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The On Being Project

Challenging the Myths We Believe About Our Children’s Education

Editor’s note: this is the third essay in Courtney’s series on ethical parenting. You can read her first essay here and her second essay here.


Courtney Mykytyn didn’t set out to be the white parent that other white parents were nervous to be around. But when she moved to Highland Park, a diverse neighborhood in Los Angeles, and realized that none of her white friends were considering sending their kids to neighborhood schools, she was stunned. Maybe it was her background in anthropology that gave her the ability to look at life — even her own, even her kids’ — with a little distance. In any case, she did a deep dive into the research on white kids in schools where kids of color comprise the majority. She started bringing up the research at birthday parties and soccer games. She sent her kids to the neighborhood school, and though it wasn’t exactly easy, it was meaningful. She wanted people to know. She wanted white people to know.

This led her to start Integrated Schools — a decentralized organization of parents who are interested in or choosing to send their privileged kids to public schools with high-poverty concentration — the kinds of schools that get 1s and 2s on the Great Schools website, the kinds of schools that most white parents don’t even bother checking out.

Just four years old, the organization already has 28 chapters across the U.S. Many of those flocking to the organization’s resource page and online reading groups are millennials who live in diverse urban settings with great walkability scores (over 80 percent of the U.S. population now lives in metro areas). Mykytyn, whose kids are now 12 and 15, reports that parents usually seek out Integrated Schools when they have kids just about to enter kindergarten, and they can’t figure out how to think about the decision clearly, much less talk about it.

It’s true. Most parents like me (white, middle class or above) do not know how to have this conversation inside of our own heads, much less with each other. The irony is not lost on me; kids who grow up in “professional households” are widely known to hear 32 million more words than poor kids by the time they are 4 years old — what advocates call “the word gap.” And yet, here we are with a critical word gap of our own.

When you do hear white parents having a conversation about school choice, the things they say about why they can’t send their children to poorly rated, highly diverse public schools are predictable. Eerily so. Mykytyn confirmed that the following sentences are echoed from Los Angeles to Washington D.C., Dallas to Minneapolis:

“I don’t want my kid to fall behind.”

Worrying about whether your kid will “fall behind” is a powerful, if statistically improbable, fear for white, privileged parents. It makes some sense. Our fears are rarely rational. We panic about public speaking when, in fact, driving our car to the event where we will take the stage is actually what puts us most in danger. It’s not so surprising that we are irrational when it comes to our children; we are wired to want them to stay safe and succeed. But our imagination of what success looks like can be so impoverished, so disconnected from our own lived experiences of what flourishing actually feels like. Are high test scores and grades really the ultimate expression of what we hope for these quirky, maddening, beautiful creatures that are our children? God, I hope not.

A wide body of research — ranging from federal reports to academic studies — confirms that white kids who attend predominantly black and brown schools do fine academically. The earliest and arguably still the most significant study on how students fared in segregated school environments was called the Equality of Educational Opportunity Study and it looked at nearly 700,000 students in 1965. It proved that a student’s family background was far more important than school “social composition” in predicting student achievement outcomes. Despite analyses of the data over five decades of research on the effects of schools, the report’s fundamental finding has never been disproven.

In a report released by the federal government in 2015, it was confirmed that white students had the same test scores whether they went to a school that was overwhelmingly white or one that was overwhelmingly black (controlling for socioeconomic factors). And Professor Genevieve Siegel-Hawley’s 2016 book, When the Fences Come Down: Twenty-First Century Lessons from Metropolitan School Desegregation, is filled with both quantitative and qualitative evidence that white kids do fine, maybe even better, in desegregated schools. She writes:

“Researchers find significant gains in reading and mathematics for black and Latino students in diverse schools, with no corresponding declines for white students. And some major studies do show achievement gains on test scores for white students attending racially and socioeconomically diverse schools, particularly in math and science.”

So why don’t white kids fall behind, and in some cases, even excel in these “failing” schools?

Lots of reasons, but one is this: homeschooling. There are some parents who respond to the unequal public education system by opting out of it entirely — taking a sort of Thoreauean approach and educating their kids at home. But this is a small minority of Americans (3 percent or less in most states). But here’s the thing: one could argue that privileged parents basically all home school our kids. We fill the house with books. We limit screen time and/or steer our kids toward educational shows. We take them to museums, libraries, Martin Luther King Day rap shows and teach-ins (okay, so this is very Oakland and very much a thing.)

Chances are, if you send your kids to an integrated school, they will still get into a decent, if not a great, college. Rebecca Stanton sent her son, now 33, to three different majority-minority schools (two in Miami, one in Syracuse). She often felt judged by other white parents who thought she was willingly disadvantaging him. She saw it differently. He learned two foreign languages organically (not via expensive tutoring or semesters abroad). He was surrounded by kids with a wide variety of family configurations and cultures, which helped make having a single mom seem like just another variety, not a failure (as it is so often defined in places where white culture dominates). And he got into UC Berkeley to boot. When she looks back, she feels great about the decision: “Although many other white people I knew thought I was making a mistake, I believe I did what was best for him by not sheltering him in white enclaves to somehow give him a ‘top notch education.’ I made the right choice, for both him as a young boy and for his future.”

Dawn DiPrince of Pueblo, Colo. has three white kids in one of the lowest-performing schools in the state. And yet, she writes that sending them there “has been one of the best parenting decisions that we have made.”

Her kids have done well academically, but more than that, they’ve felt encouraged as part of a community. Her son, a senior, became obsessed with windmills, and his science teachers rallied around him to pursue building his own. In his college essay, he wrote:

“At the state science fair there was a kid from Denver next to me who had a similar project. However, he — a student from a much wealthier school district — was able to test his project in a private industrial wind tunnel. At Pueblo’s comparatively poor Central High School, I didn’t have that kind of access to equipment. However, I had an even better resource: my community. Many teachers at Central High donated their personal fans for the experiment so I could create the wind necessary to conduct my experiments. Later, the school’s engineering teachers raised funds to buy an air compressor. Most recently, the entire activities department and science department helped raise money to buy terfenol-d and galfenol alloys I needed to formulate my project.

I consider it to be a privilege to grow up in Pueblo, Colorado, and I understand that my interest and opportunities to explore and pursue a science-based college career were only possible because of the incredible support of my community.”

Compare that to the anecdote a friend of mine recently told me: He said that some of Baltimore’s wealthiest families pulled their white kids from private schools in their junior year and put them into the mostly black, mostly poor public high school that he attended so that their class ranking would skyrocket and they would be more likely to get into Ivy League schools. It’s one thing to choose not to participate in the public school system; it’s another to intentionally exploit its brokenness for the benefit of your own obscenely enriched child.

“I don’t want my kid to be unsafe.”

This consideration is arguably the most haunting: safety. Will my kid be safe? There is no more foundational responsibility as a parent than to keep your kid safe, and yet, as soon as she can crawl, you begin to realize that safety is relative. When this question is asked related to the school you send your kid to, it becomes interwoven with deeply racist notions of who causes violence and who suffers from its effects.

No doubt, safety is a relative notion.

Clayton Howatt, of St. Paul, Minnesota understood via conversations with neighbors that white, middle class families like his were supposed to send their kids to pre-kindergarten in the neighborhood, and then leave for one of the “better” schools. (The neighborhood is about 70 percent white; the local school, at the time, was 4 percent white.) But his wife wanted to do something different: “She’s constantly challenging my beliefs,” he says.

Kristin Howatt explains: “It was one of the lowest performing schools in our district, but we knew we should at least give it a try and see what that actually meant. Four years later, we are sure that choosing our school was the best decision we have ever made. Our kids are both thriving academically, way above grade level in all subjects, but most importantly, their world is completely different than that of our friends and neighbors. They live a truly diverse life with amazing friends and families that I want to raise my children with.”

The biggest question that Clayton and Kristin get from the other parents in the neighborhood these days? Safety. “Parents look at me kind of dumbfounded when I say that my girls are safer at their school then they would be at the whiter school in the next neighborhood over,” Clayton explains.

“First off, there aren’t gang fights and gunshots ringing through the hallways. I don’t say that of course, but some parents seem to fear for their kids safety among other kindergartners. This of course hurts me because there should only be love for five-year-olds in our community, not fear.”

I have noticed that white parents, even self-identified progressives, having these conversations will often speak about tiny kids of color as neglected angels — its own form of racism — but then start to imbue these same kids with agency and even monstrous qualities as they grow up. It harkens back to the brute caricature that rose during Reconstruction in the white imagination: in the 1905 novel, The Clansman, D.W. Griffiths described the typical black person as “half child, half animal, the sport of impulse, whim, and conceit…a being who, left to his will, roams at night and sleeps in the day, whose speech knows no word of love, whose passions, once aroused, are as the fury of the tiger.”

As preposterous as it might seem to progressive parents with Black Lives Matter signs in our windows and Ezra Jack Keats books on our children’s shelves, how much of that tiger lingers in our psyches?

While the Howatts in St. Paul are hurt by the perception of danger within their daughters’ school, an educator just one town away feels a tangible threat. A young white teacher working in a lowly-rated neighborhood school in Minneapolis had this to say: “Being a public school teacher, I have to stand by my belief in public schools. But when I think about my children attending the school in which I work, ‘Hell no!’ is my instinctual reaction.”

The reason? “The out-of-control behavior I see, not only from the students at my school, but also from some of the parents of students as well. Legitimate screaming and threats of violence coming from adults is not something I want my kids dealing with on a daily basis.”

So that’s real, too. At least from this teacher’s perception.

But it is not more real than the typical violences of white culture that are less obvious — the addiction, the anxiety, the domestic strife kept out of the public eye. The Centers for Disease Control, for example, reports that 45.2 percent of adults from households whose incomes are below the poverty line report having consumed at least one alcoholic beverage in the last 30 days, compared to 72.6 percent of adults whose household incomes are at least four times the poverty level. According to one of the largest recent studies on anxiety, including the data of more than 16,000 people, white Americans are more likely to experience generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety than black Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans. (Of course, people of color are less likely to have access to treatment and diagnosis; mental illness certainly occurs in communities of color.) Though black kids are arrested ten times more often for drug crimes than white kids, recent studies show that young African Americans are actually less likely to use or get addicted to drugs than their peers of any other racial background.

If your kid goes to a less white school, it stands to reason, she will likely be exposed to less drug use and abuse, not to mention anxiety and its reverberations. And, if we are paying attention, we must realize that our unexamined gut instincts about safety are getting fact checked every day by headlines of white boys with semi-automatic guns opening fire within “good” schools or girls cyberbullying one another to the point of suicide. Middle class parents have been socialized to think that it is kids from poor families, kids who have not learned how to regulate their emotions, that present a threat to our children. Yes, research shows that poor kids and kids of color are disproportionately exposed to toxic stress and environments where they don’t learn healthy social, emotional, learning techniques. No, this isn’t a rationalization for why your white kids shouldn’t be around them.

And perhaps the threat we feel is even more deeply primordial than our racial bias. Sandy Speicher, a partner and managing director at design firm IDEO who specializes in education, told me this: “Parents deeply want to understand their kids and be understood by them, and school is really the first institution that threatens that bond. On a very unconscious and powerful level, parents will seek a school that reflects their values and even schools with families who resemble theirs — because that makes them feel like they will continue to be able to relate to their kid in the future.”

Of course, if this is true, then poor parents, particularly of color, are forced to push against this primordial instinct every time their children are offered scholarships to elite, majority white schools. What’s more, we expect them to be purely grateful for the opportunity, sending their kids off to an academic universe that will make them feel like the strangers.

“Am I turning my kid into an experiment?”

Yes. And no.

I mean, isn’t parenting all one big hopeful, often misguided experiment? What I fed my kid for breakfast was a bit of an experiment — can the energy she soaked up from one stupid frozen waffle actually sustain her until lunch? Are our almost nightly dance sessions to Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know?” going to turn her into a retrograde romantic? And what about the things I don’t even have the consciousness to be self-conscious about? No doubt I say and do hundreds of things every day that my kids tidily slot away in their growing file system about “how the world works,” and half of them are less than ideal.

Parenting is an experiment. So is democracy. On the former we may be cautious and destined to screw up on some level. And on the latter, we’re failing really badly. The hypothesis for how public education might function was sound — set up a system where all small humans can have access to the kind of critical thinking skills that will allow them to participate in democracy as large humans. But the execution has been tragically and inexcusably flawed. It’s true — all kids have access to a building in which something called “school” happens. But what happens inside each of those buildings is actually determined by class and race.

Thulasy Lettner is no stranger to moral experiments. In her twenties, she and her partner (both Canadian) volunteered in Zambia and Malawi determined to find answers to the question, “Why do people live in extreme poverty?” After five years, they agreed that the answer, by and large, was “because rich, western countries will go to almost all lengths to seek the best for themselves.”

They returned to rural Alberta, Canada determined to live out their values in a way that didn’t, in Thulasy’s words “rationalize the kind of self-preservation we felt was endemic in a lot of ‘Let’s change the world’ work.”

Thulasy is a second generation immigrant (her parents are from Sri Lanka), and her partner is white. They now have two children, 4 and 2, whom they have decided to homeschool, though she prefers the term “unschool.”

She explains: “Are we turning our kids into a political experiment? Maybe some people see it that way. But I think this is where our privilege — and we have a lot of privilege — shows up. I have this feeling that no matter how hard we try to not run the race, there is so much in our lives that sets us (and our kids) up to run it well, if and when we/they ever choose to. No matter how little money we make, no matter how far back we try to step, I always feel like we’re in the one percent. This may not actually be true, but privilege is particularly hard to shake.”

History proves Thulasy right. Privilege is hard to shake. And yet, privileged people often behave as if our children are imperiled by public institutions that serve other people’s kids.

There is a proposal on the table to merge two schools in Oakland, where I live. One is an academically excellent school where the majority of kids are white. It’s outgrowing its facilities. The other is a “failing” school with 71 percent black students and a glorious campus three blocks away. The parents at the majority white school have expressed huge resistance to the integration, even at a very preliminary stage. I was having coffee with a friend whose white daughters will likely go to the first school. He relayed to me: “Our neighbors were like, ‘You better have a back up plan. Are you doing any private school tours? What if that merger happens? You don’t want your kid to be an experiment.’”

I could see that he was genuinely triggered by their warning, but as we kept talking, we landed on an exciting proposition. “What if your girls are part of an experiment?” I offered. “What if it’s an experiment in solving a systemic problem, in actually realizing — in some small way — the promise of public education as it was originally intended?”

“That’s a really cool experiment,” he said with a big smile spreading across his face.

We live in America (or in Thulasy’s case, Canada). We are free to choose where our kids go to school (including not going to formal school at all). But somewhere along the way, we got confused about what sort of project freedom actually is. It’s an intertwined one. It’s a related one. Simone de Beauvoir wrote:

“It is not true that the recognition of the freedom of others limits my own freedom: to be free is not to have the power to do anything you like; it is to be able to surpass the given toward an open future; the existence of others as a freedom defines my situation and is even the condition of my own freedom.”

When I look at my daughters, young as they may be, I think my highest aspiration is not that they have good test scores or high grades or that they never see two people get into a brawl. I want genuine freedom for them. I want an “open future,” one where they not only feel comfortable in their own skin, but in this country as it actually is — broken and beautiful at the same time, capable of moral courage and redemption. One where they feel like they have been a part of something, not a product of somewhere. One where they have a sense of pride in who they are, but also a sense of proportion.

Where they go to school can’t deliver that “open future,” but it sure as hell can influence their capacity to live into it. I hope they’ll be patient with me as I live into mine.

Stay tuned for the next essay, in which I explore the benefits of sending your privileged kid to a failing school. Keep the emails coming!

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