“It was like a Jerry Springer show,” recalls Michelle Lutz of the school meeting when a mother began shouting about “equity issues” with the principal cheering her on. By then the school had become a tinderbox of vitriol and hurt feelings where the middle-class parents joining a community of mostly low-income African-American and Latino families had catalyzed what experts call a “diversity crisis.”

Schools have always been places where emotions run high, but never more so than when they travel the deeper arteries of equity, class, and culture. As the anxiety about educating your child ratchets up, poisoned by budget cuts and child-eat-child college competition, many middle-class parents enter public schools with a dogged determination to improve them. They want to do good, while also doing right by their children. Yet when such efforts — however well-meaning — carry the taint of entitlement, it doesn’t take much for the ordinary elementary school to become an ideological battleground waged around bake sales and play structures.

“Public schools are like an endangered species,” says Amy Wells, professor of education at Columbia University. “It remains the one place where different people can have meaningful interactions. All the problems of a diverse democracy play out… whose ideas will drive the curriculum, what parental involvement means.”

Democracy’s petri dish

When Lutz opened her letter from the San Francisco Unified School District to learn her daughter had landed a spot at Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, she felt optimistic — lackluster test scores notwithstanding. On the tour Lutz had noticed the small class sizes, the beautiful classrooms filled with light, and the civil rights theme embodied by the rainbow coalition of children beginning their day with a “pledge of allegiance to the world.”

She joined a fundraising nonprofit founded to help raise money for the school from the surrounding neighborhood. That’s when Lutz got a glimpse of the hostility between a few of the parents — mostly white and middle-class — and the new African-American principal. “I thought, what have I gotten myself into?”

The fighting was “so unpleasant,” Lutz shifted her focus to co-chair the parent-faculty club. Compared to neighboring schools with turbocharged PTAs, the school’s fundraising paled in comparison. “Teachers even complained about not having the most basic of supplies,” explained one mother. So with a small group of zealous parents, Lutz helped organize events that brought in some $16,000. While the money would have been needed either way, the rising enrollment of more affluent families tipped the scales and changed the school’s budgeting for the worse. As the percentage of low-income students and English language learners fell, the school lost funding that helped support teacher aides and the other extra staff. “I think there was a lot of resentment about that,” says long-time Harvey Milk parent Jennifer Friedenbach. (Tracy Peoples, the principal, did not respond to requests for an interview.)

When the YMCA aftercare program asked the parent club to send an email about how to sign up for the program, Lutz found herself on the defensive. One mother — who, like Lutz, is white — objected that email communication would exclude families who most needed aftercare. When Lutz explained that there was room for every child and no one would be excluded, she says she received emails “accusing me of being racist and being an elitist and catering to certain parts of the school. The level of vitriol was off the chart.”

Urban suburban boomerang

The history of segregation and school mobility are inextricably intertwined. From the 1950s through the 1970s, the “white flight” of middle-class Caucasian families emptied the cities and their schools, unfurling a sprawl of green lawns, freeways, and, more often than not, mono-cultural classrooms. In the 1980s, the trend began to reverse, as college grads bunked down in those once “abandoned” urban zones, assiduously spurning the suburbs. From there it only took love, marriage, and baby carriage to send a new generation of American middle-class kids back into urban public schools.

In a game of demographic domino, minority communities now are migrating to the increasingly affordable (and previously homogenous) burbs. “It’s all a jumble,” says Wells, the education professor who studies the relationship between these metro migrations and public schools. “Communities are moving around,” she says. “But there’s still a lot of segregation by class and we remain highly segregated by race.”

In the midst of such demographic changes, the local school often becomes the focal point for the dreams — and drama — of multiculturalism. Harvey Milk Academy, named for the assassinated gay rights leader, stakes its identity on such dreams. “It was a struggle to live up to the name every year that I was there,” explains Sandra Leigh, who founded the school in 1996 and served as its principal for 13 years. Leigh focused a lot of recruiting efforts to make sure no single class or ethnicity became the dominant culture. “I wanted classrooms that represent the world.”

A middle-class, working-class clash

When the balance begins to tip, change can be fraught. Whether it’s middle-class families bringing a new set of values, expectations, and resources to an urban school, or working-class, often minority families, feeling like outsiders in their new neighborhoods, parents sometimes find themselves negotiating the turbulent waters of cultural difference, one excruciating PTA meeting at a time.

In the memoir, How to Walk to School, a few middle-class mothers enrolled their children in Nettelhorst Elementary, a local underserved Chicago school, and unleash their prodigious resources on beautification and enrichment projects. But missing from that story are the perspectives of families predating the makeover. A GreatSchools parent review of Nettelhorst gives a sense of the resentment that can simmer for years after a school culture change:

“The school … touts diversity yet is really about higher-income-bracket parents creating an elitist community where fundraising is the main concern. The fundraising also divides the school into the haves and have-nots, creates resentments on the part of those who feel they cannot join in. Unless your family makes a six-digit figure every year, stay away, you are not welcome.”

Lucia Coronel, who emigrated from Ecuador as an adult, made the shift to the American way of parental involvement, but as PTA co-president at Alvarado Elementary School in San Francisco, she sees how alienating American school can be for immigrant parents.

“The PTA is a concept well-known in the States, but it doesn’t exist in Latin America,” she says. “And in order to do a lot of things for the PTA, most of the time you need to be fluent in English.”

Parents with working-class jobs, she adds, may simply not have the time. “It requires a lot of time and effort and a lot of parents don’t have flexible work schedules.”

With a school stratified by two cultures — affluent professionals and working-class Latin immigrants — Alvarado prioritizes this bridge building. “We try to be bi-cultural,” explains Coronel, sponsoring events geared toward Latino families like the Dia de Los Muertos workshop. The school hires a full-time bilingual community advocate, whose office offers a place to hang out and get services like food bank donations.

“But we could do better,” Coronel says, because segregation persists. For instance, the school’s two after-school programs — one fee-based, the other free — divides the school along evident socioeconomic lines.

Most valued customer

Sometimes the very policies encouraging middle-class families to reenter the schools end up devaluing low-income families. Maia Cucchiara, assistant professor of Urban Education at Temple University, spent two years studying a downtown Philadelphia elementary school that had been part of a business-sponsored campaign to attract a wave of middle- and upper-class families. The parent community erupted in conflict along class and racial lines when it came to choosing a parent to help hire the next principal. Should it be one of the new, probably white, parents from the nearby neighborhood? Or a parent who, like most of the school community, was black and from the outside the neighborhood?

Though middle-class parents brought new resources and energy, Cucchiara observed subtle costs to low-income families. “The middle-class parents were treated as the most valued customers,” she said. “They could say, ‘If you don’t do this for us, we will take our kids.’” This put pressure on the school to improve, but also made working-class parents feel marginalized. “There were some very involved low-income parents who said, ‘I’m doing all this for the school but they don’t really want my kid.’”

Raised in Section 8 housing with her Puerto Rican family, Alisa Rivera knows what it feels like to be an outsider to mainstream America. But when it came to finding her red-headed, 5-year-old son, Nathan, a kindergarten, the marketing professional who started the DTLA (Downtown Los Angeles) Families blog to persuade her lofty neighbors not to flee to the burbs, she was suddenly a “most valued customer.”

At one tour of an elementary school that aggressively markets itself to affluent downtown parents, the principal made openly disparaging comments about his poorer families. Later Alisa received calls at home in an attempt to court her. “I was offended!” she says, and decided to avoid the school.

Instead, she chose Clifford Street Elementary, a Blue Ribbon school in nearby Echo Park with mostly Latino families. Regardless of her working-class roots, she’s bringing a different set of expectations to the school. “My husband and I are a real pain in the ass, we are always ‘What’s Nathan doing?’ and ‘What can we do at home?'” she says. “We already had an issue because the kindergarten teacher felt like she’d been called to the carpet by us.”

She’s also aware how her gung ho parental involvement may come off: “Am I going to be a bull in a china shop? There’s a huge potential for conflict. Some kids may have an intensive need for literacy and then a middle-class parent says: ‘I want an arts program and music,’” she laughs. “There’s nothing like a school to bring out class issues in our society.”

The education of a middle-class mom

“I don’t want to teach your middle-class kid.”

It wasn’t what one might expect to hear from the teacher, but by the time Clare heard the refrain she wasn’t surprised. As part of a successful San Francisco strategy to lure middle-class families back into the public system, Clare’s daughter had joined the first year of a Spanish immersion program in a low-performing urban school. “We showed up that first day and she was one of four white kids in the school,” recalls Clare, who agreed to speak only under a pseudonym.

In the ensuing years, Clare got an education, too. She saw poverty in a way she’d never known existed in America. Like when a little girl, who was told she could finish the craft project at home, burst into tears. “She just lost it. ‘I can’t do it at home, I don’t have scissors, I don’t have crayons, I CAN’T DO THAT AT HOME.’”

Along with writing grants, planning fundraisers, and creating a school garden, Clare and other incoming parents questioned some of the teaching practices. “There were some bad teachers,” Clare said. “Parents started to go into the classrooms and document what was going on.” Not surprisingly, this didn’t fly with teachers who felt it was their mission to serve low-income (not entitled middle-class) families.

Small conflicts gradually caught fire, resulting in a full-blown school meltdown. Some teachers were terminated, but not before they accused the middle-class parents of racism. The leadership turnstile spun with three principals leaving a trail of recriminations and resentment. Some of the most involved parents petitioned the district to move schools.

School reform, recession-style

Despite the bumpy road to diversity, the policy of luring the middle class to attend inner-city schools has become an increasingly popular school reform strategy since the recession. “Urban areas have experimented with voluntary choice programs, magnet schools, charter schools, and, in some cases, city-suburban integration,” writes Cucchiara in her forthcoming book, Marketing Schools, Marketing Cities: Who Wins and Who Loses When Schools Become Urban Amenities. “[A]ll designed, at least in part, to slow suburban flight and increase race and class integration in schools…”

The reasons for such policies are both idealistic and pragmatic. “Research says for lower-income students especially, kids learn more and perform better with a mixed socioeconomic background instead of uniquely low-income,” says Deborah Stipek, professor of education at Stanford University. “In fact, the average income of a school is as big a predictor of student success as the income of the student’s family.”

And for middle-class children? “More affluent income parents worry that being in mixed classrooms will drag their children down, but the evidence has not supported that fear,” says Stipek. “The cost to middle-class kids is very low if there’s any loss at all for achievement.”

Yet such advantages don’t make it easy. “The middle-class parents who are against it are wrong to be afraid that their children can’t get a good education,” explains Michael Petrilli, author of the new book the Diverse Schools Dilemma. “But the people who are for it, think it’s easy. It’s not.”

Worth the fight?

And for parents whose school becomes a spectacle of infighting, the solution is often to lie low and reduce involvement, or move schools. “Now nobody wants to get involved or raise money,” says Lutz, with a weary sigh. “Since then we’ve lost our parent liaison, our reading specialist, and I think our arts, science enrichment, and civil rights camps will go by the wayside, too.”

Next year, Lutz will be seeking a change of scenery. If she can’t get a transfer to an acceptable school within SFUSD, she’s looking at private schools or even moving to the suburbs. “But there was no way we were going to come back to this school.”

At Harvey Milk, the drama between various factions has only escalated, with some parents meeting off school grounds to discuss concerns about the principal while other parents circle the wagons to protect her. Last year, the district even sponsored a meeting designed to heal the growing rift where a talking stick was passed, tears shed, and accusations of racism hurled.

In school yards and classrooms, the ideal of diverse schools persists. We may not have figured out how to bring aspirations of equity, justice, and diversity to the task of educating our children in a way that is easy, but it is happening, especially where the focus remains clear: on the children. “We were always looking for what’s just and what’s right and what’s equitable,” says former Harvey Milk principal Sandra Leigh. “It was always a struggle, but it was worth every ounce we put into it. Because it’s really for the kids and for the future.”

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