Have you listened to the first episode of Nice White Parents? The podcast begins with the reporter, Chana Joffe-Wait (a white woman) reflecting on touring public schools in Brooklyn for her child. I knew the scene well. I was one of those white parents she describes who was able to show up in the middle of a work day to tour a public school with other white parents. The difference being, my soon to be Kindergartener was a Black child.
As I began the Kindergarten hunt, I found myself in the unique position of having all the privileges of a white parent searching for a “good” public school but with two major differences; in addition to my child being Black, my child also has special needs (although we prefer to say he has different needs).
On my public school tours I looked around and assumed that these white parents, like me, had heard through the white hipster Brooklyn parent grapevine, which public schools to look at if you weren’t happy with your zoned public school.
Typically, if a white parent isn’t happy with their zoned school it means the school has low test scores, not great attendance, a large student to teacher ratio, and in NYC, one of the most segregated school districts in the country, it also means the school is made up of predominantly of Black and Brown students.
A “good” public school then has the opposite attributes; great test scores, good attendance, smaller class sizes, and a student body made up of mostly white children. If a school is racially diverse, that’s an added bonus.
Diversity means many things to different people. For us it meant a school where the majority of the children AND teachers AND school leadership have brown skin (our son has asked us to refer to his skin as brown, not black) like him, AND can address his learning needs.
Finding this school was like finding a needle in a haystack.
Schools with excellent services for special needs kids means white schools.
So, it seemed I was going to have to choose between a school population that reflected my son’s race, and schools with excellent special education programs. I quickly began to wonder…Where do Black children with special needs get what they need? Where are those schools?
I knew the answer. For the most part, those children aren’t receiving the education or the services they need. More often than not a white child’s education is superior to a Black child’s education. Even if a white child and a black child are in the same class, there is ample evidence that a white child has a better chance of succeeding and not because their skin color makes them superior, but because of implicit bias, (yes, bias exist even in the minds and bodies of the most well intentioned white teachers), cultural insensitivity, Black students being treated older than their years, and the proven fact that Black students are disproportionately punished at a higher rate. Add to that, the complex addition of any special need; whether it be dyslexia, ADD, ADHD, ASD,SPD….How can these children be set up to thrive?
I often think of my gentle child with his brilliant brain that works a little differently than a typical kid. I think of him in an environment that I was not able to curate and find for him and it makes me physically ill. The thought of my child lost and scared and stuck and falling behind in school is heartbreaking. My child, whose behavior can also be larger than life and could be construed as hard to control or threatening (only when compared to a white child with the same behavior) needs more support than a typical child in a classroom. With support he has done beautifully. I am so proud of who he is as a student; curious, inquisitive and kind.
I am also proud of my advocacy and the services we fought to get for him. I am not proud of the system where, as a white woman, I am given a huge leg up in the fight for services for my child. I had a team of people helping me (all of whom I was connected with through R’s private pre school) and I had the time to call and email the Department of Education 50 million times a day AND the resources to afford a private Neuropsych exam. These things all speak to my white privilege.
I did a lot of digging on my Kindergarten hunt and was pointed towards a few schools with incredible services and diverse populations, most of these schools didn’t even have school tours for prospective parents because the school served its surrounding neighborhood and on paper, didn’t seem great (those test scores and attendance rates again). White parents weren’t traveling out of zone/district for these schools. These schools started moving up on my list, and the schools with tremendous wait lists began to move down. I began to wonder, what would my presence as a white parent mean to these school communities? Just because my child is Black doesn’t mean I am immune to the harmful behaviors and attitudes white parents can bring with them into communities that don’t look like them.
I also looked at private schools that served kids with special needs. These tours were cringeworthy. When I showed up for these school tours (also in the middle of the day) they often started with coffee, pastries, and bottled water. On these tours, not only was every parent white, but so were the vast majority of the school leadership and teachers. With the exception of one private school, the lack of diversity among the student body was staggering. White families have the means to pay the 70K a year or have the time and resources to sue the DOE (this is quite common) and have them cover tuition.
I had a nagging question in the back of my mind; if my child was white, would I notice the lack of diversity at these schools? Or worse, would I care? Would I decide that my child going to a homogenous school was okay because of his learning differences? How do we as parents decide what is best for our child? Had Rory been my white child, would excellent services have superseded a diverse school community? Would that be okay with me and my husband?
Questions at the private schools sounded the same as at the public schools, what did homework look like? How often did the students play outside? How often did kids get music and art?
For me, a different question kept bubbling up, where are the Black and Brown children with disabilities getting the services and tailored education they need?
I would raise my hand and ask, “What was the racial makeup of the student body and the staff?”
There was an energy shift in the room. I assume many parents were wondering why the little white lady was asking this question. The services at these schools were top notch incredible, isn’t THAT what mattered? What did the racial make up matter? Well, It mattered the most to me.
I would get a similar answer at each private school, which was a non answer really, “we are working towards hiring a more diverse staff”. I didn’t push back. I should have. I would smile and nod and knew It wasn’t the school for my son.
As we learned more about R we knew he needed to be in school with typical learners, so private schools that would accommodate his IEP were not for us.
I wonder, though, if one of those schools would have been the best learning environment for him, would I have sacrificed racial mirrors, which research has proven is vital for transracial adoptees healthy development, for other parts of his development?
I by no means toured every public elementary school in Brooklyn, and my experience is not meant to offend any school that may contradict my experience. Good gracious, I would love to be proven wrong. There are exceptions. I found 2 incredible schools that fit the bill for what we wanted for R. I toured 20 schools.
R will be heading to a public school in the fall (I’m pretending there’s no pandemic while I write this) that has a program that we couldn’t be more thrilled about. We call it the magic school.
A racially diverse public school with excellent special education services shouldn’t be magic.
We’ve worked so hard for this. I worked for a year on this. It was my full time job while home on maternity leave with DK. No matter how hard I worked, or for how long, the reality was that my white privilege helped tremendously. As with most things in this country, whiteness makes succeeding far easier and more attainable.
My advocacy is widening and I will take into careful consideration who I am and how my whiteness affects who I am advocating for and what that advocacy looks like. I’ll think about what our role will be as white parents in a school where only 10 percent of the student body is white.
I will continue to advocate fiercely for both my children. My Black boys deserve every chance at success, as does every Black child in this country.