School integration in 2017: PTA takeovers, PE programs and parents who know the system

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Last fall, Susan Savitt Schwartz, program director at the Pasadena Education Network, gave a presentation at the Caltech Children's Center about Pasadena’s public schools, noting their STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and arts magnets, rich linguistic offerings (dual language programs in Spanish, Mandarin, and, soon, French), and recent honors (U.S. News & World Report awarded silver medals to both Blair and Marshall in 2015).

Afterwards, a mother approached her, and said she’d appreciated the talk.

“But I have to admit,” she told Savitt Schwartz. “I’m just kind of scared that my kid is going to get hurt in the public schools. Is that weird?”

“You know, it’s not weird,” Savitt Schwartz said back to her. “But it’s also not a valid fear.”

Since PEN incorporated in 2006 as an advocacy organization for public education, this has been one of its most central activities: assuaging the anxieties of middle class parents, cautious of a public school system in which their children would be in the minority.

These anxieties are not new. In fact, they are at least part of the reason white families are the minority in Pasadena's public schools in the first place.

In 1970, just before a federal judge ordered the district to desegregate, white students made up a little more than half of total enrollment. After the court order, many white, middle-class families left—some the city, but more the district. Private school enrollment surged. Now only 17 percent of the district is white, a third of eligible students who live within the Pasadena Unified School District do not attend public schools, and Pasadena has the highest per capita rate of private schools of any city its size in the country.

But Savitt Schwartz and PEN Executive Director Nancy Rose Dufford report that – conversations with concerned moms at the Caltech Children's Center notwithstanding – they’re now seeing “a lot more interest in the community in coming back to the public schools.”

Furthermore, many of the families who are enrolling in Pasadena’s public schools are doing so, at least in part, for the very same reason so many parents in the past pulled their kids out: integration.

“It’s very diverse here, and that’s important—that’s what the real world is like,” Rose Dufford said. “So it gives children an opportunity not just to learn academically, but also how to deal with different kinds of people, so they can be successful when they get out of school.”

With this interest comes new challenges, because getting young children enrolled in an integrated school is only the first step. The second involves not just mixing the kids, but also the parents. "It's a challenge," Rose Dufford said. 

“All the parents want the same thing for their students—they want them to be successful,” she said. “But their knowledge and skills are at different levels. So when you bring them together, you have to ensure that parents who maybe are immigrant parents don’t feel that their skills aren’t going to be valued in the same way that middle-income, educated parents’ [skills].”

To begin, parents from different socio-economic levels tend to see the benefits of integration differently.

For example, Juliette Jacqmin, mom of Clément, wants to send her 5-year-old son to a new dual language program at her neighborhood school, Altadena Elementary, one, because it’s close, but two, because the kids there right now are mostly African American and Latino and from low-income families—so different than Clément, who’s white and lives “in a little pocket” of Altadena on a street with “middle and upper-middle class, artsy people who are also interested in mid-century modern architecture.” True, he’ll be in a separate French immersion track from most of the other students at the school, but at least he’ll get to play with everyone at recess.

“Which is great,” Jacqmin said. “We can’t afford to have kids who have never met kids who are different from them.”

For Yesenia Gonzalez, the benefit of sending her 4-year-old daughter, Isabel, to an integrated school— she’s choosing Hamilton Elementary, in part because of a presentation PEN’s parent engagement director, Laura Diaz Allen, put on at Gonzalez’s preschool — is that she’ll be at a place with kids who have parents who know the system. Hamilton is near Cal Tech, and Gonzalez has heard that some of the parents are professors there. “And they really get what they want from the government or the district,” she said.

The disadvantages — both in substance and degree — for these two moms are also different. For Jacqmin, the downside could maybe be the school’s test scores, which aren’t great. But she’s actually not worried about this, because, she said—and many integration advocates agree—what matters most is what happens at home. 

“It’s not going to drag your kid down to go to a school that performs poorly because you’re going to help them at home,” Jacqmin said. “It’s just how it works—I’m lucky that I can afford this and be a stay-at-home mom.”

Gonzalez, though, is worried about something, something that’s both the blessing and curse of integrated schools, which is that integration requires you to be around people who are different from you. And this can be hard. 

“Like, what am I going to be?” Gonzalez asked. “They’re probably going to look at me like, a lot of Caltech professors—I mean I just have an associates [degree]. And I haven’t even worked! I haven’t been to school in a long time.” She went on: “So my daughter is probably going to be looked at like the poor one. There’s a part of me that’s going to be, in a way, insecure and uncomfortable in that environment.”

The staff of PEN say this is the major challenge of integrated schools: how to get all the kids and parents of different backgrounds and income levels and ethnicities to all feel valued and equal and like they belong.

And parents who have put their children through integrated schools say this over and over again.  

“It’s recognizing that there’s an existing community there that doesn’t feel like it’s broken,” said Emily Mencken, whose child attends San Rafael Elementary. “The San Rafael parents didn’t think, ‘Oh! We’re a broken community.’ They weren’t! But we were coming in and it was a real effort to make choices that benefited the entire school.”

Mencken recalled one instance where a middle-class mom, who took Zumba classes, hired her instructor to come teach her daughter’s first grade class. “And the PTA found out about it, and said, no, you can’t do that, because what about the three other first grade classrooms?”

Courtney Mykytyn, who first helped start the dual language program at Aldama Elementary in Highland Park and then, the organization Integrated Schools, has this to say to other middle-class moms new to diverse schools: Don’t take over the PTA. It's a lesson learned by way of experience.

The PTA at Aldama was active when her son began kindergarten there, but “much more about community building.” Then she, and other English-speaking moms, in a fit of enthusiasm, “showed up and were like, you know what? We can leverage all this to get really important stuff for the school, like good P.E. programs and sports equipment!” Someone knew someone with an iPad connection. Another suggested a fundraiser at a winery in Temecula. Slowly, many of the Spanish-speaking moms, likely alienated, stopped coming to PTA meetings. 

“We were trying really hard not to have just a dual language PTA — that was intentional,” Mykyten said. “But I think we still came in with a whole different social capital that we weren’t aware enough about, and how destructive and colonizing it can be.”

Lorena Hernandez, a bilingual mom with kids at San Rafael, directed her advice to a Pasadena district official at a recent meeting, asking for a bigger commitment in having well-represented parent organizations.

"What tends to happen, at least with our [English Learner] parents, is that they have two jobs, they’re doing all these things, there’s a language barrier and they’re not invited to the table until the decisions have been made or because they don’t know how or what to ask," she said. "And I think it’s very unfortunate because they provide a lot of great support to the program. So we can’t just say, 'oh we need you for the language, but this is what you [should be] doing.'"

Principal Ana Maria Apodaca, at Altadena Elementary, where Jacqmin’s son Clément will go, is acutely aware of these kinds of power dynamics between parents of different income levels, because she was formerly principal at Field Elementary, where she oversaw the Mandarin dual language program, which racially and socio-economically integrated the school. 

“What tends to happen is that you may have one group whose priorities rise to the top of the list, because they have the opportunity to voice more loudly or more prominently what their needs are,” she said. "And it doesn't always represent the needs of the whole community."

At the same time, she remembers a litany of benefits that integration brought: an influx of parents who wanted to volunteer, a wider range of discussions about potential future careers and opportunities among kids who had never met other kids whose parents were concept designers for animation studios or scientists at NASA, and a bigger and more extensive fundraising base to raise money for the school—as long as its the whole school, she specified, and not just the special program middle-class students are enrolled in.

The challenge, she said, is to appreciate and embrace the kind of parents who show initiative, like launching a French immersion program (with PEN's help), while also not neglecting other parents who may not have the resources or confidence to be as vocal.

With Apodaca's help, parents there are already brainstorming ideas for cohesion. "Ok, when the [French] dual language program comes, can we have an after school French class for the non-French students?" PTA Secretary Aimee Daniels said. "We have 'Fine Arts Fridays,' where each child gets an elective—why not have one of those be French, so the kids can communicate with the other kids, in another language, on the playground?"

Most everyone admits that school integration isn’t easy. But most of the research also says that it works—that it closes the achievement gap and builds empathy. This is one of Rose Dufford's favorite talking points: "When schools are socio-economically integrated," she tells parents, "all kids do better." The research on this issue is not completely conclusive, but there are no studies which find that white students perform worse, academically, in integrated schools. Conversely, there is a large body of research that says low-income and minority students do much better.

In the end, that's what matters most to the moms who choose it. Gonzalez graduated from Pasadena public schools relatively recently — she's 25 — and remembers them being largely segregated by class and race, like many of them still are today. She wants something different for Isabel.

“A lot of the time, the classes are behind,” she said. “And then the kids have to stay behind. Like, they held me back a lot. And my daughter is ahead, she really is. I don’t want her to feel like she’s going to be behind or be held back from what she can do.”

Isabel and Clément won’t be a the same school next year, but they will be in the same district in similar schools with similar opportunities, surrounded by lots of different kinds of kids.