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Do parents drive past neighborhood schools for reasons other than race?

Patti Ghezzi is a former education journalist who now works in university communications. In this column, Ghezzi responds to DeKalb parent and writer Abby Norman who wrote a an essay for Huffington Post on why white parents in her gentrifying DeKalb neighborhood shun the local elementary school, which is majority African-American. Norman's daughter attends the school and loves it.

Her piece --  "Why White Parents Won't Choose Black Schools " -- has spurred a spirited debate in Atlanta. Parents in her neighborhood have been trying to win approval from DeKalb to start a charter school, but Norman questions why they haven't given their local school a chance.

Norman writes:

When I am able to move past the anger, the frustration that people are talking about a school they know nothing about, I listen to what they say. Behind all the test score talk, the opportunity mumbo jumbo that people lead with, I feel like what is actually being said, and what is never being said is this: That school is too black.

The people who are moving into my neighborhood want their children to have a diverse upbringing, but not too diverse. They still want a white school, just with other non-white children also participating. They want to go to the Christmas pageant and not have their white sensibilities violated because the other parents are too loud and boisterous and it makes them uncomfortable, for really no good reason. They don't want their kid to notice her whiteness in Pre-k and then find out while addressing that question, that while they already own great books about diversity, the only children's books specifically about whiteness are published by the KKK. They don't want their child to ask them why Quintavious's sister says she doesn't like white people. They don't want to have to wonder when the teacher calls, if they are getting extra attention because white parents are often perceived as overbearing. They want diversity, just not too much.

Ghezzi's piece continues the dialogue.

By Patti Ghezzi

I’m happy for the south DeKalb mom who sent her white child to her neighborhood elementary school where the vast majority of students are black. Her daughter loves her school, as do her parents. That is a win. Congratulations!

But I don’t see how accusing neighbors of eschewing the school because it’s too black advances efforts to integrate and improve our schools. It gets people talking, but in my experience parents already talk ad nauseam about the lengths we go to educate our children.

Dontae Andrews, principal at my neighborhood school, Avondale Elementary, has a better approach. Now in his second year, Andrews doesn’t lash out at those of us who don’t send our kids to his school, which is also mostly African-American. Instead, he and his staff work hard to connect with neighborhood families, most of whom are white, and improve the school so local parents will choose Avondale Elementary over charter schools, private schools and other schools offered through DeKalb’s school choice program.

Andrews smiles when neighbors come by to drop off cash, school supplies, uniforms and books. “We’re having STEM Day,” he told me recently when I stopped by unannounced. “Let me show you around.” He was wearing a tie emblazoned with science images. He led me by classrooms where kids were building bridges and vehicles out of Legos.

I live around the corner from the school, yet I drive past Avondale Elementary every day on my way to International Community School, a charter school my daughter has attended for three-and-a-half years.

I sent her to Avondale Elementary for pre-k, and she enjoyed the experience. But the playground was silent, except when the pre-k students were using it. Kids in kindergarten through fifth grades did not go out for recess. I didn’t understand why teachers expended energy yelling at kids to stand in a straight line.

Andrews brought back recess and created a warm learning environment. But three years earlier, Avondale Elementary wasn’t what I wanted for my child.

I applied to two charter schools and four DeKalb County public schools through the district’s public school choice program. My daughter did not get into our first choice, The Museum School, but she did get into International Community School and Fernbank Elementary. We chose the charter school for its mix of families from countries such as Bhutan, Somalia and Afghanistan.

I was grateful I had choices, which meant we didn’t have to move.

Yet many parents decry DeKalb’s school choice system for the stress it places on families, who must rely on lotteries to determine their child’s education. If we had only neighborhood schools, we would all send our kids there and we would exert our collective pressure on the administration to improve the quality.

This theory has held in a few schools in DeKalb and Atlanta over the years. Gwinnett County thrives without offering parents choices.

But school choice in DeKalb is a bell that cannot be unrung. Its roots are in court-ordered desegregation, which spawned majority-to-minority busing and magnet schools like Kittredge. Other choice schools, such as traditional theme, public Montessori and charters, came along later to accommodate parents who would otherwise move away. State law requires even more choices.

Even if we could shut down choice, how would schools in poor neighborhoods untouched by gentrification be better off?

Choice recognizes that parents value different things, in terms of structure, discipline and programs such as foreign language, arts and International Baccalaureate.

Parents have different ideas of how diverse they want their child’s school to be. I prefer no majority in terms of race, ethnic background and parents’ income and education. International Community School delivers on that front.

Yet many parents want most of their kids’ classmates to come from families similar to theirs. That does not mean kids have to have the same skin color, pedigree or economic status. I am not speaking in code when I say I mean similar in terms of a shared commitment to being active at school.

There are other less-charged issues that draw disagreements among parents. For example, I love International Community School’s recognition that loading kids up with homework does not a scholar make, yet other parents believe young kids need a lot of homework to develop a work ethic and compete in a global economy.

I would never pick a fight with a parent who wants something different than what I want. Instead I share what I know about International Community School, as well as Avondale Elementary School, where I am a volunteer, and The Museum School, where I am on the board.

Go through the lottery process – yes, the parent portal is a nightmare - and see what your options are. Then make the best choice for your family, whether it’s the neighborhood school, a charter school or a public school in another neighborhood.

And if your neighbor calls you out for rejecting a school because too many kids are black, by all means just tune her out.



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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.