Nadine’s out at M.S. 51, she says it made her see her own school differently. I.S. 293, to her, looked like a school for chumps.

nadine jackson

This is where we all went. That’s what we knew. That’s what our parents knew. It really makes you wonder, do we even have a chance? You’re tying to figure out who you are. How do I fit in to society? Where do I put myself? That was hard. It made me feel dumb in a sense. I didn’t know anything.

chana joffe-walt

In the 1980s when the district started grading specialized programs at other schools, I.S. 293 parents fought back. But Norm Fruchter, the school board member, told me once the gifted programs were in place, they were there to stay. The board was serving a constituency of white parents who believed their kids deserved a program to serve their unique needs. And he says, those parents wielded tremendous power.

norm fruchter

There were huge pitch fights in the school board meetings whenever we put a resolution on the agenda to change the gifted program. They could mobilize 500 people for a meeting. So you could fill an elementary school auditorium with gifted program parents, or, as we used to say the district, gifted parents, as if somehow the —

chana joffe-walt

The giftedness got passed up toward them?

norm fruchter

Yeah. And they called themselves that as well. And one of the many things they argued was that it was important to maintain the white population in the gifted program in order to have some semblance of integration in the schools, and that there were benefits that would flow from the gifted program to the rest of the school.

chana joffe-walt

Who argued that? The parents?

norm fruchter

Yes.

chana joffe-walt

The gifted parents?

norm fruchter

Yeah. Yeah. [LAUGHS]

chana joffe-walt

They argued that the gifted program, designed to serve white families, was actually an integration program, when, in fact, it was a separate track in the school that kept Black and brown kids from resources from special programs, which is what segregation was designed to do — to separate. This was its latest adaptation, and it wasn’t the last. That’s after the break.

1994, about halfway through I.S. 293’s 60-year history, and here’s where things stood — 293 did not have any white parents messing with things inside of the building. But white families in the district were drawing resources away from I.S. 293 by creating specialty gifted programs in other schools. I.S. 293 was separate and increasingly unequal. And that is when Judi Aronson enters the scene — a woman who is not connected to I.S. 293, but was about to be. History is about to repeat itself.

judi aronson

My daughter was in third or fourth grade, and I felt that there was not a viable middle school for her.

chana joffe-walt

At the same time, Nadine, the nerdy honor roll student was starting junior high school at 293, Judi had a daughter who was finishing elementary school. Judi’s daughter was zoned for M.S. 51, the school with the gifted program, but Judi wasn’t excited about that school.

judi aronson

It was a big school, very traditional, not a very exciting curriculum, fairly segregated because it had a segregated gifted program that was mostly white. And then the kids of color were in the mainstream at that time. And we wanted something a little different. We wanted another option for our kids.

chana joffe-walt

Judi had been a special ed teacher in a public school. Then she left the classroom and started working at the Teachers Union, the UFT. Later, she became a school principal and a superintendent. So she’d spent a lot of time thinking about schools — what makes a school successful. And she’d begun to imagine what it would look like to build something better.

judi aronson

I had this idea. I was born in Hungary. And then I lived in Vienna, and I grew up in Montreal. And I lived in Brooklyn for the last 46 years. And we’ve traveled a lot, my husband and I. And I’m a firm believer that you learn so much about the world through other people, through talking to them through a variety of cultures. So the idea behind the school was that kids would have exchanges.

chana joffe-walt

Judi got a group of parents together, a planning committee.

judi aronson

They wanted something, a school that was diverse, that was child-centered, that had a progressive, innovative curriculum, small, student-centered, all the buzz words — excellent teachers, not a large school where kids would learn a second language, not the way they learn it now, but a lot better, where they would learn about different cultures, all those ideas.

chana joffe-walt

How much was diversity a part of it?

judi aronson

I think it was very, very much a part of it. And I’m thinking of our planning committee. I don’t think it was very diverse now looking back on it.

chana joffe-walt

Why did you guys want the school to be diverse? why? was that central to what you were doing?

judi aronson

Well, we all stayed in the city for a reason. And we didn’t want — I mean, one of the reasons that we didn’t like 51 is that segregation of the gifted kids being all white and the rest of the school being children of color. So we want it diverse, and I wanted my kids to really be accepting of everyone.

[music]

chana joffe-walt

The planning committee put together a 13-page proposal for a new school called the Brooklyn School for Global Citizenship. The local community school board approve it; although, somewhere in the process they dropped the citizenship part — too controversial — and it became the Brooklyn School for Global Studies. OK. So, why am I telling you about the School for Global Studies? Because this brand new school needed a building — the community school board surveyed its options and chose a spot. The School for Global Studies would be located in the basement of I.S. 293.

nadine jackson

One day it was like, you’re going to get another school in your building. And we were like, how is that possible? Where? How? We only have three floors, and it’s barely enough for us.

chana joffe-walt

Nadine was in eighth grade when this happened, September 1994, and she was not into this idea.

nadine jackson

You want to put a new school in, and yet you have 43 kids in a classroom. Why? How about you make these classrooms a little bit smaller and get more teachers in before you put it in new school? I mean, I’m a big advocate of let’s fix the problem first before you want to add onto things.

chana joffe-walt

An article in the New York Times proclaimed, a miracle of a school opened its doors this fall in Brooklyn, thanks to determined parents who’ve created with the new principal called, quote, “the Taj Mahal of education.” Global Studies had class sizes as small as 18 kids. The curriculum included trips to museums. The students went outdoors to learn, measured shadows for math. They dug in soil for science experiments. The students at 293 saw all of that, as they went about their days at the not Taj Mahal of education, and they were pissed.

nadine jackson

You’re in our lunchroom. You’re in our gym. You’re in our school yard. And it was like, where did these people come from? Where did the school come from? How was this even possible? This is our school. This is our neighborhood. How dare you?

chana joffe-walt

Whenever Nadine or the other 293 kids walked by the global studies classes, they’d make sure to bang on the classroom doors. And the 293 teachers and staff, school security officers, the custodian, the principal, they didn’t welcome the new school for global cities either. I heard stories from this time about the staff from Global Studies asking to put up student work in the hallways and being told by the long-time 293 custodian, you can’t. That’s a fire hazard. Global Studies wanted to use the auditorium for a performance — sorry, it’s occupied. And I heard this story from the Global Studies principal, a guy named Larry Abrams, who’d been hired to lead what, to him, sounded like such an exciting new school, and then he showed up to work.

larry abrams

The first day there — or not the first day, the first week, the two school cops came down, put me in handcuffs. I said, what? But they were joking. They were going to arrest me because I was taking over space in the building.

chana joffe-walt

[LAUGHS]

larry abrams

[CHUCKLES] And now I think about it, it’s pretty funny, but —

chana joffe-walt

Wait, wait, wait. The school security came down and were like, you’re —

larry abrams

The police department — you’re under arrest. [LAUGHS]

chana joffe-walt

This is like the first week of the school?

larry abrams

Yeah. I forgot — the first or the second week. I mean, but obviously, we weren’t welcomed in the place, and it was going to be a battle.

chana joffe-walt

Remember how I said history repeats itself?

chana joffe-walt

Oh, your kid didn’t go to Global Studies.

judi aronson

No, no because it took forever.

chana joffe-walt

Judi Aronson did not end up sending her daughter to Global because by the time it opened, her daughter was already in middle school. When her younger son was old enough for middle school, a couple of years later, she didn’t send him either.

judi aronson

So I sent him to a new small school in Sheepshead Bay.

chana joffe-walt

Oh, wow. Wait, you sent him to a small school that was not the small school that you made.

judi aronson

No. Not the small school that I made — no.

chana joffe-walt

So your kids didn’t even get to go to the school that you created.

judi aronson

No, no. And it had a lot of rough — don’t ask.

chana joffe-walt

I am going to ask you about that.

judi aronson

Oh, my god, the school ran into a lot of problems. There were too many challenges. The kids were difficult the teachers had issues. None of us sent our kids there.

chana joffe-walt

This is not entirely true. I did speak with one parent from the planning committee who sent her son to Global Studies. Although, she said when they showed up in September, it looked to her like he was the only white boy in the school. She said he had a good experience there. Judi decided what was best for her kids was something else.

[music]

In an effort to appease white parents, the school district had once again made a choice that sidelined 293. White parents had said jump, so the district jumped. And now they were left trying to fill the school for Global Studies, a school that had no obvious constituency. Most of the parents who created it didn’t send their kids, and the neighborhood kids already had a school — I.S. 293. This meant, to fill Global Studies, the district had to find kids who weren’t happy at their schools, or kids whose schools weren’t unhappy with them. Or they had to bank on families randomly applying to a school they’d never heard of.

judi aronson

It’s one thing if a student says, I want to go to this school because this is what I’m passionate about. OK? But that did not happen. So it became a place where they placed kids that were difficult. They were challenging — very, very challenging.

chana joffe-walt

They were acting out when they showed up?

judi aronson

Yes.

chana joffe-walt

Well, they were in a school that wasn’t designed for them.

judi aronson

That’s true, 100% true.

chana joffe-walt

That had this whole vision that had nothing to do with the kids who were there.

judi aronson

Yeah, Yeah. Yep.

chana joffe-walt

Did you feel bad about that?

judi aronson

Yes. I mean, yes. Yes, I did — that we had these great ideas and not everything came to fruition. Yes, we opened up a school, but it wasn’t exactly everything we thought it would be.

chana joffe-walt

Within six or seven years, most of the original Global Studies staff had left, including the principal. Within a decade, nobody knew why the school was called Global Studies in the first place. Global Studies became a regular segregated public school, which shared a building with another segregated public school.

[music]

In my experience, schools are immune to long-term memory. They get new principals, new names, a new generation of parents. And they’re populated by children who have no reason to care about what came before — clean slate every September. This, I believe, is also what makes it possible for us to keep repeating the same story. We constantly reset the clock and move forward. When we look to diagnose the problems of our public schools, we look at what is in front of us right now. We look forward. Nobody looks backwards to history. And so the question is not how do we stop white families from hoarding all the resources. Instead, the question is, what’s going on with the Black kids? This became the question driving the next era at I.S. 293, the latest era of school reform — the mid 1990s right up to today, a time when business people and American presidents and tech company billionaires committed themselves to solving the problem of failing public schools. Basically, it’s everything you’ve heard about schools in the last two decades — charter schools, No Child Left Behind, and accountability, the achievement gap, Race to the Top, these were data-driven initiatives. They assessed the educational landscape and identified schools that were failing — teachers who were not getting results — children who were not performing. At I.S. 293, this meant a flurry of new programs that came and went, sometimes in rapid succession. First, I.S. 293 a grant from RJR Nabisco to break itself up into small academies — smaller schools within the building that would focus on different specialties. A long-time 293 teacher, Carmen Sanchez, told me, after that, everything just started changing. The staff turnover was dizzying.

carmen sanchez

All of a sudden, these people appear, and they are going to be the directors, not principals, directors of this math academy and academy in music.

chana joffe-walt

Ms. Sanchez says one of them came in to run the place, and she opened her staff meeting by promising to fire everyone.

carmen sanchez

She lasted maybe nine months. She was gone. People just went — I mean, it was amazing. That was just as revolving door of principals or directors, and they just left.

dolores hadden smith

They keep changing over what kind of school you’re in — a science program school. Or you’re in a this. What are we, you know?

chana joffe-walt

Ms. Smith, Delores Hadden Smith, was in her third decade working at the school when this started changing names. They were The Mathematics Academy, The Academy for Performing and Fine Arts, The School for Integrated Learning Through the Arts. Teachers left. New staff came in, new initiatives. They needed to be smaller, more specialized. They needed more science. They needed a trade. They needed to be a 6 through 12 school, middle and high school. Ms. Smith says this was confusing for the parents, especially the parents in her community, the Gowanus community, parents who went to 293 and knew it as 293. Now, they were asking Ms. Smith, what happened to 293? The School for Integrated Learning Through the Arts, what’s that mean?

dolores hadden smith

Well, I’m not sending my child there. I don’t want my child to go to a performing arts school. I want my child to go get academics. But we gave both. But they made it like it was a tap dance school. And they said, I don’t want my kids to go to a tap dance school. I want my kids go where they can get an education. Well, they thought we wasn’t teaching education because we are performing arts in our schools also? That was just a feature, one of the many features that we did. But the parents didn’t get it.

chana joffe-walt

By this time, public school admissions allowed more choice about where parents sent their kids. So some of these local parents started choosing other schools. 293 was losing students, which meant they were losing money. A new principal came in — and an assistant principal named Jeff Chetirko. By that point, 293 had been renamed The School for International Studies. But not even assistant principal Chetirko knew why. Prospective parents would ask him, why should I send my kids here? What does international mean?

jeff chetirko

So I remember just having this horrible response — would be like, oh, yeah, our students come from all over the world, and that’s really what it’s about. It’s about our diversity, which is kind of bull. But that’s what I would sell because it didn’t sound like we really spoke a lot about it in the curriculum. And eventually —

chana joffe-walt

You did you have students from all over the world, right?

jeff chetirko

That’s true.

chana joffe-walt

I mean, you had students from maybe the Caribbean, from Yemen.

jeff chetirko

Yeah, towards the end, I think we had more from Caribbean. Or if we had that one student, we would be like, yeah, they’re from all over the world. [LAUGHS] You just make stuff up because you’re just trying to sell it.

chana joffe-walt

By 2003, SIS had low enrollment and terrible test scores. The state put it on a failing schools list, the dreaded SURR list, Schools Under Registration Review. Being on a failing schools list made it harder to sell the school to prospective families, but it did mean SIS got a chunk of money to turn things around. They bought new reading programs, an academic intervention program. They doubled periods for reading and math. During this time, the leadership was stable — less teacher turnover. The school was less chaotic. The test scores stabilized. Jeff Chetirko says they were feeling good about where things were headed. Still, they had to compete for students. So he hired a marketing firm to help draw families in.

jeff chetirko

I remember meeting the guy a couple of times. He had some good ideas. I don’t really remember what came out of it. It didn’t. We hung up signs outside the door, just tried to have a different look. But those banners, I think that came out of it.

chana joffe-walt

He says the marketing idea didn’t attract any local families into the school. Instead, it attracted the attention of the New York Post, which found out the school was trying to market itself, as it had been told to, and wrote a snarky article about it. The headline read, “Lousy Brooklyn Public School Wants to Hire a Press Agent to Enhance Appeal.” it goes on to say, quote, “If they build a buzz, the kids will come. That’s the thinking at a mediocre Brooklyn Public school with grandiose aspirations.” The article ends with the list of suggested marketing slogans for the school. It’s mean spirited and racist. Having trouble with English? So is we. The School for International Studies, the best six years of your life. Jaguar pride — where you can go from state champs to state pen. The Jaguars — we score baskets; we just can’t count them. Jeff says everyone at the school read it. He distinctly remembers the feeling.

jeff chetirko

It’s horrible because if you’re publicly going to put us on a SURR list, what do you think you’re doing to that school? So now if we have to hire somebody to kind of get us off of that, that perception of this school’s a failing school, and then to get this newspaper article, it just deflates everything. It just really sucks. [LAUGHS] There’s no other way to say it. You get that pit feeling in your stomach. And you’re just like, ugh, what’s going on? Or what’s going to happen next? I think everybody is always nervous about what happens next. And then afterwards, you just get super furious.

chana joffe-walt

Here is what happened next.

archived recording

Hi. Hi, How are you? I’m OK. You waited patiently. Oh, my god. Yes.

chana joffe-walt

Six years later, I’m standing in a sweaty school gym at a middle school fair for parents. It’s 2017, two years after that gala thrown by the French Embassy for SIS. A couple dozen schools are here with information tables. The table for the school for International Studies is mobbed. There’s a line of parents waiting to get a chance to talk with someone from the school. A mother named Anissa is near the very back of the school.

chana joffe-walt

What have you heard about the International School?

anissa

I heard it’s a hot ticket. Everybody wants to get in there.

chana joffe-walt

After 40 years of being neglected, messed with by the school board, after losing students and losing money, losing the building, being blamed and publicly mocked, SIS was suddenly the hot ticket, as if history had been wiped away. Parents asked the SIS admissions director, can their kids get priority if they have good grades? Extracurriculars? Does attendance count? They want to know if it helps their chances if they show up for a tour.

archived recording

Yes. I open access to tours tomorrow at three o’clock.

chana joffe-walt

They want to know, will you have enough space for all these people?

archived recording

Oh, I don’t think I’ve got enough space. For next year, we’re only accepting 140 sixth graders.

chana joffe-walt

Three years earlier, SIS had 30 sixth graders. What changed? The admissions director is the same. Most of the staff is the same. The building is the same. The test scores are still pretty low. There’s an IB program now in French. But the biggest change between the era of being ignored and punished and the era of being celebrated and oversubscribed is that white kids arrived. That’s what’s different, nine times as many white students.

[music]

I.S. 293 was a mostly segregated school for decades. And still, it was subject to the whims of white parents. Nice white parents shape public schools even in our absence because public schools are maniacally loyal to white families even when that loyalty is rarely returned back to the public schools. Just the very idea of us, the threat of our displeasure, warps the whole system. So separate is still not equal because the power sits with white parents no matter where we are in the system. I think the only way you equalize schools is by recognizing this fact and trying wherever possible to suppress the power of white parents. Since no one’s forcing us to give up power. We white parents are going to have to do it voluntarily. Which, yeah, how’s that going to happen? That’s next time on “Nice White Parents.”

“Nice White Parents” is produced by Julie Snyder and me, with editing on this episode from Sarah Koenig and Ira Glass. Neil Drumming is our Managing Editor. Eve Ewing and Rachel Lissy are our editorial consultants. Fact-checking and research by Ben Phelan, with additional research from Lilly Sullivan. Archival research by Rebecca Kent. Music supervision and mixing by Stowe Nelson, with production help from Aviva DeKornfeld. Our Director of Operations is Seth Lind. Julie Whitaker is our Digital Manager. Finance management by Cassie Howley, and Production management by Frances Swanson. Original music for “Nice White Parents” is by The Bad Plus, with additional music written and performed by Matt McGinley. The music you’re hearing right now. is the Nathan Hale trilogy performed by the Nathan Hale middle school 293 Concert Band. I benefited from the memories and expertise of many people for this episode: Special thanks to Charles Jones, Leanna Stiefel, Allison Roda, Ujju Aggarwal, Clara Hemphill, Steven Schneps, Michael Rebell, Jeffrey Henig, Megan Thompkins-Strange, Jeffrey Snyder, Dawn Meconi, Maura Walz, Coleen Mingo, Neil Friedman, Jeff Tripp, Karl Rusnak, Lenny Garcia, Cindy Black, Arthur Bargonetti, Heather Lewis, Theirry Rafuir, Kevin Davidson and Afrah Omar.

“Nice White Parents” is produced by Serial Productions, a New York Times Company.

Chana explores how white parents can shape a school — even when they aren’t there.

She traces the history of I.S. 293, now the Boerum Hill School for International Studies, from the 1980s through the modern education reforms of the 2000s. In the process, Chana talks to alumni who loved their school and never questioned why it was on the edge of a white neighborhood. To them, it was just where everyone went. But she also speaks to some who watched the school change over the years and questioned whether a local community school board was secretly plotting against 293.

Here is the transcript for Episode Three.

Listen to Episode Four.

Is it possible to limit the power of white parents?

bars
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transcript

Listen to Episode Four.

Reported by Chana Joffe-Walt; produced by Julie Snyder; edited by Sarah Koenig, Neil Drumming and Ira Glass; editorial consulting by Eve L. Ewing; and sound mix by Stowe Nelson

Is it possible to limit the power of white parents?

speaker

“Nice White Parents” is brought to you by Serial Productions, a New York Times Company.

chana joffe-walt

I want to tell you about another old film I found during my research. It’s from 1951. We see a housewife, a white woman — everyone in this film is white. She’s sitting in her living room with some neighbors. They’re here to solve a problem. [OLD MOVIE PLAYING]

archived recording

A chain broke on a swing in a public playground, relatively unimportant, but a child might have been hurt.

chana joffe-walt

They sit on couches with notepads, deep in discussion. They will solve this problem together. In another scene, a machinist in California approaches his bus, the factory owner, with a request from the workers.

archived recording

I’d like to show you the new pension plan that we built. I thought we had discussed the pension plan previously.

chana joffe-walt

They had. The discussion requires listening, debating and waving your arms a lot, which they do in the film.

archived recording

Not yet friends, they may never like each other. But they’ll sweat it out together. The problem is mutual. Much is involved. Developed within each citizen is the Democratic spirit, the Democratic method.

chana joffe-walt

Where were they taught the Democratic method, you might ask? Public school, where the housewives taught to problem solve for the safety of the community’s children, public school. This film was made by the National Education Association. It’s a 25-minute promotional film that spends almost no time inside schools. Instead, it’s all about the purpose of public schools, how they prepare us to live together as citizens. We see Americans use their public school training in everyday life, when they sit with their neighbors, debate their bosses, when they go shopping, and drive a car, buy a house. We are all part of a grand play, interdependent — the senator, the homemaker, the factory worker.

archived recording

And Fred Gorman, the farmer of Pennsylvania, are his decisions important? They are, if the nation wants to eat.

chana joffe-walt

Fred the farmer has a nameless wife, whom we see now standing next to him. Fred’s wife is trying to resolve a problem. The neighbors want to build a drainage system into a pond. The lowest land for the pond is an orchard that belongs to Fred and his nameless wife. The wife understands that to prevent further flooding, she and Fred will need to sacrifice for the greater good. Fred is not so sure.

archived recording

If we don’t do something to help, our land is going to get like theirs, and you know it. I don’t like the idea of losing those trees. There’s the problem in a nutshell, a tough one to crack, his land and his neighbors needs. A dictator could solve it for Fred, but he prefers to do his own thinking.

chana joffe-walt

Luckily, Fred has the tools to do it.

archived recording

Those tools are sharpened in the schools of America.

chana joffe-walt

And thank goodness, because the stakes are high.

archived recording

Problems every day, and the way they are solved determines the way the country functions.

chana joffe-walt

This vision of public schools, the same one laid out 100 years earlier by the founder of American public schools Horace Mann is that America and democracy cannot survive without public education. We need common schools where rich and poor come together to solve problems, generate fellow feeling. Public schools, the great equalizer. But I have made my way through the history of one modern American public school. And from what I can see, white parents are standing in the way of achieving this vision. Our schools are not an equalizing force, because white parents take them over and hoard resources. We’re not learning how to live together as one society because white parents flee or cordon themselves off in special gifted programs. Even when we’re not in the school building, funding and attention still slide our way. So I don’t see how it’s possible to have equal public schools, common schools that serve every child, unless we limit the power of white parents. But how do we do that? In all my reporting around this one school building from 2015 all the way back to the beginning, I’ve never seen that happen. And then I did. From Serial Productions, I’m Chana Joffe-Walt. This is “Nice White Parents,” a series about the most powerful force in public schools: White people.

Recently, I’ve come across two examples of schools that seem to be suppressing the power of white parents, two examples I found in the very last place I expected, in the I.S. 293 building, one upstairs and one downstairs. So today’s episode, what does it look like to limit the power of white parents in schools? And does it work? Does it lead to an equal education for everyone?

I’m going to start downstairs. Eight years ago, the city put a charter school in the basement if I.S. 293. It’s called Success Academy. That year I spent following the new white parents upstairs at the School For International Studies, I would occasionally see Success Academy kids around the building in orange and blue uniforms. It was always a little startling because Success Academy is an elementary school. So they look tiny in a building full of middle and high schoolers. But mostly, the Success kids stood out because of the way they moved through the halls.

speaker

They walk in single forms like they’re in the Army. It’s so weird. If they don’t walk in single form, they stop the whole line.

chana joffe-walt

Denagee is one of the many students from SIS upstairs, who is eager to tell me about the charter school and its rituals, their silent, controlled lines.

denagee

It’s like a sense of the Children of the Corn. It creeps me out.

chris

Or Storm Troopers or something.

chana joffe-walt

That’s his friend Chris saying Storm Troopers. Sometimes they’ll hear Success teachers say, make a bubble in your mouth. And then a line of six-year-olds will close their lips and fill their cheeks up with air, that way nobody’s talking. Chris and Denagee told me they look like puffer fish.

denagee

I remember kindergarten very vividly. And I know if I was to have my face in a puffer fish, I would automatically just start making all types of sounds and stuff, you know?

chana joffe-walt

And they don’t?

denagee

No. That’s what’s so weird.

It helps me think, or it makes me think about — what really happens inside of the classrooms with them to be coming out like that?

chana joffe-walt

The year I was reporting at SIS, The New York Times published a video that showed a particular and alarming moment inside one of the Success classrooms. It was secretly recorded by an assistant teacher, who leaked it, and it went viral. You see a group of first-graders gathered in a circle on a polka-dot rug, sitting legs crossed, hands in their laps. And a teacher is asking one girl to correct a math problem she got wrong.

speaker

You cut or you split. So count it again, making sure you’re counting correctly.

chana joffe-walt

The girl does not respond. The teacher leans in and repeats.

speaker

Count.

chana joffe-walt

The girl whimpers, or says something so quiet you can’t hear. The entire class is watching. It’s silent, intense. The teacher is visibly upset, picks up the child’s paper, and rips it in half, points an angry finger to the side of the room.

speaker

Go to the calm down chair and sit.

chana joffe-walt

She goes. The teacher turns to the rest of the circle.

speaker

There’s nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper. Somebody come up and show me how she should have counted to get her answer that was 1 and a split.

chana joffe-walt

A boy rushes over to do it correctly. But the teacher is not done publicly reprimanding the girl, who’s now sitting to the side of the classroom in the calm down chair.

speaker

Thank you. Do not go back to your seat and show me one thing and then don’t do it here. You’re confusing everybody. Very upset and very disappointed.

chana joffe-walt

The teacher is white. The girl whose work she just ripped up is not. The whole thing is hard to watch. When this video came out, the student was living at a homeless shelter with her mom. Success suspended this teacher, but didn’t fire her. Instead, at a press conference, the C.E.O reprimanded The New York Times for not understanding that this teacher was having a bad day. When I asked about this incident, the C.E.O of Success told me the teacher’s behavior was unacceptable. Teachers are not allowed to yell at kids. But it was not a fireable offense. She says the teacher made a mistake.

I have always been skeptical of Success Academy. Success has a reputation for being harsh and punitive. Especially unnerving, to me at least, is that they’re harsh, punitive approach is deployed in schools across the city that are almost entirely BBlack and brown. Success students are generally kids of color from working class or poor families. The intense focus on policing kids’ bodies, on test prep drills, frequent use of suspensions — you don’t see that in majority white schools. I’ve never seen a line of uniformed, white students walking through the halls of a public school building with their mouths in bubbles, or being told to quote show urgency when they dawdle unpacking their book bags or eating lunch, except for here. This particular Success Academy in the basement of I.S. 293 is integrated. A quarter of the student body is white. And it’s the first school I saw putting limits on the power of white parents.

Success Academy is the city’s largest charter school network, 47 schools, elementary, middle, and one high school. They get public funding, like all charter schools. Success Academy also gets private funding. The state oversees charters, like Success. But it isn’t run by the state or the city. It’s run by a private organization. And Success is a choice school. That means families opt in to Success. The C.E.O, a woman named Eva Moskowitz, opened her first 40 something schools in largely working class Black and brown neighborhoods where she imagined families would want a new school option. Then about a decade ago, Moskowitz decided she wanted to open an integrated school, a new Success Academy that was racially integrated and economically diverse. She needed a school building where integration was possible, where perhaps, half a century earlier, a group of white families pushed for a strategically located fringe school building between two racially segregated neighborhoods. And this is how Success Academy wound up here, in the old I.S. 293 building because of yet another plan to integrate. Only this time, it worked. White parents opted in. The way families at this Success Academy — it’s called Success Academy Cobble Hill — tend to come from advantage, just like the white parents upstairs at SIS. They’re upper middle class and rich, doctors and lawyers, corporate accountants, people who walk into most public schools with a lot of power. But the influence I’d seen white parents wield upstairs at SIS, that didn’t seem to be the case downstairs. I found that confusing. Do you have a PTA? We have a parent council so it’s very similar to a PTA this is Alissa Bishop, the principal of Success, Cobble Hill. The parent council is not that similar to a PTA though, because in the very next sentence, Principal Bishop told me that the parent council is not allowed to raise money. This, I assumed, was probably difficult for parents who are accustomed to fundraising for their kids’ schools. Have you had parents who want to raise money, who come to you and are like, I want to — I want this thing to happen, and I want to raise the money for it.

alissa bishop

Not anything like that. I have had parents come to me and say I want to do a coat drive. They want to donate. We do that stuff throughout the entire year. But I’ve never had anyone approach me about donating money.

speaker

Oh, wow.

chana joffe-walt

Really? No parents have been like I want to do a fundraiser for x, and you have to be like, that’s not a thing that we do?

alissa bishop

No. I’ve never had that. Principal Bishop looks over at the PR person, who’s come from Success headquarters to supervise this interview. The PR person shakes her head. No, parents don’t raise money.

chana joffe-walt

And what if somebody did want to raise money for the school — a parent wanted to raise money?

alissa bishop

Yeah, we don’t.

speaker

It’s against the policy.

alissa bishop

We don’t raise money.

chana joffe-walt

Principal Bishop looks over to the PR person again, as if to say, am I not being clear with this chick? Why isn’t she getting it? But I seem to be unable to stop myself from listing all the things I’ve seen white advantaged parents demand in public schools.

chana joffe-walt

If parents were like, we want this to be a dual language French school, and we can help fund it —

alissa bishop

We don’t have — our curriculum is network-based. We’re given curriculum. We don’t have a language curriculum in our elementary schools.

chana joffe-walt

Or, if parents were like, we want there to be less math, or a different kind of math, or we want there to be a film program, a film program, or whatever, any of those things. Parents are like, we want —

alissa bishop

Yeah, this is our model. It’s our model across all of our schools. No changes.

chana joffe-walt

The C.E.O. of Success Academy, Eva Moskowitz, followed up later to tell me, if parents want to give money, they can. But it will be distributed evenly across all of our schools. We can’t have our Cobble Hill families getting more than our families in Harlem.

Here’s what I started to understand about how Success Academy was limiting the power of white parents. Success was limiting the power of white parents by limiting the power of all parents. I met a dad named Travius Sharpe outside the building one day, a Black guy who grew up in Brooklyn. His son Ethan is at Success.

travius sharpe

We actually get graded.

chana joffe-walt

You get graded?

travius sharpe

We get graded as the parents. We get an email saying, this is what your progress is saying.

chana joffe-walt

You get a grade, like an A, B, C?

travius sharpe

They get like a meeting expectations or —

chana joffe-walt

Not.

travius sharpe

— not.

chana joffe-walt

Upstairs, SIS tripped over itself to meet the demands of new, white parents. Downstairs, all parents at Success Academy are being graded. Even day to day, the Success principal and teachers make sure to remind parents when they’re falling down on the job.

speaker

So we running a little late. Why is Ethan late? It’s your fault why he’s late. I think one day, I was late. And she texted and said, Ethan is not here yet. Any reason why? And I felt like I wasn’t the parent at that point. That’s their time. But it keeps you on your toes and stuff like that.

chana joffe-walt

You felt like you weren’t the parent.

speaker

I wasn’t the parent. I wasn’t the parent. And I felt like I was just dropping this kid off to his parents.

chana joffe-walt

One day, in the cafeteria, I met a white mom named Sarah Stanich. Sarah is a financial advisor. Her son’s in fourth grade. And she was telling me she likes the school, even though — and then Sarah lowered her voice, pointed at her boy, and said, he’s been suspended.

sarah stanich

He’s been suspended. And I was not happy about that. And I definitely never had that experience when I was a kid. But —

chana joffe-walt

How old was he when that happened?

sarah stanich

Well, it’s happened more than once, embarrassingly.

So kind of young. Maybe third grade, or maybe even second the first time it happened.

chana joffe-walt

How many times has he been suspended?

sarah stanich

A few times, a few times, probably three — but pushing, fighting. And he’s really not a fighter, but they’re boys, and — and sometimes I think it’s kind of harsh. They’re young kids. And I know that that’s a complaint about suspensions in the schools. But on the other hand, he had warnings, and it wasn’t that I think that his teachers had given him given him space and slack in other areas. I have no lingering anger about it.

chana joffe-walt

Overall.

sarah stanich

Yeah. Overall, I’ve been I feel very lucky to have been able to be a part of this community and be part of this school. Sarah later wrote me to say her kid was actually suspended four times that year. I’ve reported on discipline in schools and the use of suspensions a lot. I’ve talked to many mothers of children who have been suspended. Not one of them has been white. Black kids are suspended in New York City schools at five times the rate of white kids. After I met Sarah, I double checked the numbers for the 2017 school year, just to be sure. In the regular New York City public schools that same year, not Success or other charters, but the traditional, public elementary schools, that year, there were 327 suspensions for non-white kids. For white kids, there were only nine. I was so surprised after meeting Sarah when I left the building I called two people, who know a lot about education to say this is what’s happening at Success Academy, Cobble Hill. White boys are being suspended, rich, white boys. And they couldn’t believe it either. One of them, Noliwe Rooks, a professor at Cornell, said, well, well, how’s that for equality?

So white parents can’t raise money, they can’t ask for special programs, and their kids get suspended. Why are they suddenly OK with equality? I interviewed lots of Success parents.

suzanne gigliotti

We did get a flyer. They put them on the doors. They put them on the doors in the neighborhood.

chana joffe-walt

Suzanne Gigliotti saw the flyer for Success when her son was in preschool. So she looked into it and every other possible school option she had.

suzanne gigliotti

It was in our neighborhood. But more importantly, we toured so many schools, public, private, parochial. We were slated for 58, which is an excellent school. And we did get in there. But Success was head and above any school I’d seen, just the level of excellence. And yeah, nothing matched it. The test scores — almost every parent I spoke with said they were initially drawn to Success Academy because of the excellent test scores. If your measure of success in school is standardized tests — and at Success Academy, it is — this is one of the best schools in the city. The scores are truly remarkable. Success Academy students perform twice as well on state tests as regular New York City public school kids. The vast majority of Success kids pass the tests, 95%, 97%. In your average city public schools, it’s less than half. And even more impressive, to me at least, is that the kids at Success are doing well on tests no matter if they’re poor, or rich, or Black, or Latino, or Asian, or white. This is the problem that decades of public education reforms have tried to address, the achievement gap. Success Academy was pulling off, not only an integrated school, but an equal integrated school that was closing the achievement gap.

The way Success achieves equality though, some things give me pause.

speaker

What’s my first expectation? Lock your hands. Track Kamira. The first expectation is read —

chana joffe-walt

Last year, I went into the Success classrooms.

speaker

Send Kamira some love. Give Kamira two claps. [CLAPPING] My expectation is that —

chana joffe-walt

I didn’t see any teachers reprimanding kids or ripping up work, like the one in the video. What I did see were teachers, who issued a constant wall of verbal directions, where to look, what to do, how to sit, delivered in the same and consistent, neutral tone. When a teacher calls on someone, she gives a direction to the class to track the speaker, look at the person speaking. Meanwhile, a second teacher roams and hovers, issuing reminders.

speaker

Lock your hands. Track Shana. Liam’s hands are locked tracking Shana. Lydia’s hands are locked tracking Shana. Colin’s hands are —

chana joffe-walt

Shana answers correctly.

speaker

Nice job, Shana. Nice job, Shana. Scanning for another friend on the carpet, who looks so professional, lock your hands, track Zoe.

chana joffe-walt

Success achieves equality, at least in part, through utter uniformity. Every Success Academy across the city uses identical methods, identical curricula, and identical classrooms. The kids sit on the same polka-dot carpet, hands locked in their lap, same signs on the wall, singing the same chants. Even the teachers look the same. They’re almost all young white women in cotton dresses and ballet flats just out of college, sometimes the same college. I know this because the classrooms are named after teachers alma maters. And there are three Penn State classrooms.

speaker

How does it go? We are Penn State. Yeah, we pull our weight Yeah, we cannot wait. Yeah, to graduate. Roll call. It’s uh-huh. And then Shabooya, sha-sha-shabooya, role call. Shabooya, sha-sha-shabooya.

chana joffe-walt

Education people talk a lot about the difference between equality and equity to a point that I believe is tiresome. But I thought about this difference a lot at Success. Equality means everyone gets the same thing. Equity means everyone gets what they need. Success is equal. Everyone is treated the same. But kids are never all the same. Some kids are chatty in the hallway, or need a minute to think before answering a question. Some kids have a million bucks at home, and some kids don’t. A Black girl might respond differently than a white girl to being reprimanded by a white teacher. A single parent with two jobs might have a harder time getting their kid to school on time than, say, a stay-at-home mom with a partner. One of the main criticisms of Success Academy from public education advocates is that Success doesn’t actually serve all students, that it has excellent test scores because it serves a select group of students. Kids who don’t test well, or can’t sit still, they’re weeded out of the school. Success Academy vehemently denies this. They point out that they make special accommodations for kids with special needs, and they note that they don’t get to choose students because kids get spots in their schools by random lottery. And that’s true. But it’s also true that lots of parents don’t apply to the lottery because they know the school’s culture and the demands it makes of families won’t work for them. And plenty of kids who do end up at Success don’t last long. Maybe they get held back a grade or they’re suspended. A civil rights complaint filed on behalf of more than a dozen families alleges their children were regularly removed from class and suspended, seven, 10, 13 times at Success Academy. Most of those families eventually left the school.

I had a thought walking through Success. I suspected that the strict classroom control was partly what made white parents feel comfortable at Success Academy. I’m speculating here. None of the white parents I spoke with told me they chose Success because the school polices Black and brown students so well. And I don’t believe this is a conscious thought for anyone. But I do know that white parents bring plenty of unconscious biases to public schools with Black and brown kids, fears that the classrooms will be chaotic, or not challenging, that the kids will be disorderly or threatening. White parents worry that our kids will be harmed. Success Academy completely controls for these fears. Everyone gets excellent test scores. There’s no room for misbehavior, no risk of disruption because there are no idle moments. If 30 children need to move from their desks to the rug, it sounds like this.

speaker

On your bottom, on the black line in five, four, three, two, one.

chana joffe-walt

Every kid is on their bottom, hands locked, eyes tracking the teacher, except for one boy. He gets a correction.

Success operates on the principle that with rigor and discipline uniformly applied, all students will achieve equally well. It’s a tempting vision, especially coming from upstairs, where the power of white parents seem to have no bounds. But equality does not necessarily shift the balance of power. White parents aren’t running the show here, but Success is run by a white C.E.O and a board that includes millionaire hedge fund managers — sorry, billionaire hedge fund managers. The board of trustees is listed on the success website. And the bios include Maverick Capital, Redwood Capital, Glenview Capital, Cumulus Media, Morgan Stanley, Facebook, Arnold & Porter. This is not exactly a disruption to the social order, is all I’m saying. You can limit the day-to-day influence of white parents. But still, rich white people control the agenda, the priorities, and the money.

Back in 2015, the year of the white influx and SIS, toward the end of that school year, I was talking to Imee Hernandez one day. She was the PTA co-president of SIS. And Imee told me watching all those white parents come and take over, it was almost like watching tumbleweed move along in the wind. It was so quiet. That’s how they moved through here, she said, picking up power as they went.

imee hernandez

Like a tumbleweed, it starts really soft and slow, and it keeps just picking up speed and getting bigger. So it’s really soft and slow. But it’s getting bigger. It’s not like an avalanche that comes at you. It’s just tumbling along very slowly. So it’s very light. You don’t feel it coming at you.

chana joffe-walt

Back then, Imee told me there’s no stopping it. She’s worried she couldn’t protect what she loved about her school.

chana joffe-walt

If you were right, and the worst case scenario happens, what does that look like in a year or two?

imee hernandez

That there’s no more color in this school.

Then there’s no more community, which I really hope I’m wrong. That’s my biggest fear. Then I would question if my daughter’s coming back. I really would.

chana joffe-walt

Imee feared that each year, more and more white families come into SIS until it just became like the other segregated middle schools, where all the white parents fought to enroll their kids. Against the repetition of history, Imee was wrong. What happened at SIS was nothing like she or I expected. That’s up next when we go back upstairs.

This past spring, a Black teacher at Success Academy named Fabiola St Hillaire publicly criticized the C.E.O. for not taking a stand after the murder of George Floyd, or acknowledging the effect police violence was having on the families and communities Success serves. After that, more staff, families, and alumni raised alarms about Success, calling some of its practices racist and abusive, its discipline policies, the way white staff and leadership speak to kids and parents of color. In response, the C.E.O. apologized, and Success has released a plan that commits to mandatory bias and sensitivity training for staff. The plan says they will create an Equity Team and review their culture, their relationships with staff, and families, and kids with quote, “an attention and sensitivity to race.” I read this plan and thought, huh, there is a school that’s already doing many of these things, right in the same building, right upstairs.

speaker

OK, welcome. Hello. Thank you.

chana joffe-walt

It’s September, 2019. I’m back at SIS. It’s been four years since the French gala and the drama with the PTA. Rob, the dad, who fundraises, he’s not here anymore. His son finished middle school. Imee is still here. Her daughter is a junior in high school. And a new crop of sixth graders and their families are settling into the auditorium.

speaker

Welcome to PA Chaz. Welcome. Please, find a seat for me. Thank you.

chana joffe-walt

The school is no longer called SIS, the School for International Studies. It’s now BHS, the Boerum Hill School for International Studies. They changed the name, again. BHS has a new principal, Nicole Lanzillatto. She gets up on stage, and the staff cheers. Miss Lanzillatto welcomes the new families to BHS.

nicole lanzillatto

Any school is a microcosm of the world, and we are blessed with beautiful diversity.

chana joffe-walt

Miss Lanzillatto lists the ways the school reflects the world, race, ethnicity, language, gender.

nicole lanzillatto

We are an extraordinarily diverse community. And it’s a beautiful thing, and we fight for it, and we work on it.

chana joffe-walt

Miss Lanzillatto says BHS is going for true equity. She says the word equity three times in this welcome speech. Miss Lanzillatto is white, chatty, well-liked, with black hair that’s styled straight up. The hair is really Miss Lanzillatto’s defining feature. Picture boy band pompadour. She’s worked here most of her professional career. The year white families arrived at SIS, Miss Lanzillatto was the assistant principal. She won’t say anything bad about that year. It was a learning experience. It’s a process her predecessor, Ms. Juman, talks about it the same way. Remember? Principals — diplomatic. They’re careful not to place blame, but both of them said after that year, it was clear they needed to intervene. One of the first things Miss Lanzillatto did as principal was request special permission to reserve 40% of the seats for kids who get free and reduced price lunch. The majority of kids who get free and reduced price lunch are kids of color. And Miss Lanzillatto didn’t want the school to flip. She didn’t want Black and brown kids to get pushed out. The assistant principal told me they wanted to make sure the school did not become colonized. Some things here have changed. They got rid of the foundation, the Brooklyn World Project Rob and the other white parents had created. They scrapped some of the French programming, hired more teachers and staff of color. And one of the most striking changes I noticed — spend 10 minutes of the school, and you can’t not notice — Miss Lanzillatto is talking directly and constantly about race and equity. She told me everyone here needs to be on alert for racist habits and ideas. They need to aggressively address them, whenever they pop up, in the cafeteria, in the classroom.

nicole lanzillatto

There’s a conversation happening in the school around the smart classes and the non-smart classes. Let’s talk about it where is that coming from. So I think it’s really about being a beast. I think it’s about everything we do coming back to it.

chana joffe-walt

Coming back to equity. I could not get over how much time and energy the school puts into ensuring equity, not equality, equity. It’s almost like the obsessive focus Success puts on making sure everything is the same is exactly matched by the obsessive focus BHS just puts on recognizing everyone is not the same. BHS formed an Equity Committee of staff and students a few years ago. They looked for bias in the curriculum, in the signs on their walls and the books on their shelves. They analyzed achievement data, discipline data, where they could clearly see that the school punished Black boys more harshly than other students. So they revamped their entire approach to discipline, created a restorative Justice Department. They applied for grants to help pay for this to train their teachers on implicit bias and then train them again. They brought in experts.

speaker

And here are some things that I look for in transition. So how do kids engage with each other? Is it verbal engagement? Is it non-verbal engagement?

chana joffe-walt

Last fall, I watched two equity consultants, Cornelius and Kass Minor, show a group of BHS teachers how to observe racial dynamics in their school. This involved teachers walking around in a huddle with clipboards, taking diligent notes as kids walk through the hallways.

speaker

One fun lens to look at — and I’m just naming things out — I often ask, what are boys doing? What are girls doing? What are Black students doing? What are students of color doing?

chana joffe-walt

Mr. Minor is full of fun things the teachers should look for.

speaker

Here’s another fun thing to do, just because we’re out here. I do drive-bys in the hallway, where I walk by classroom windows, and I look in.

chana joffe-walt

They all take turns peering through the small window of a classroom door. They take more notes. Later, the teachers meet as a group. And one teacher, Stacy Ann Manswell, explains her observations from a math class.

stacy ann manswell

And then in the math classroom that we were in, something that stood out to me — so there was two white males, white female, Black male. And I’m walking around. And Black male, he was finished. And he finished early, waiting for his peers to do the Think Right Pair Share. And when the timer went off, the girl, the white girl he was sitting next to, he looked to her, but she looked to the two white boys. And they formed the pair. So it was like, now she had to work with him. But she was sort of looking for the other two boys for validation for what this boy was saying. So my teacher self is like, OK, does this child not participate in class, and she doesn’t trust that he knows what he’s doing, or is it because she doesn’t see him because he’s a Black boy and she figures he’s not capable?

chana joffe-walt

The teachers talked about this moment in depth, what it might mean, what messages the kids were picking up in their school about race, about who’s important, who’s bad, who’s smart. And it’s not just the staff. The administration is telling white parents that their mere presence in the school does not make it integrated. They have to work at making this place fair.

meghan casey

So this is our agenda today. We’re going to start with a reflection, and we’re going to get into how we talk about race with our young people.

chana joffe-walt

One Saturday morning, a group of two dozen parents gathered in the BHS library for something called Family Academy. This event was open to everyone, but mostly white parents showed up. And many of them shared that they had never really talked about race very much when they were growing up.

meghan casey

Show of hands, if race was not talked about, or only minimally talked about, or sort of avoided in some way. So just looking around the room, it’s about half — no, about 60% of us.

chana joffe-walt

Assistant Principal Meghan Casey walks went through a workshop on race and racism in America and child development. I think about how just a few years ago, the buzzword in this very school was diversity. Everyone is all about celebrating diversity. But now, Meghan Casey tells this room of parents diversity is not the goal. Having a diverse school does not mean we have an integrated school. We need to work on that to get to an integrated school. She says they surveyed BHS students last year, asking them about their experiences.

meghan casey

And our white kids overall said it feels like I’m in a Benetton ad, and it’s so diverse, and lovely, and I’m not experiencing racism, or racial bias, or implicit bias here at school. It’s great. And our kids of color were saying, they feel less loved, less seen. They talked — though they didn’t use this language, they talked about stereotype threat, they talked about implicit bias. They talked about moments with white peers that were uncomfortable, where a friendship felt a little strained. And it was clear to them that their white friend just didn’t — did not have bad intentions, loved them, good friend, but didn’t know the harm that they were creating, and just didn’t have the same knowledge base that they had about race and about racial consciousness. I want to just make sure, because it’s for whatever reason — I don’t know why — sometimes we think that things are better than they are. I just wanted to come back to our students. They are reporting that this is urgent, and we need to continue to deal with it. And it’s not a Benetton ad, even if some of our kiddos think it is.

chana joffe-walt

It’s a little jarring to hear school leaders telling parents, even though everything looks OK, it’s not. Principal Lanzillatto says she knows it can be hard to hear some of this stuff.

nicole lanzilltto

And some people are going to feel pissed off about it, and some people do. And that means some people are going to leave the room feeling like they’re being blamed. But at the end of the day, this is about kids. This is about serving kids and including families and communities. What else is the point of the school, right? That’s the whole point of a school.

chana joffe-walt

Is that the point of a school? When Miss Lanzillatto said this, I got stuck on the phrase. What is the point of a public school? We don’t seem to have any kind of unified vision. Maybe there was one back when they made that old film about public schools teaching us about democracy and how to live together. But we don’t have a shared vision now. What we have is choice. You can choose your vision for a public school. You can go to the test score school, like Success Academy, or the racial justice school, like BHS. There is no city policy that says every school needs to be integrated and equitable. It’s up to us. If we want that, we can choose it. For families with the most power, the most choices, that means we get to choose. Do we want to play fair or not? At BHS, families were choosing equity, white advantaged families. I didn’t see anyone leave the room at that parents workshop, or seem upset, or blamed at all. The parents I met at BHS of all races were pretty happy with the school. They seemed bought in. Meanwhile, the test scores at be adjust have improved dramatically. There’s still an achievement gap, but it seems to be closing. Black boys are no longer being disciplined at much higher rates than everyone else. And the kids seem happy, warm, and confident, and adept at talking about things like race and power. One day though, I heard a rumor. It was going around the high school. Kids were saying the PTA was stealing money from the high school and giving it to the middle school. I heard it first in the library from a group of 10th graders. They said the PTA had taken $1,500 to create a garden, and they were pissed. Later, I heard it again from a tenth grader named Farzana. And it wasn’t $1,500 anymore.

farzana

Yeah, so they just received $15,000 for gardening. What else can that $15,000 be used for so much more?

chana joffe-walt

This was meaningful because the BHS middle school is much whiter and larger than the high school. And despite all the focus on racial equity for the past few years, the PTA leadership at BHS is now almost all white, a lot of middle school parents, which has not escaped the notice of students, who have been encouraged by their school to notice such things and call them out. A girl named Paola told me we have to keep watching them because there’s no one there representing us. My mom works. She can’t go to PTA meetings.

paola

It’s just very unfair, that the fact that your mom can be in the PTA and make all these rules, and be like, no. We want the money from middle school.

jeremiah

Yeah. They’re like this all power thing that’s above everybody’s head that can just take this money and do this. You know what I mean?

chana joffe-walt

That’s Jeremiah jumping in. Jeremiah is a kid who jumps in. He’s the guy you go to if you’re feeling angry about something unjust, and what you want more than anything is someone who will feel just as angry as you do. Jeremiah tells Paola this is ridiculous. I’m going to go to the PTA and just tell them straight up.

jeremiah

You guys need to stop taking, stop taking money from this to put in their middle school programs. You know what I mean? It’s just too much.

paola

Your middle school already has it enough. Why do you want more?

chana joffe-walt

I wasn’t sure they had the details exactly right. But I did think, yeah, here we go again. The mostly white PTA probably is manipulating where money goes. So I looked into it, and it wasn’t true. The PTA did not steal money from the high school. It did get money for a garden, but it was grant money, not regular PTA money. Plus, the garden is mostly for the culinary program, which mostly serves the high school. Jeremiah texted me a few days after we spoke to say, sorry to bother you, but I think I might have been a little too critical of the school. Is it possible to do a follow-up interview? He was mad at himself and his friends for believing the rumor. He was mad that he said it to me and looked stupid.

jeremiah

I think there was some leftover feelings. Honestly, I can’t even say because —

chana joffe-walt

What do you mean by leftover feelings?

jeremiah

Because that’s been the understanding for five years. You know what I mean? It’s always been that.

chana joffe-walt

It’s always been that. It took me a while to get Jeremiah to say more about what he meant by that. Jeremiah is 15 years old. When he was in third grade, the city closed his mostly Black school — called it failing. His mom, a Black woman, fought the school closing as hard as she could — went to every meeting. It happened anyway. The city put a charter school in the building. And it also opened a new small school designed to appeal to the newly gentrified neighborhood. It had a global studies curriculum and a dual language Spanish program. Jeremiah went there third through fifth grade. Then he went to SIS for middle school, the year the white kids came in. Suddenly, his science class was sometimes taught in French. The after school programs he wanted to go to, also French, which he didn’t love, for obvious reasons.

jeremiah

Because I can’t speak French. So that was pretty annoying.

chana joffe-walt

Right, Jeremiah, a Black kid, believed a rumor that white parents in the PTA were stealing from him and his classmates because he understands that this is how schools work. He has leftover feelings. Jeremiah likes the new BHS, and he says it does feel more integrated and more equal. I told him about some of the white parents I had been meeting at the school, who seemed truly committed to integration.

jeremiah

I think that for white moms just think — I think its popular now. It’s like yoga. It’s like, oh, yeah, integration. It’s cool now. It’s a new thing.

chana joffe-walt

And what do you make of that?

speaker

Yeah. You’re a part of it. Thanks, but are you just — do you genuinely care, or is it everyone’s doing it? When it’s not beneficial to the white families, it’s going to be changed. And history repeats itself. So when this integration isn’t beneficial, then it’ll go right back to where it was before.

chana joffe-walt

History repeats itself is a very central thesis of my story.

jeremiah

Yeah. It’s just truth for life.

When integration is not helpful, it’s going to become segregated again.

chana joffe-walt

That’s probably true. White parents are opting in to be at BHS right now. But they can just as easily opt out. Historically, they have.

When this school building first opened its doors years ago, Black and Puerto Rican parents were demanding integrated equal schools city wide for everybody. They weren’t asking for one curated school or a small network of schools where people could integrate, if they wanted to. They were asking the Board of Education to have a plan for all schools. They were asking for things to go differently than they have for all of history. Next time, on “Nice White Parents,” things go differently.

“Nice White Parents” is produced by Julie Snyder and me, with editing on this episode from Sarah Koenig and Ira Glass. Neil Drumming is our managing editor. Eve L. Ewing is our editorial consultant. Fact checking and research by Ben Phelan. Additional reporting from Emmanuel Dzotsi, Jessica Lussenhop and Alvin Melathe. Music supervision and mixing by Stowe Nelson with production help from Aviva DeKornfeld. Our director of operations is Seth Lind. Julie Whitaker is our digital manager. Finance management by Cassie Howley, and production management by Frances Swanson. Original music for “Nice White Parents” is by The Bad Plus with additional music written and performed by Matt McGinley. Film clips, courtesy of the National Education Association and C-span Video Library. Special thanks to Tina Priceman, Johanna Miller, Leonie Haimson, Jill Cysner, Clayton Harding, Kate Taylor and Ana Espada. At The New York Times, thank you to Kelly Doe and Jason Fujikuni. And at Studio Rodrigo, thanks to Khoi Uong, Becki Choe, Nick Emrich and Christina No.

“Nice White Parents” is produced by Serial Productions, a New York Times Company.

Public education won’t be fair until school systems limit the power of white parents. But is that even possible? Chana finds two schools that are trying to do just that, and both are actually inside the I.S. 293 building. One is downstairs in the basement, where a charter school called Success Academy Cobble Hill opened about seven years ago. The other is upstairs at the newly renamed Boerum Hill School for International Studies.

Here is the transcript for Episode Four.

Listen to Episode Five.

An unexpected last chapter. Some white parents start behaving differently.

Chana has traced the history of the school from its founding and come to the present. But now: One unexpected last chapter. Last year, the school district for the Boerum Hill School for International Studies mandated a change in the zoning process to ensure all of middle schools will be racially integrated. No longer can white families hoard resources in a few select schools. Black and Latino parents have been demanding this change since the late 1950s. Now, the courts have mandated it. Chana asks: How did this happen? And is this a blueprint for real, systemic change?

The transcript for Episode Five will be available shortly.

Image

Credit…Alexia Webster

“Nice White Parents” was reported by Chana Joffe-Walt; produced by Julie Snyder; edited by Sarah Koenig, Neil Drumming and Ira Glass; editorial consulting by Eve L. Ewing and Rachel Lissy; and sound mix by Stowe Nelson.

The original score for “Nice White Parents” was written and performed by the jazz group The Bad Plus. The band consists of bassist Reid Anderson, pianist Orrin Evans and drummer Dave King. Additional music from Matt McGinley.

Special thanks to Sam Dolnick, Julie Whitaker, Seth Lind, Julia Simon and Lauren Jackson.