“The chancellor decided to focus on Hardy and other schools out of a core commitment to having schools serve their neighborhoods,” says Reinoso. In Wells’ gentrifying Ward 6, parents are racing to J.O. Wilson—one of Rhee’s recruitment schools in 2009. “We’ve had the greatest renaissance of any urban neighborhood,” Wells says. “Those schools aren’t magnets. They’re just neighborhood schools.”
And that gets back to a tricky question of democracy: How do you serve one group without injuring the other? How, for example, can Rhee attract families in the western part of Ward 2 without alienating African-American parents and without being labeled a racist?
“It’s a balancing act that nobody ever gets completely right. Nobody feels like they were treated fairly in the process,” says Casserly of the Council of Great City Schools.
In D.C., there are plenty of spokespeople who can amplify that feeling, using the logic that it’s unfair for DCPS to focus on newbies. “I like diversity,” says Miles-Crocker. “[But] I’m tired of the emphasis on middle-class white families, especially when it comes at the expense of those who have been there.”
“I don’t know where she thinks the rest of the kids are going to go,” says Toyer. “Her strategy leaves out parents who have stuck by DCPS. It focuses on the ‘new parents’ at the exclusion of the others.”
Rhee responds to the fears of parents who worry about lost slots in gentrified neighborhood schools by arguing that her efforts at reinvention have also improved schools in non-gentrified neighborhoods—the sorts of schools parents might once have shunned in favor of a bus ride across town to places like Hardy. She cites, for example, Sousa Middle School in Ward 7, where the principal, Dwan Jordan, has increased test scores, enhanced the teacher corps and added a music program among other things.
“What I think is going to be the results of what he’s doing,” says Rhee, “is that Ward 7 middle-class families who had been sending their kids to Hardy or [Alice] Deal [middle schools—in Ward 2 and 3, respectively] actually will look at [Sousa] and now say we don’t have to drive across town.” If that happens, then turning Hardy and other schools like it just got easier.
Like it or not, the diversity politics of the future is not going to look like the binary, zero-sum version that has long prevailed in the District.
“I’m from New York. So I am used to a diverse population. It’s important to me that my child’s school is not only diverse, but reflective of its neighborhood,” Sehgal says.
“It’s not a black or white thing,” says Derlega. “African-American parents, parents of Chinese kids, Swedish kids, Hispanic kids, white kids, we all want the same thing.”
But it hasn’t always been a given that the District will embrace parents like Sehgal and Derlaga who say they want to stay put and help improve their local schools. Derlaga says the DCPS staff, including Margery Yeager with the Office of Transformation Management, have been sensitive to the dynamic that will greet families like his. For example, there was a conference call held for parents to discuss how to enter a new school community.
Even as the “new parents” have embraced diversity, they’re not apologizing for wanting rigorous academic programs—and DCPS seems to be channeling that desire. Derlega, Sehgal and others arriving this year have been involved for the past several months in the selection of teachers for their children’s classes, something some DCPS principals encourage. They have followed program changes being proposed for the schools. Derlega has been conducting fundraising research.
“I am not alone. There are individual parents who are socially responsible and realize you need to be part of the process,” he adds.
Wells says many of the newcomers in the Ward 6 schools are “sophisticated” and are “navigating issues far better than those before them...It’s not all perfect,” he continues. “There has been some stereotyping on both sides. There are tensions. But they are navigating them.”
It may be hard for folks like Miles-Crocker, Toyer and other African Americans to watch the chancellor butter up affluent, mostly white, newcomers when there are so many poor black people who have been stuck in DCPS and badly served by it. But, truth be told, it’s the right thing to do. No one community is entitled to public education. It belongs to all of us. That was the message Thurgood Marshall and others attempted to deliver decades ago. It’s one we can’t afford to forget. Society really is made better when we’re all in the same schoolhouse, learning to appreciate our differences while celebrating our common bond.
Now, that’s the kind of dangerous race talk worth having.