K-12 Enrollment Race & Racism

The new segregation: How can we have racial harmony when our kids go to separate schools?

Years after Brown vs. Board of Education, are schools remain as segregated as ever.

It’s time to talk about integrating our schools. How can we have racial harmony when most of our kids go to racially-isolated schools?

When we look at racial segregation in ethnically diverse cities like San Francisco which has the third highest percentage of students in private schools nationally, and the highest rate in California. These schools are predominantly White and Asian and full of middle-upper income kids.


Parents talk a lot about “school choice” these days. If you’ve been listening to our current Education Secretary, Betsy DeVos, you will understand that in many cases this translates to the choice to self-segregate. If White folks (and affluent Asians) truly value diversity, and want to teach their children to value kids from ALL backgrounds, investing in “separate and unequal” schooling systems like charters, private and tracked “gifted” programs is not the way to go.

We Create Schools in Our Own Image

As parents we have to stop blaming “the district” or “failing schools” or “the lottery” and start taking responsibility for creating the change we’d like to see in our schools.

As another San Francisco parent, Julie Phung, writes:

“Parents are busy, so we use shortcuts to help us make sense of the 110+ school choices we have in our city. Unfortunately, the most common shortcuts we use feed into patterns of segregation and make us miss really great schools that might be the best option for our kids.”

[Read the whole post: “Segregation and the Best San Francisco Schools You’ve Never Heard Of”]

That said, many parents unwittingly perpetuate segregation in our schools. A few ways we allow this to happen by looking for schools with other parents that “look like us” and our kids. Also, we choose schools based on GreatSchools ratings (read: test scores) and take recommendations from our existing social networks. Thus, affluent parents end up choosing schools with children of affluent parents. Spanish-speaking parents choose schools full of Spanish-speaking students. Second and third generation Asian-American families choose schools with other second and third-generation Asian-American families and the cycle continues.

It’s a natural phenomena to seek comfort in numbers, but in the case of the same culture within those numbers, is it really good for our kids? Is it good for our society as a whole?

I, along with many other families don’t think so.

A Harvard Civil Rights researcher, Angelo Ancheta, found this inadvertent segregation doesn’t just hurt Black and Brown students, it also puts White students at disadvantage. The research states:

“We often forget that white students attend some of the most segregated schools in the country, and while those students often have great educational advantages, they are also deprived of the personal contact and learning that come with attending racially integrated schools,”

As a college educated, mixed-race parent (who identifies Black) in a largely low-income Chinese-speaking school, I have felt blessed that being a part of our school has allowed my family to expand its experience beyond our cultural comfort zone. My girls and I have learned a lot about Chinese culture. We’ve also gained an understanding of the challenges many low-income and immigrant families face. For example, I attended many parent meetings held primarily in Chinese, where there was interpretation FOR ME in English. This experience gave me empathy for the heroic effort many English Learner families make attending school meetings held predominantly in English. It’s compelled me to be more proactive about removing language barriers for Spanish and Chinese-speaking families at school events, and made me a more aware person in general.

Reading diverse books cannot replace direct experience. And it is impossible to instill the value of celebrating cultural differences, when we only foster friendships with kids and parents who only look like us.

Additionally, as members of an underrepresented racial group at our school, White and Black, I feel we’ve made great contributions to our community as well. Black families have started a small affinity group at our school where we help to create an even more inclusive school.  By asking questions and encouraging the predominantly Asian-American culture there to more proactive in celebrating and learning about African-American culture , Latino culture, etc.

Nonetheless, the answer to achieving truly diverse schools are not simple. What works in one context may not work in another. Change at our school will not happen overnight, but as a process over time. And it’s not always going to be a comfortable process. As discussions on parent email groups and in parent meetings will confirm: we all want to feel welcome; we all like feeling like a part of a community. But how we invite involvement and create community happens very differently in different cultural groups. Sometimes experiencing discomfort provides us with an opportunity to learn new things, to build new relationships, to grow.

Segregation and SF Public School Enrollment: What’s a family to do?

To that end, I will continue exploring solutions on this blog, and with my friends in the San Francisco Families’ Union.  We’ve held events to hear from education experts, parents and educators on the subject of meaningful school integration.  We have also done “Equity Field Trips” between affluent and underresourced schools. We would love for you to join the conversation, so stay tuned for posts on upcoming events! 

Join the Conversation

In the meantime, start a conversation with the families in your network:

  • Push back on the depressing (and untrue!) narrative of “only a few good schools”
  • Seek out friendships (and playdates) with parents, guardians and caregivers of different races, orientations, and languages who care about integration and raising kids who are culturally aware and equity centered.
  • Talk about ways to “join and not gentrify” an awesome, yet racially segregated public school in your neighborhood.
  • Ask parents and educators from over-looked schools to share their stories. Encourage them to tell you some of the great work going on in their schools.

What do you think? Does any of this make sense to you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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