I Don't Want to be a Nice White Parent
It's called Nice White Parents.
Something about the title made me uncomfortable. I was interested, but I was also afraid of what I was going to learn - about myself.
Nice White Parents follows the lead of its true-crime podcast predecessors.
However, Nice White Parents puts a different criminal on trial: the white liberalism that has helped perpetuate the segregation of public schools in America for decades under the guise of progressive ideals.
This five-episode series looks at the 60-year relationship between white parents and the public school down the street. Host Chana Joffe-Walt, a veteran of This American Life, lays out an examination of how white parents — even the well-meaning ones — stand as the primary force holding back progress toward school integration and a more equitable distribution of resources. This is true even when they’re not around — their physical absence from a district can impede improvements to a school. She lays all of this out as an actual white parent in the New York City public school system.
When I moved back to Pittsburgh from San Francisco, I went on the hunt for a place to live. My top priority has always been accessibility to Frick Park. It's my favorite place in the city.
I landed in Regent Square for the second time. I bought my first house in the neighborhood in 2011 - and made the mistake of selling it when I moved West. When I arrived back in Pittsburgh, I ended up buying another place right around the corner from that first house.
Both houses were in the Edgewood part of Regent Square. The part of Regent Square that wasn't the City of Pittsburgh.
I was just outside the borders of the Pittsburgh Public School system. Edgewood is part of the Woodland Hills School District, a school district that has a long and storied history around racial diversity and equity.
I love Regent Square. Dylan and I could walk everywhere. I could bike to and from work (and everywhere else). Frick Park was a short walk away for daily hikes with the dogs. D's is there for beer, pizza, and hot dogs. Square Cafe was there for all of the vegan stuff 😢
When I bought the house five years ago, Dylan was just a baby. I thought to myself, "It's fine, I'll throw him in the lottery for the Environmental Charter School. Or send him to a private school."
Because there was no way I was sending him to Woodland Hills.
Why did I feel that way? I never stopped and thought about it.
Fast forward to December 2019 - exactly one year ago. All of the sudden, I was deep in the middle of kindergarten tours. The Environmental Charter School, Shady Side Academy, Winchester Thurston, Falk. One charter school and all private schools. There were lots of options.
I spent a few weeks walking the halls of all of the best private schools in Pittsburgh. I walked these halls with a bunch of other white parents from the wealthy city neighborhoods - Squirrel Hill, Shadyside, Point Breeze.
All of these private schools tout their diversity and inclusion initiatives, but what I saw as I walked the halls seemed different than the stories being told on the websites. I realized that these schools were "marketing with black hands" (as my friend Dave calls it).
My level of discomfort with the schools, the tours, and the admissions processes caught me by surprise. I felt like I was competing for a spot in a private school in NYC or SF. I wasn't expecting this in Pittsburgh. Even so, I did all of the paperwork, paid the application fees, and sat back to wait for the admissions decisions to be made in February.
February arrived. Dylan wasn't accepted into any of the schools. He missed the ECS lottery by about 20 spots. He was waitlisted everywhere else.
Fuck. What was I going to do? I actually cried when I found out he didn't get in (I find this laughable now). I was not prepared to have no solution for kindergarten.
What I did next is clearly what any rational adult would do - I decided to sell my house and move. I was going to buy a house in the city, not blocks away from the city. I wanted my kid to be able to go to Pittsburgh Public. I wanted to be able to run for office someday (kidding, maybe? 🤷♀️)
I ended up in Swisshelm Park, a weird little neighborhood tucked into the southeast corner of the city. The neighborhood is mostly surrounded by Frick Park. It's also known as the city neighborhood of choice for many of Pittsburgh's fire, police, and public school employees (who have to live within city limits). As soon as I told my retired cop dad I was moving to Swisshelm Park he said, "Oh yeah, that's where all the cops live."
I felt good about my choice. I moved to a quiet street where the boy could ride his bike and run around outside without constant supervision. There are 12 kids between the ages of three and six on my street.
All of these kids go to private school. Every single one of them. I was so confused.
In the meantime, I got an email from Shady Side Academy. Dylan was in for kindergarten. Since I hadn't had a chance to figure out what my other options were, Dylan's dad and I decided to send him to SSA. I was excited at first. And then I wasn't.
I felt embarrassed when I told people that he went to Shady Side Academy. Wasn't I supposed to be proud of where my kid went to school? Shouldn't I be excited to be part of the community?
I grew up in a very middle class, Pittsburgh suburb called Oakmont. Almost everyone there goes to the local public school, which is Riverview. I guess this is the case in most suburban neighborhoods.
Oakmont - and Riverview - was all white and mostly Catholic. There were only three or four black families in my school over all of my years there. I knew one Jewish family. I grew up with no diversity in my life. I was completed insulated - until I started working in high school.
I've always had a job. Newspaper girl, video store clerk, movie theater ticket taker, book store manager, barista. It was in those jobs that I met people different from me. They came from all races, religions, and city neighborhoods. I'm glad I grew up broke. It forced me out of my little white bubble into places where I could meet people who were different from me. I obviously didn't appreciate this at the time.
This takes me back to Nice White Parents, which ****I finally listened last week - and it was like a punch in the gut.
After episode one, I started to think much more deeply about all of the decisions I'd made about Dylan's education up to this point.
While the education at Shady Side Academy was clearly the best he could be getting (I am legitimately blown away), I couldn't shake the fact that Dylan wasn't meeting anyone that felt much different from him. Yes, I did see an attempt for racial diversity, but it was clear that there was far less socioeconomic diversity. This was a school of rich kids.
Putting him in SSA gave him an actual, in-person kindergarten experience during the pandemic. This is something for which I'm immensely grateful.
But with this comes guilt too. It's not lost on me that not everyone had - or could provide - this opportunity to their five-year-old. I have so many friends who are struggling to balance working from home while also caring for their clingy, snotty, loud, adorable kid who misses their friends - and who probably isn't learning how to read and write at the same pace as my kid.
I started to do my research on the Pittsburgh Public School System, something I hadn't actually done up to this point. I was ashamed of myself for not having looked into it at all. Why was public school not an option?
What I found was, like New York City, Pittsburgh is also fraught with a history of segregation and inequity.
Pittsburgh Public Schools can be broken down into three categories:
Neighborhood: Pittsburgh Public Schools
Charter: Pittsburgh Public Schools
Magnet: Pittsburgh Public Schools
As I read more and more, I've learned that, as a resident of Swisshelm Park, I live in a particularly interesting part of the Pittsburgh Public School system, from a Neighborhood Schools perspective.
I live in the purple zone below. The students in my K- 5 school (Minadeo) are 3/4 black, yet most of the kids eligible to attend Minadeo are white.
Like I said, every single kid on my street goes to a private school. I was starting to see what was happening here.
This is what happens in the purple zone, where the public schools are three-quarters of children there are black, given that most kids eligible to attend are white. From WESA-FM:
One clue as to why this difference exists is the school’s capture rate, which was 23 percent during the 2016-17 school year. A school’s capture rate is the percentage of kids in a school’s attendance zone who actually attend their neighborhood public school. In the case of Minadeo, and other schools with low capture rates, most students assigned to the school go to private, magnet or charter schools, or are home-schooled.
The white parents can afford to send their kids elsewhere - and they do.
But the story of where kids go to school in Pittsburgh has a much longer history, and over the past 50 years, the biggest driver of changes to the schools feeder pattern has been desegregation.
It was February 1968. Mild weather saw chunks of ice float down the Allegheny River to the Ohio, assuaging fears of a flood. Coal workers in Somerset County were on strike. The U.S. minimum wage had just gone up to $1.60 an hour.
And on Feb. 2, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission ordered Pittsburgh Public Schools to desegregate. Technically, segregation in education had been illegal in Pennsylvania since 1881.
“Black kids still went in segregated schools because the neighborhoods are segregated,” said Ralph Proctor, professor of ethnic and diversity studies at the Community College of Allegheny County. “Black kids were not going to Shadyside, Squirrel Hill.”
The commission gave the district five months to come up with an integration plan. After missing the deadline by two-and-a-half weeks, the district submitted a proposal that relied heavily on voluntary measures, like magnet schools, and the construction of large, integrated schools over the course of several years. When the plan was rejected as showing a “lack of commitment,” the school board began exploring the idea of bussing. Some black children had already been bussed to white schools due to overcrowding, but talk of bussing white children to black schools for the sake of integration was a step too far for many parents.
White parents - and the public school systems we're in - have been segregating and desegregating schools for a long time. Not just in NYC and Pittsburgh. Everywhere.
It's so clear if you go back and read the history, the stories. It became more clear to me after listening to this podcast series. My main takeaway from Nice White Parents:
White parents need to quit hogging all of the resources. To create real change, we have to limit the power of white parents.
I don't want my son to grow up the same way I did. I don't want him to be surrounded by a bunch of people who are exactly like him, just because I can afford to do that. I truly believe it's not in his best interest. I want him to know how to talk to all types of people, how to navigate real world problems, how to build consensus among diverse groups of people. I want him to learn all of the things. I don't want him to be insulated.
The last lines of the podcast series sum up exactly how I feel right now, so I'll share them in full.
She didn’t want to be complicit in segregation.
She felt compromised by a system that made her into someone she did not want to be.
I recognize that feeling. It’s shame. I think we should listen to that shame, because what it’s telling us is that we can’t have it both ways. Nice white parents can’t grab every advantage for our own children and also maintain our identities as good citizens who believe in equitable schools.
The shame is telling us we have a choice.
We can choose to hoard resources and segregate ourselves and flee the moment things feel uncomfortable. Or we can choose to be the people we say we are. But we can’t have both. We can choose to remember the goal of public schools is not to cater only to us, to keep us happy, but to serve every child. We’ve never had that school system. But we could. We could demand it. We might not. But we should know it’s within our power to help create it.
NICE WHITE PARENTS
PUBLIC EDUCATION IN PITTSBURGH