A black elementary student raises his hand in a majority black classroom.
Morry Gash/AP

Can a grassroots movement succeed where policy has failed?  

In an interview with Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg last month, journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones talked about how liberal-leaning white Americans may claim to believe in racial equality and integration, but they act in ways that maintain inequality and segregation. Case in point: where they send their kids to school.

In many U.S. cities, enrollment in urban public schools is dominated by kids from lower-income households, often black and Latino. More affluent white urbanites who’ve moved to gentrifying city neighborhoods often send their children to private or charter schools, because of fears about underperforming local public schools—and the predominantly non-white kids who attend them. “If you could just get white liberals to live their values,” Hannah-Jones said, “you could have a significant amount of integration.”

That’s the argument that Courtney Everts Mykytyn of Los Angeles has been making for years. In 2014, she founded the organization Integrated Schools to encourage white and/or privileged families like hers to send their children to local public schools, where their kids would be in a minority group.

Mykytyn’s interest in integration began when she moved to Highland Park, a working-class Latino neighborhood that’s been gentrifying. “When it was time for our kids to go to school, very few of the other white, privileged families who lived in the area were sending their children to the local schools,” she said. “It didn’t sit well with me.”

Mykytyn’s two children, now in high school, have attended Highland Park public schools since kindergarten. “The experience has been transformative for our family,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

The benefits of an integrated student body are very clear for kids of color: Test scores and graduation rates increase, and as adults they earn more and enjoy better health. As Hannah-Jones said, “It’s literally, will you receive a quality education or not? Will you be a full citizen in the country of your birth?” The benefits for white children—such as the acquisition of higher-level thinking and empathy—are less well known, and less quantifiable.

Integrated Schools now boasts active groups in 18 cities across the country, including Buffalo, New York, and Richmond, Virginia. Mykytyn and her colleagues serve as a resource for interested parents and host online discussions, book clubs, and happy hours. CityLab spoke with Mykytyn about why parents trump policy when it comes to integration, and how to allay the fears of white parents about non-white schools.

What do you ask parents to do, specifically?

We first ask parents to tour two schools that aren’t otherwise on their list—meaning schools with a high concentration of poverty. We ask them to go with an open heart and to find something positive in them, whether it’s how great the principal is or how engaged the teachers are. Getting inside the door of a majority-minority school is powerful: It’s just a building filled with kids, and people then think, “I can imagine my kid here, too.”

We also ask parents to tell their friends about the positives they notice, because people make decisions based on what others in their network say. So if we can get people to speak positively about integration, there’s real influence in that.

What’s your advice for parents once they send their child to an integrating school?

We advise parents to be humble and to think of themselves as joining an already invested community, rather than coming in to “fix a broken school” by taking over the PTA and using that influence to advocate for their particular child. One way to do this is to talk about all children, not just your child. When you start speaking about all kids, it changes the way you approach the school and the work you do for it.

For example, if you’re thinking only about what your child needs, you might oppose fundraising for a third-grade resource teacher, because your kid isn’t in the third grade. But this is what the school needs. It’s about letting go of the desire to hoard all the resources for your own child. In the end, it benefits them, too, because they aren’t living in a bubble and they learn to be empathetic and work with people who come from different backgrounds.

What are the biggest challenges you face in persuading parents?  

We’re asking parents to make choices that are often against the mainstream idea of what a good parent does—that is, getting every last thing for your kid. And it’s an awkward, difficult conversation. The lack of resources for students of color and low-income students is real, and we’re asking people to invest in all kids and not just their own.

But parents often tell me they look back on the choice to integrate and say that it felt way harder than it needed to. And for these parents, the research shows that their children will more than likely be just fine. The biggest influence on children is parents, and white kids from middle-class families aren’t going to be less privileged as adults because they went to an integrating school. But for kids of color growing up in poverty, an integrated school can have a huge, positive impact.

Why focus on parents instead of policy?

Parents are the piece that has largely been missing from the integration story. With top-down policy, parents who have options, choice, and privilege can avoid integration: They can send their children to private or charter schools, or they can move to another neighborhood. This is what we saw with Brown v. Board of Education. The ruling has slowly eroded because whites didn’t want it and figured out ways to get out of it. We need white parents to want integration for the sake of integration, to really value it as an end in itself—and not just in a magnet school situation where they’re being offered incentives to integrate. Until this happens, the policy piece is going to be really difficult. This doesn’t mean we should ignore policy, but we need to build a constituency for that policy.

Recent research shows that local school boards can zone schools to make them less segregated. What’s your take on this strategy?

The more we’re talking about good policy, the better. But again, we need parent buy-in. A progressive school board member told me that he can’t “burn his capital on integration” until his constituents value it. We can’t talk about policy as if it exists in a vacuum without parents. And we can’t give up on parents. Ultimately, they’re the ones that are making the decisions for their children.

Is integration gaining ground?

I believe we’re talking about it in a way we couldn’t have ten years ago, when my kids were little. There’s a huge opportunity right now to have this conversation, and gentrifying neighborhoods in our cities are spurring that. In Washington, D.C., we held a meeting for parents interested in integration issues, and it was standing-room only. Not everyone in that room will choose to integrate their local public school, but everyone wanted to talk about it—and gentrification, for all its very real problems, may provide some opportunities for meaningful integration. Still, the challenge remains reconciling the ask of integration with our current narratives of what makes a good parent and a good school.

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