Interconnectedness and Public Schools

Hi Friends,

I have been thinking a lot lately about isolation, fear based parenting, and the disconnectedness we experience from each other. This trend started before the pandemic and then was made much worse as we separated ourselves from each other out of necessity. As we process these shifts in our lives, our survival and our well-being continues to depend on strengthening our connections to each other and on building communities that are interconnected and resilient.

Our public schools are an important part of this community building and interconnectedness, and not just for those of us who have K-12-age children. American democracy depends on a citizenry educated in civil discourse and, ideally, empowered with critical thinking skills and a community-mindedness that leads to positive outcomes for everyone.

Segregated schools threaten democracy. Conor P. Williams writes “Our Failing Democracy Simply Reflects Our Schools’ Limited Ability to Deliver on the Promise of Opportunity” (EdPost, 11/4/22) “But that segregation — separating children by race and class from the beginning — is amply threatening to American democracy. A country that purports to value the merit of individual hard work cannot long tolerate a rigged educational system that’s deeply intertwined with access to economic opportunity. A country premised on the value of public discourse between equal citizens cannot survive yawning educational gaps.”

Unfortunately, we have a conflict with the ideals of democracy because of American myths of opportunity and a capitalist hierarchy build on systems of oppression. The myth of hyper-individualism, the idea that any individual’s success is due solely to that individual’s hard work (and conversely that less successful people must simply not have worked as hard) and that we all start our lives on equal footing, contributes to our strong aversion to interdependence. Our culture has perpetuated the idea that to depend on others is a weakness and that if we are struggling, it is because of personal failings, not systemic inequities.

Alissa Quart writes “Can We Put an End to America’s Most Dangerous Myth?” (New York Times, 3/9/23) about the myth of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps and her alternative approach called “the art of dependence.” She writes, “Part of acknowledging the art of dependence means we release people from shame about their needs for others, and expose the lie of being self-made as it is propagated publicly by some of America’s wealthiest people. … Dependence is, if you think of it, a form of connection and social cohesion. It brings us closer to others, which at this moment in America might be the thing we need most.”

Challenging this idea of hyper-individualism can be threatening to those with the most power and wealth in our society. Often, the more a person is committed to upholding the structures of privileged wealth acquisition in this country, the more they are divided from their communities and the well-being of the broader population. For example, Jon Schwartz writes about the causes of inflation, saying “The people running things almost always would rather be firmly in charge of a weaker institution than be part of a stronger institution in which their power can be challenged.”

To bring this back to public schools in particular, we see this tendency happening with private fundraising. The impulse to fundraise as much as possible because one CAN leads to a feeling that what you have is never enough. This scarcity mindset leads to fear-based choices and resource hoarding, the feeling that you have to get as much as you can for your kid/your school because if you don’t, you’ll lose something.

Steven Evangelista writes “I know how unfair NYC school fundraising is — and why that’s so hard to change” (Chalkbeat, 2/27/23) “There is a frequent sense that we aren’t doing as much as we can, that we are leaving resources for our children on the table by not pursuing donations more aggressively. At our last board meeting, the chair made the point that we may need to add another fundraiser to the calendar since we are meeting staff and parent requests at a higher rate than expected.”

These ideas also apply to issues of public school segregation. Erika K. Wilson writes “Monopolizing Whiteness” (Harvard Law Review, 5/10/21), especially: “When white students cluster together in public schools, it creates school-based economies of agglomeration. Examples of the agglomeration benefits include an increased ability to attract high-quality teachers, concentrated pools of middle-class and affluent students with greater social and political capital, and greater per-pupil funding. The agglomeration effects not only advantage students in the predominantly white and affluent districts, but they also disadvantage students in the neighboring, predominantly low-income and nonwhite districts. The net effect is to allow students in predominantly white school districts to hoard the best educational opportunities.” (The full PDF article is available here.)

These are not new ideas. What I am finding, however, that is new, is an increase in the number of families wanting to choose integrating schools and those advocating for more equitable policies and structures to support them.

For example, a colleague of mine this work, Beth Cavanaugh, writes “Opinion: Portland Public Schools should adopt a more equitable district-wide fundraising model” (The Oregonian, 3/12/23). “For 25 years, resourced parents working in fundraising silos to supplement staffing in their own schools has been a distraction for the PPS community, keeping us from advocating together to reverse decades of disinvestment in our schools. In light of inadequate state education funding, we cannot perpetuate a system where parents with economic and social capital provide for their schools in ways that others cannot.”

She continues, “Some people have argued against changing the current model because schools with robust fundraising often receive lower per-student funding from the district than those that receive grants. This is true, but not because predominantly white, low-poverty schools with high test scores are expected to make up the difference. Rather, PPS uses a differentiated funding model with equity at its core to determine school staffing. Schools where students face more barriers to success intentionally receive more per-student funding from the district with the goal of closing the persistent gaps in outcomes tied to student demographics. Allowing wealthy parents to supplement their own school’s staffing allocation undermines that intentional work and maintains the achievement gap.”

Supporting the need to focus on advocacy to change the culture of catering to what administrators and policy makers believe privileged families want, Allison Roda & Amanda Vender write “3 Myths About White Parents and School Choice” (EducationWeek, 2/22/23). They say, “Policymakers and school officials must design more equitable school choice plans that promote integration through controlled choice with weighted lotteries; geography-based enrollment policies, such as magnet schools that break the ties between neighborhood and school segregation; and phasing out separate and unequal gifted or other academically selective programs within schools. Officials can play to parents’ recognition that their school choices do, in fact, have social impact.”

If we want public education to not only receive the increased funding it so desperately needs and to improve the quality of the education students are receiving, we must be the voices that demand integrated schools and equitable policies so every student receives the education they deserve. We must shed the expectations of competition and fear, find connection with our common goals, and advocate for a cultural shift that our children (and school staff) so desperately need.

Listen. Amplify. Follow. In Solidarity.

Additional Resources:
- Some shifts in the ways in which school districts are funded are happening across the country. Dale Mezzacappa writes “Pennsylvania’s school funding system violates state constitution, judge rules” (Chalkbeat, 2/7/23). And if you want to dive even deeper, here’s a list of “Landmark US Cases Related to Equality of Opportunity in K-12 Education” (Stanford University).

- Related to class hierarchies and access to “free time,” Andrew Lee writes “Outsourcing Drudgery in the Servant Economy” (Anti-Racism Daily, 2/16/22), including a link to the Living Wage Calculator. “But those that have extra capacity to create more time in their day should consider doing more than just making a one-time donation to charity. They can redistribute some time to directly support underserved communities.”

Standing Up For Inclusion and Hope

 Hi Friends,

It has taken me over a month to decide how to write about a recent event I witnessed. I have felt rage and anger and disbelief. I have felt grief and sadness and resignation. The feeling that has risen above all of these, however, has been hope and faith in humanity.

Perhaps I am still naive, but I believe that our local community has been unaware of the challenges we face at this particular school (and more broadly) and that when we know, we will be the change we need to see to ensure that our students feel welcome and included and valued. This also might make some people uncomfortable, and I invite you to sit with that feeling and consider stretching into something new.

On Tuesday, December 13, 2022, less than a month after the hateful violence at Club Q in nearby Colorado Springs, the Denver Public Schools-affiliated Slavens School PTA voted 13 to 8 to approve a restaurant fundraiser with Chick-fil-A, an openly anti-LGBTQ+ corporation. I would like to explicitly thank the 8 people who voted against the fundraiser for standing with Slavens students and families and for affirming inclusion and care in our decisions. Even small votes like this are part of our individual and collective legacies.

The PTA vote took place after three months of debate among members about whether financially supporting the anti-LGBTQ+ activity of the national restaurant owners would be inclusive and affirming of the entire school community. Multiple PTA members spoke about the harm caused to students and families by supporting this fundraiser. Key school administration and PTA leadership members abstained from the vote.

To dispel any confusion, the anti-LGBTQ+ activities of the owners of the national restaurant chain continue today. Chick-fil-A owners continue to donate to orgs trying to prevent the passage of the Equality Act, which would add federal protection as a protected class for LGBTQ+ people from discrimination. The Slavens PTA has a long-standing culture of prioritizing fundraising above all else. Focusing on fundraising is antithetical to the PTA mission, and this fundraiser will undermine the National PTA policy supporting LGBTQ+ students and their families.

The Slavens PTA serves a school community of over 700 students, with a membership roster this year of approximately 140 members. The Slavens community deserves to know what is being decided in their name. I believe that the majority of Slavens families would not agree with the PTA vote and that they would prioritize inclusion over fundraising. My goal is to raise awareness in our local community and to encourage more families to speak up about what we want our school community to represent. Discrimination and exclusion are more likely to happen in homogenous, privileged environments unless consistent action is taken to protect inclusion and equality.

Slavens is known in many circles as a “good school” with Blue Ribbon status and the highest fundraising numbers in the Denver Public School district (approaching $500,000 each year). The waitlist for incoming transfers is over 200 students long. It is also one of the whitest and most affluent schools in a district that is much more diverse (Slavens is 79% White and 7% FRL in a district that is 25% White and 59% FRL), raising questions about private funding access and disparities in educational equity. Most schools in the district do not have access to even moderate levels of private fundraising.

There have already been efforts among some families in the Slavens community to advocate for culture change at the school, not only for LGBTQ+ students and their families, but for all students who are not currently having their needs met: neurodivergent students, racially and culturally diverse students, economically diverse students, and gifted students. A Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee within the PTA was created in 2020 and the school has a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) for its middle schoolers.

A Slavens PTA events guideline document encouraging inclusion and in support of the school’s stated values was approved by the PTA in May 2022 (which was unfortunately ignored during the December vote). Efforts at community-building have been met with enthusiasm and appreciation. Key staff members are working very hard, every day, to ensure that every student in the school feels welcome and valued. The school’s demographics are slowly becoming more diverse.

School segregation and the subsequent exclusivity of school communities is not limited to a few schools. Segregation has increased in public schools nationwide over the last 30 years. People living with a significant amount of privilege and who are surrounded by a homogeneous community are at greater risk of perpetuating stereotypes, discrimination, and exclusive behaviors based on their experiences or lack thereof. Concentration of resources has increased as families with means engage in hoarding tendencies and scarcity mentalities, working for “the best” for their own kids without regard for the larger community of children and families.

School-based nonprofits trend towards a focus on fundraising (often with crisis messaging) instead of advocacy or a greater community-building role, despite the National PTA’s mission statement to the contrary. Much of this behavior arises out of fear and isolation and a lack of connection to community in general. All of it can change if families with the privilege of choice choose something different (ie. Integrated Schools).

Imagine what could change if the time and effort spent on fundraising at individual schools was instead focused on regional/state/national advocacy for increased educational funding and equitable distribution to meet student needs everywhere? Imagine the economy we could build if we invested in every single one of our students instead of relying upon a few nonprofits at a few schools to favor the few over the many? Imagine if we worked in solidarity with every community to build a future our students looked forward to living?

The truth is, segregated schools, even those with significantly more financial resources, are not serving their students the way truly integrated schools could. Many of us (white people) struggle with talking about race and racism because we did not grow up in diverse environments and we don’t live in diverse environments now. We instinctively know that we don’t want our children to have these same barriers to being in community with and working with people from many backgrounds.

We have to work against the prevailing tide and take steps to learn new patterns, new choices, new ways of being. It won’t just automatically happen because we’re good people and we treat everyone kindly. I wish it was that easy, but it isn’t. Change comes from discomfort and if we refuse to feel uncomfortable, if we refuse to pop the bubbles of ignorance and guilt around ourselves, then change will not come.

The community and connection we seek exists. We just have to be willing to leave our isolation, guilt, shame, and competition with each other behind and open our eyes to the work and effort already underway without us. Open your eyes and embrace discomfort. I’m right here with you. We’ll do it together.

Listen. Amplify. Follow. In Solidarity.
White Folks Facing Race

Additional Resources:
- Melanie Asmar writes “A once-segregated Denver school fights to stay integrated 50 years after historic court order” in Chalkbeat (1/16/23)
- Notes From The Backpack podcast from National PTA “Why Your Child’s School Isn’t More Diverse” (1/18/23)
Nice White Parents podcast from The New York Times

It’s Not Antiracism Without Action

Hi Friends,