“How does it feel to be a minority?” is not a question I haven’t heard before. However, what was new was that the question was not being addressed to me but to a white person standing next to me. It was a year before our son was about to enter Kindergarten, and we were touring the elementary schools in the city. Being that San Francisco Unified School District was one of the few in the country to implement a lottery system to determine school selection, we had a rare opportunity to check out and select schools that were not in our neighborhoods.
However, it was a no-brainer that we would enroll in our neighborhood school, Jefferson Elementary that was only two blocks away. It embodied everything we wanted for our little boy. Being that it was K-5 school, it was smaller and not as overwhelming as most schools that continued on to 8th grade. Also, unlike other highly ranked schools in the city that focused solely on academic aspect of learning and standardized testing, Jefferson aimed to develop and strengthen children’s creativity as well as providing a strong academic curriculum.
More importantly, the school embodied the diversity of the people and cultures that composed our neighborhood. Therefore, it wasn’t surprising to learn during the tour that over two-thirds of the students at the school were English learners who spoke English as second language.
Although we saw the diversity of the student population as one of the main reasons for enrolling our son into Jefferson, apparently, some parents who were among the tour group felt quite the opposite. It was as if they were surprised to learn that in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the U.S., there was a school where the majority of the students were not white; or that a school which has been continuously ranked in top 10 would consist of overwhelming number of students who were English learners.
I saw the astonished looks on the faces of the parents as we entered classroom after classroom filled with students of diverse ethnicity, and as we were coming out of the last classroom, I heard one of the white parents turned to the other and asked, “How does it feel to be a minority?”
Only after seeing the uncomfortable look on their faces and overheard their conversation, I began to see that the thought of their children going to a school where the majority of the students and the facility were not white was a real concern for them.
As the U.S. becomes more ethnically and culturally diverse, Americans are becoming more divided. However, this time, the segregation isn’t being dictated by a federal agency or legislative policies but voluntarily propagated by its citizens.
A study released by the Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project at the University of California in 2014 found that the majority of the public primary schools in larger, more urban cities have more than 90 percent minority students. Eight percent of these schools have a smaller proportion of white students than the surrounding neighborhoods, indicating white families in the neighborhoods have sent their children somewhere else.
Six decades after the Brown v. Board of Education decision that determined that segregating white and black children is unconstitutional, American schools are drifting back toward racial segregation.
Some cities like San Francisco have tried to improve diversity by implementing a lottery system that allows parents to list their preference on the application but leave the selection to the school district. However, as GreatSchools data shows, many parents ultimately choose schools that are comprised of students from the same racial and cultural background. As a result, effectively desegregating is easier said than done.
One thing that makes integration challenging is a general resistance to consider race as an important factor.
“I think race intersects with place in really important ways,” said Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, but she adds that there is no substitute for considering race itself. “Even in the past six months we’ve been reminded in very visceral ways of the salience of race in this country, so completely minimizing it seems jarring when we see how central a role it still plays in society.”
As Matthew Delmont, a professor at Arizona State University who has written the book on why busing failed to integrate schools in America, states “white parents simply don’t want to send their kids to schools with large numbers of [ethnic minorities], even if they consider themselves to be liberal in theory, or in the abstract, they are in favor of integration.”
Not surprisingly, I have witness the anxiety of white parents during school tours.
However, maintaining and improving school integration is important, as previous research has shown that students of all races who attend diverse schools demonstrate higher academic achievement in reading, language, mathematics and science.
Diversity in schools is important for students’ experiences and outcomes in schools and beyond, reducing prejudices and ensuring the likelihood of living and working in integrated environments as adults. As Erica Frankenberg, Associate Professor of Education and Population Research Institute associate at Penn State states, “Minority students in more diverse school settings have higher short-term and long-term academic outcomes than those who attend racially isolated minority schools. Meanwhile, benefits to white students as well as students of color include reduced prejudice and a higher likelihood of living and working in diverse environments as adults.”
We are living in an increasingly diverse world, and for people like me, diversity is a wonderful thing. Our little boy attends school with children from all over the world, with kids who are not only ethnically different but from diverse background and families.
It is the only reason why my husband and I relocated to San Francisco, and we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Although San Francisco, like most large metropolitan cities, is becoming gentrified due to the surging real estate prices, neighborhoods like ours have managed to retain its diversity.
So, for those parents who are concerned or fear their children’s future as an ethnic minority, exposing children to diversity early on can have an impact on how successful they are as adults. By learning to work with others regardless of status or race, children will incorporate those attitudes well into adulthood.
Allow them the chance to develop multi-language skills and expose them to different cultural experiences. As you do so, their world views will surely become more open-minded and aware. The future lies within the young, providing them the opportunity to learn will surely have a great impact on society in the long run.