By all accounts, my family and I live in the “hood.” The end of our block empties directly onto West Philadelphia’s 52nd Street. Once known as the neighborhood’s retail epicenter, many people from nearby University City and Center City now avoid 52nd Street. As with many black neighborhoods, 52nd Street fell victim to the effects of middle-class flight and an influx of drugs and crime over the past several decades. However, our block is unique in that it has slowly been gentrifying, while in neighboring blocks, wealthy, white, young couples are moving there at a more rapid pace. Still, we reap the benefits of gentrification: safer parks, quaint eateries, and an organic food co-op, all within walking distance.
Speaking of Benefits
However, the runoff of gentrification has missed our neighborhood schools. The overwhelming number of black, middle-class families who grew up in our neighborhood opt to raise their own families in the quiet comfort of the suburbs where school districts have an abundance of resources; the middle class families who stay send their children to private, charter or selective enrollment public schools. White families who move into the neighborhood refuse to send their children to neighborhood schools where the student population is primarily black and poor. The school integration conversation has been stuck on white families’ refusal. Rightfully, longstanding black residents question white gentrifiers who move into black neighborhoods but will not send their own children to neighborhood schools. It sends the message that blighted neighborhoods and dilapidated real estate are salvageable and worth the investment, but their schools and the children they educate are not. But I often wonder if there are more sides in this conversation. After all, the effects of institutional racism and its impact on urban education forced most of the middle-class black families I know to make the same decision—not to send their children to their neighborhood schools. It's also true in my case. I'm a teacher; my husband and I send our youngest child to a nearby private school where I also work, and we send our two oldest children to one of the city's selective enrollment schools. So I ask:
Why do we expect white parents to send their children to failing neighborhood schools? We know that when gentrifiers move into our neighborhoods, longstanding residents can be pushed into the fringes, but at the same time, their presence is viewed as a stamp of approval or sign that things will get better, especially in our underfunded, overcrowded, neglected public schools. I’m not sure what the answer is. I’ve always believed that if like-minded parents, who know the importance of public education, banded together and were present in our neighborhood schools they might have the collective power to turn our failing schools around. Unfortunately, many of us (myself included) are too afraid to take the risk and can't afford to “experiment” with our children.
On the Front Lines
But, one organization, the
West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools, gives me hope. The coalition comprises a range of courageous people from different ethnicities, income brackets and educational backgrounds. Its mission is simple:
We all share a vision of a neighborhood strengthened by its elementary school and an elementary school strengthened by its neighborhood.
The coalition clearly states that its intention is not to fix neighborhood schools by bringing in children from other neighborhoods. Instead, it wants families who live in the attendance area to get the most out of their neighborhood schools and parents to take a more active role in their children’s education through volunteer efforts and engaging with the community. The coalition clearly states that although the attendance area is steadily gentrifying, the goal is that the neighborhood school remain mostly African American and mostly working and middle class. We hesitate to be the pioneers, the ones who will take the chance of putting our children on the educational front lines in hopes that our presence and involvement will make a difference. Our first instinct as urban residents is to seek out alternative options for our children rather than sending them to our neighborhood schools. More of us should take a page out of the coalition’s handbook. Instead, we sit back and wait for someone else to be the first. Unfortunately, that hesitation just leads to more of the same. Our nation’s urban schools continue to be the holding pen for our poor and underserved population; the never-ending status quo.
In My Backyard
Still, I dream of sending my children to a neighborhood school so close we can hear children play from my backyard. I speak to my neighbors to get a feel for their experiences with the school, and it always shocks me to hear that most are dissatisfied. Some of them are still holding out hope that the effects of gentrification will trickle down. It saddens me to know that for so many there is a false notion that gentrification is urban education’s equivalent to the white savior. Many aren’t aware that as gentrification ramps up, neighborhood schools may improve, but more often than not, black faces disappear. This is not to say we should stop fighting. Our voices need to be heard, and it is imperative that we take risks to ensure that our children have access to quality public education. We may not have the power and influence of our wealthier white counterparts, but we want the same opportunities for our children. Hopefully, more of us will take the coalition’s lead. Perhaps the forgotten voices of these communities can begin to affect change, one school at a time.
Jamila Carter is a Philadelphia mother of three school aged children who has spent the last eight years teaching Pre-K.