Nice white parents in Nashville

I’ve had a lot of conversations recently about Serial’s Nice White Parents podcast. And, understandably so- it’s a remarkably engaging story about something felt by most people (everyone?) but rarely discussed in such a public kind of way. It’s made my day job a little easier- instead of going through some convoluted explanation about contemporary school segregation, I can now reference NWP and people get it much more easily than they did before. 

While I’m thrilled about the attention it’s gotten, I’m worried NWP listeners might begin and end with just this school integration-related podcast. Of course, it’s only one story, and by design it centers the perspectives of white families, nearly exclusively. For anyone who’s not familiar, there are many other outstanding podcasts in this genre, including: 

Source: npr.org

I wanted to use this post to highlight another in something of a golden age of school integration-related podcasts: season 2 of “The Promise” from Meribah Knight of Nashville Public Radio. It’s an 8-episode series that focuses on two public schools in East Nashville: Lockeland Elementary School (84% white) and Warner Elementary School (88% Black). Both are traditional public schools, and they’re even in the same attendance zone, just 1.5 mi apart. This 2018 article is a good preview of the story. Here are a few key pieces of the background:

  • In 2004, Lockeland was nearly 50% white and 50% Black, after having made a concerted effort at integration.
  • For a variety of reasons (explored in the podcast), the school became overwhelmingly white in the decade that followed. Although 2/3rds of elementary aged students in the priority zone are Black, enrollment at Lockeland dropped to 7 percent Black in 2018. 
  • Meanwhile, Black families were either unaware Lockeland was an option for them and/or chose charters over Warner, to the point that Warner enrolled fewer than 230 students total despite having capacity for 800. 
  • In 2017, two Lockeland parents (one Black and one white) sent a letter to the principal, signed by 57 others, to express concern about racial segregation at Lockeland.

The Promise talks about the historical background of school segregation in Nashville – detailed by Ansley Erickson in “Making the Unequal Metropolis” (see this earlier post and ep 2 of The Promise) – that contributed to the segregation between Lockeland and Warner. Unlike NWP, there’s more balance between experiences/perspectives of white people and those of people of color, including fascinating interviews with the Kelley family. A. Z. Kelley, a barber and NAACP member, named his son as the plaintiff in a decades-long school desegregation case (basically, Nashville’s Brown) and somehow never told his family about it! And, it tells the story of everything that happened after parents reached out to the Lockeland principal, updated all the way through the coronavirus closures last spring. 

When I was listening, I knew one of the parent names sounded familiar- Heather Wood and I emailed way back when she was writing that letter to the Lockeland principal. Eventually, she moved her white daughter to Warner amidst lots of resistance to integration at Lockeland. After I finished the podcast, I emailed her to get an update on how things have unfolded since then. As you can imagine, Warner was under intense pressure to bring in white students, leading to dramatic changes in its educational programming (yes- a yoga program). Meanwhile, Lockeland faced no pressure to bring in Black students. We talked about that, and about how her daughter’s doing at Warner, and spoiler alert: as detailed in the research and discussed often on another great podcast, her daughter is doing just fine! 

What, if any, effort has Lockeland made to integrate?

Lockeland had a chance to retain its status as an integrated school ten years ago. I think since it was a school re-opened by a white principal with a steering committee / foundational group of high achieving white gentrifier parents, it was always going to feel like a “white school that still has Black kids,” rather than a site of Black educational pride that Warner used to be and is again.  But, it could have had a plan to retain / recruit kids who live in the priority zone, and there was no plan.  It turned into a feeder school for the expensive private daycare down the street.   As test scores rose and the neighborhood home prices skyrocketed, and it became more and more socially insular, there was no reason (in the administration’s mind) to advertise the school or make it more welcoming to local lower income families – let alone have an official strategy like a low income set-aside or something like that.  

Remember the book “How to Walk to School?“  About the lawyer/CEO moms who unapologetically took over a Title 1 school? Also the “Marketing Cities Marketing Schools” book about the elementary in downtown Philadelphia.  That’s Lockeland.  It got colonized and no one even blinked.  

There have been no efforts to recruit more Black families or ELL families and the classroom teaching staff is 100% white.  The principal recently said that they are going to take steps to change that, but we’ll see.  In other cities it’s probably different but here there is a big correlation between race and income. Many of the Black people in the Lockeland priority zone are working class or public service eligible.   Many of the white people are upper middle class or affluent professionals who relocated from larger liberal cities. So there’s a class / education divide, along with race and income.  It’s hard to bridge that, when there are few places where everyone socializes. 

How has pandemic schooling affected Warner’s efforts to integrate? 

Covid made it almost impossible for Warner to continue to recruit more families. No tours, no events.  Honestly, the staff and admin at Warner are not trying to fill the school with white kids. Yes, that’s the goal of that specific grant – but they just want more kids, period.  And yes the testing is important, to the extent that it shows the kids’ potential for growth and the teachers’ skill.   But white families are not passing on Warner because of test scores.  If anything, white people in this economic bracket skip public schools because they hate all the testing, and they know testing isn’t a great indicator of school quality.

White families are passing on Warner because they don’t want all their kids’ peers to be from low income, low social status families whose parents aren’t formally educated.  They are afraid of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE Score) of kids from public housing. White newcomers to this neighborhood are lawyers, nonprofit managers, teachers, doctors, and artists, and they are not comfortable socializing with a lot of the Warner parents, who tend to have more working class / hourly wage jobs. Not all of them – there are a few middle class college grads – but it’s just a different crowd.   

Why is it tough to attract white and/or affluent families to Warner?

What I’ve noticed is that there is very little that will induce most affluent white parents who have moved to gentrifying cities to send their kids to school with large numbers of working class or very low income children. Some reasons are valid, like when a child has a special need or health condition and needs to go to a specific school because of it. But, many white parents look for reasons to justify their avoidance of discomfort and concentration of resources. I know people who’ve rejected Warner “not because of race, just because of poverty and trauma,” people who reject it “not because of race or poverty, just because there’s no PTO and active school community” (because a PTO is a proxy in their mind for involved parents).   

The newer gentrifier parents are pretty wealthy and seem to all read books about the school-to-prison pipeline and attend progressive fundraisers etc, or volunteer for refugee rights groups, but they are either too risk-averse to throw their kid in with the existing school population or they see education as a private commodity where you just get the best you can by paying tuition or buying a house. So they advocate on behalf of immigrants and kids in poverty, in all the other risk-free ways, but keep their own kids separate from them.   

I don’t think the Black Warner parents care if more white kids come, even though they value diversity, and I don’t think the few white parents (currently enrolled) do either.   We just don’t want the school to close for low enrollment, or lose its programs.  (For the record, I decided to enroll mine before the magnet programs existed and before the current principal was there, so I’m not as invested in that.  It’s not why I enrolled.)

How is your daughter doing at Warner?

My kid loves her school.  She couldn’t care less about being one of the only white kids.  Obviously she’s aware of it, but it’s not good or bad. It’s just school.  The pandemic has seriously affected some of her friends’ ability to practice English.  About 1/3 of students at both schools are staying virtual this year.   But because there are so few highly resourced families at Warner, there is no virtual / in-person divide where some people pulled their kids out to homeschool or hire a private teacher or be in a learning pod.  Basically no one at Warner can afford to do that, so it wasn’t really an issue.  The 30% of virtual kids are the same income level as the rest, they are just staying virtual because they are high risk or live with a grandparent or a mom with cancer etc. The district gave everyone a laptop so they can stay home. 

In most ways, Lockeland is already a “pod” where people chose to aggregate their resources, so the concept of economically privileged parents bailing for private school / paid homeschool when Covid hit, hasn’t really affected us at Warner because they were never there to begin with.

Anything else you want to share?

The last thing I’d say is that I think that liberal white people are obsessed with thinking/saying the correct things, and people need to focus less on “am I being a white savior?” but, “is what I am doing being in solidarity with my community?  How do I know? Am I listening to what they need and want, and contributing to that?” 

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