First Person

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Preschool students at School 55, which could become the second Butler lab school in Indianapolis.

This is the latest entry in How We Got Here, a series where students and families explain how they chose, or ended up at, the schools they did. You can see all of the stories here.

Unlike many of the other mothers I know, I’m not wringing my hands too much about where I send my children to school.

Now that our children are approaching kindergarten, women I’ve known for a long time are growing anxious. We all want to do what’s best for our kids, but our choices are limited by our finances and sometimes by school districts. Some of us also have concern for social and racial justice and how that is reflected in our schools, and want to make choices for our own children that contribute to a more just school system.

I’m an anxious person by nature, but as a teacher in the public schools in Nashville as well as a parent, I’m not nervous about where my children end up.

My surprisingly chill perspective comes mostly from a recognition of my privilege. My kids are little white boys with two married, employed, home-owning, college-educated parents. They have so much privilege. Every statistic there is says they will be just fine, no matter where they go to school. My students have very few of these advantages, and I see every day that they are people with intelligence, integrity, humor, and optimism. Accepting my students for who they are helps me to accept that my children will be OK, even if they don’t get every single advantage I had.

In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb. Actually, growing up in a less homogeneous community than I did will give them an important set of skills and dispositions that will help them in an increasingly diverse world. I hope they’ll grow up in a country where their privileges — their skin color and their parents’ status — matter less and less, while their skills and work ethic matter more and more.

Given all that, our plan is to enroll our kids in the neighborhood public schools — starting with pre-kindergarten this month for our older son. Our kids are 4 and 1, schools can change quickly, and I can’t predict the future, so I’m not promising now that my kids will eventually graduate from their zoned public schools. But I am saying that this will be our first choice, one we will only deviate from for very compelling reasons. Too many other families in Nashville and beyond don’t even give public schools this much of a chance, scared by reputation and rumors into opting for private, charter, and magnet schools before investigating the neighborhood public schools for themselves.

Sometimes during these conversations among parents, even after I say something about how my privileged kids will be OK and how diversity is good, the other moms continue their hand-wringing. Why? Sometimes it’s because their children have challenges mine do not; because they have less privilege than I do; or because they are afraid that even the privilege they have will not be enough to position their children favorably in a rapidly changing world.

These fears are understandable. But sadly, I’m also afraid that some of their anxiety is because of implicit bias that these good-hearted women don’t want to recognize within themselves. This is what’s usually buried under the surface of talk about “good schools”: so often, white parents define “good schools” as schools full of white kids.

My personal rule of thumb when assessing schools is inspired by This American Life’s 2016 episode “The Problem We All Live With,” which explored the troubling history of school segregation, desegregation, and resegregation in communities like mine. When I evaluate schools for my kids, I look for them to be truly integrated — to have at least 25 percent students of color and at least 25 percent white students. In the episode, a quarter of the population seemed to be the threshold where minority students were no longer tokens, and where white parents were numerous enough to fight for the school to get the needed resources from higher up (because, sadly, school boards and districts often disregard the concerns of parents of color, while paying attention to their white constituents).

In diverse counties like mine, this 25 percent rule makes a pretty low threshold, a goal that should not be incredibly difficult to achieve. Studies show that students of color see their test scores improve in integrated classrooms, while white students fare no differently. In many ways, integration would be one of the easiest strategies for “closing the achievement gap.”

Liberal parents sometimes struggle when it feels like they have to choose between what’s best for their own kids in the short term and what’s best for the system as a whole in the long run. But I like the point that Nikole Hannah-Jones, the black journalist behind the This American Life episode, has made when discussing her own choice for her daughter’s schooling: Her child is no better or more deserving than any other child, so it’s wrong to say that a school isn’t good enough for her child, but fine for other kids. In a way, insisting on one’s own children’s right to attend “better” schools is a selfish choice if it results in the deterioration of schools that other, less fortunate children depend on. New York City teacher Jose Luis Vilson wrote a similar essay about his own family’s choices. My particular situation isn’t the same as these writers’, but I found their stories compelling and persuasive.

I wish our school system in Nashville didn’t have big pockets of de facto segregation — that might be my top wish as both a parent and a teacher, surpassing even my desire for higher teacher pay and better family policies. There are schools in our district that are over 90 percent African American that gain a reputation for being “bad schools,” even “dropout factories,” while the expensive private school down the road (not coincidentally founded soon after enforcement of Brown v. Board, the landmark school desegregation case) is over 90 percent white and has “Blue Ribbon” status.

Recently, most debates about school segregation in Nashville have been just a small part of a larger debate on charter schools, a topic that has dominated school board politics. One argument against the schools is that they intensify segregation in the district as a whole by targeting narrow populations; their defenders respond by pointing out that the racial makeup of charter schools is not significantly different from that of the other nearby zoned schools.

Meticulous number-crunching is necessary to try to adjudicate that debate. Personally, I think that whole argument is more pertinent to magnet schools, which screen students based on their skills, than to charter schools, and magnet schools certainly are not going anywhere. But the effect of any school or type of school on the district’s racial makeup seems a moot point when the fact is that the system as a whole is deeply segregated, and most individual schools reflect that.

This situation is only poised to get worse as our rapidly gentrifying city adds more expensive housing developments, potentially deepening the residential segregation that already exists (and has deep historical roots). I’m afraid that left to its own devices, the free market will intensify residential segregation and displace many longtime residents, especially people of color and the poor, with a side effect of intensifying segregation in schools. Mixed-race and mixed-income neighborhoods are so crucial because they make desegregated schools happen more conveniently, organically, and peacefully, without tortured debates or elaborate busing plans.

The education activist groups I’m in haven’t been talking much about desegregation and busing, though I know they care deeply about racial justice. I know and trust these people, and I feel confident that the reason this issue hasn’t come up is that we are fighting a war on multiple fronts. We’re teachers trying to protect our jobs, we’re working to elect a school board that hasn’t been bought and paid for by out-of-state special interests, we’re trying to keep charter schools from taking students away, and we’re fighting to keep standardized testing from taking over every minute of every school day. Also, I know I’m a relative newcomer to town (I moved here in 2008), and there may be a fraught history here that I’m unaware of. Desegregation is politically tricky, and it’s something we haven’t fought for. But I would love to see that change.

Mary Jo Cramb is a teacher and parent in Nashville. A version of this piece first appeared on the Nashville education blog Dad Gone Wild.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.