I grew up in Queens (St. Albans), New York, and attended Andrew Jackson High School in the early ’90s. My family, who migrated to New York from the island of Jamaica in the late '70s, was unconcerned with the reputation of a school that they assumed was better than where they were coming from. Thankful for the opportunity and hopeful of attaining the American Dream, not much thought was given to pursuing a high school outside my neighborhood, let alone a private school. Andrew Jackson was my “zoned” school, and I would attend. End of story. My four years at Andrew Jackson High were filled with days of cutting class, cutting school, avoiding fights and getting into fights. My days were also filled with avoiding the clutches of male security guards who enjoyed courting vulnerable teenage girls and manipulating their minds. Many of the young male Black students were killed due to stabbings and gun violence that seemed to ravage the community that once was a symbol of success for African-American families. Despite its many challenges, Andrew Jackson High also gave me great memories and contributed immensely to the person I am today. It was within those walls that I learned the good, the bad and the ugly life lessons. It was also where I established and have maintained great friendships. It was also within those halls that I connected with a caring social worker who sealed my fate in making the decision to pursue the field of social work. As a social worker and parent, I am well aware of the various issues that affect our schools that include the resurgence of resegregation, institutionalized racism, lack of funding, uninvolved parents and the many other educational challenges that affect minority students. City or suburbs, the North or the South, students of color are disproportionately affected by these issues. This inequity has remained at the forefront of my husband’s and my minds. In our quest to give our two children, 12 and 15 years old, the best chance of success, we’ve always sought to buy homes in good school districts. Ironically, the “good” school districts are always predominately White. We recently decided to relocate back to Long Island from our seven-year hiatus in Atlanta. We settled down in Roslyn, New York, a town known for excellent schools and wealthy homeowners. The area is predominately Jewish but has a growing number of Asian families who are also looking for great schools and a safe community. Our little family is neither Jewish nor Asian but like them we are also looking for the same kind of neighborhoods: tree-lined blocks, pizza and yogurt shops, safe streets for us to take our weekly Sabbath walks. As we continue to get settled in our quaint little town, I wonder if we made the right choice living here.
A recent study noted that parents whose children attend schools with mostly White students are much more likely to rate their child’s school as excellent: "61 percent of Black parents whose child attends a school with mostly White students rate their child’s school as excellent, compared to only 14 percent of Black parents whose child attends a school with mostly Black students." At my children’s current schools, minority students make up less than 1 percent of the student body. Our goal as parents is for our children to learn in a diverse school environment, to become academically-equipped, stimulated, challenged and entrenched in college readiness like their White counterparts. But why does it require me to live in an all-White neighborhood? Would my son who graduates in 2020 have the same college readiness if he attended a public school in certain neighborhoods in Hempstead or Queens? A new study using federal data finds that Black students who attend schools that have a majority of Black students scored lower on achievement tests than Black students who go to school with fewer Black students. In choosing to live in this type of neighborhood, am I also contributing to the reality of segregation? Or am doing what my immigrant grandparents did for me, giving me the best opportunity at succeeding and achieving the “American Dream?” As our children begin the 2017 school year, my 15-year-old son is excited by the prospect of walking to school for the first time in his life, excited by the taste of freedom of walking the ½ mile to school. My daughter, who never rode the school bus, smiles proudly as she walks the 500 feet to the bus stop filled with Asian and White kids, her curly hair bouncing as she looks back to wave goodbye. I stand back and smile with mixed emotions; proud and thankful for the sacrifices that were made by my immigrant family, a single mother, and a husband who encouraged me to further my education. While I’m eager and hopeful of the possibilities that the school year will bring, I’m also cautious and conscious of the reality of the world and the distant and sometimes unreachable goal of equal education that African-American families face every day.
Lisa Petgrave-Nelson, is a graduate of Adelphi University’s School of Social Work. She is a licensed master social worker and a certified health coach. Lisa enjoys spending time with her family, cooking and nature photography.