I was at a housewarming party recently with the parents of many of my sons’ current and former classmates. As is typically the case when you get a bunch of parents together, the conversation shifted to the topic of schools—the good, the bad and the ugly. Both of my kids currently attend a private school in Westchester County, New York. Located just outside of New York City, Westchester is a suburban area that ranks as the fifth-wealthiest county in the state and the 47th wealthiest nationally. My boys both started at their school at the age of two because we wanted to ensure they had a strong foundation of learning even before entering their primary school years. Our experience there has been good but we still had every intention of sending our kids to public school when the time came. After all, we’d always heard that Westchester was chock full of great public schools. What we didn’t realize was that our definition of a great school might be different from others and, in reality, the options for us are pretty slim. It turns out, we’re not alone. As I was talking to the other parents at the party, it dawned on me that almost every one of them sent their kids to various private schools in the area and almost all of the kids were black and brown, like my sons. These are all college-educated, professional people, living in one of the richest counties in the state. Yet, none of us felt we had acceptable public school options. How can that be?
For one thing, there’s a lack of diversity and equality in Westchester schools. While the county offers some of the highest-ranked schools in the nation, many of them are also more than 85 percent white. The predominately black and Hispanic schools nearby rank among some of the worst in the nation, or mediocre at best. These aren’t urban schools, where you often hear about economic disparity among neighboring districts. These are middle-class suburbs struggling with the same inequities in resources. This automatically disqualifies many of the African-American parents I know, who live in these “less desired” school districts, from choosing a public school for their children. Students of color are already at a disadvantage—research shows that even black middle class students perform at lower levels than their white middle class peers—so their parents are forced to send them to private schools with better resources and opportunities. For those families of color who do live in higher-ranked school districts, the children face different challenges. I’ve always believed that a good education is about more than just academics—it’s about developing the whole person and exposing them to diverse people and ideas. But being the only brown face in a sea of white ones doesn’t exactly meet my criteria for diversity. On top of the academic rigors that kids today have to manage, students of color also have to deal with the social development aspects of having few, if any, peers or teachers who look like them. I know from my own experience that being a minority in a majority white school can take an emotional toll on a child.
We need to demand better options. We need more choices and more integrated schools. I know the topic of desegregation is taboo, but how can we continue to dismiss it when black and Hispanic kids—whether they are urban, suburban, rich or poor—are being so woefully underserved by our schools? Studies show that
the gap between black and white students begins to close when they are in the same classrooms and have access to the same resources, including high-quality teachers. It seems like a no-brainer to me, but it still feels like a pipe dream. So for now, I, and many of the parents of color I know, will continue to go out of our way to send our children to private schools where we can feel confident they are getting a solid education and are around others who look like them, as well as those who do not. But I will continue to question why that has to come at a cost. Shouldn’t that be table stakes for all kids?