Written by 3:55 pm New York News

Episode One: The Book of Statuses

“Nice White Parents” is brought to you by Serial Productions, a New York Times Company.

chana joffe-walt

I started reporting this story at the very same moment as I was trying to figure out my own relationship to the subject of this story, white parents in New York City public schools. I was about to be one of them. When my kid was old enough, I started learning about my options. I had many. There was our zoned public school in Brooklyn, or I could apply to a handful of specialty programs — a gifted program, or a magnet school, or a language program. So I started to look around. This was five years ago now, but I vividly remember these tours. I’d show up in the lobby of the school at the time listed on the website, look around, and notice that all or almost all of the other parents who’d shown up for the 11:00 AM, middle-of-the-workday, early-in-the-shopping-season school tour were other white parents. As a group, we’d walk the halls, following a school administrator — almost always a man or woman of color — through a school full of black and brown kids. We’d peer into classroom windows, watch the kids sit in a circle on the rug, ask questions about the lunch menu, homework policy, discipline. Some of us would take notes. And the administrators would sell. The whole thing was essentially a pitch. We offer STEM. We have a partnership with Lincoln Center. We have a dance studio. They were pleading with us to please take part in this public school. I don’t think I’ve ever felt my own consumer power more viscerally than I did shopping for a public school as a white parent. We were entering schools that people like us had ignored for decades. They were not our places, but we were being invited to make them ours. The whole thing was made so much more awkward by the fact that nobody on those tours ever acknowledged the obvious racial difference, that roughly 100% of the parents in this group did not match, say, 90% of the kids in this building. I remember one time being guided into a classroom and being told that this was the class for gifted kids, and noticing, oh, here’s where all the white kids are. Everyone on our tour saw this, all of us parents, but nobody said anything, including me. We walked out into the hallway. A mom raised her hand and said, I do have one question I’ve been meaning to ask. And the group got quiet. I was thinking, OK, here it comes. But then she said, do the kids here play outside every day?

[music]
chana joffe-walt

I knew the schools were segregated. I shouldn’t have been surprised. By the time I was touring schools as a parent, I had spent a fair amount of time in schools as a reporter. I’d done stories on the stark inequality in public education. And I’d looked at some of the many programs and reforms we’ve tried to fix our schools. So many ideas. We’ve tried standardized tests and charter schools. We’ve tried smaller classes, longer school days, stricter discipline, looser discipline, tracking, differentiation. We’ve decided the problem is teachers, the problem is parents. What is true about almost all of these reforms is that when we look for what’s broken, for how our schools are failing, we focus on who they’re failing — poor kids, black kids, and brown kids. We ask, why aren’t they performing better? Why aren’t they achieving more? Those are not the right questions. There is a powerful force that is shaping our public schools, arguably the most powerful force. It’s there even when we pretend not to notice it, like on that school tour. If you want to understand why our schools aren’t better, that’s where you have to look. You have to look at white parents. From Serial Productions, I’m Channa Joffe-Walt. This is “Nice White Parents,” a series about the 60-year relationship between white parents and the public school down the block.

[CHILDREN CHATTERING] I’m going to take you inside a public school building, an utterly ordinary, squat, three-story New York City public school building not far from where I live. This isn’t one of the schools I’ve toured. And my own kids don’t go here. They’re too little. This is a middle and high school called the School for International Studies, SIS. The story I want to tell you spans decades in this one school building, but I’m going to begin when I first encountered SIS, in the spring of 2015, right before everything changed. In 2015, the students at SIS were black, Latino, and Middle Eastern kids, mostly from working class and poor families. That year, like the year before and the year before that, the school was shrinking. The principal, Jillian Juman, was worried.

jillian juman

Yeah, so the last two years, we had 30 students in our sixth grade class. And so we really have room for 100. And so numbers, I think, are hard.

chana joffe-walt

Ms. Juman started to reach out to families from the neighborhood, inviting them to please come take a look. Parents started showing up for tours of SIS, mostly groups of white parents. Ms. Juman was thrilled and relieved. She walked parents through the building, saying, stop me anytime if anyone has any questions. Really, anything; I want you to feel comfortable. And Ms. Juman says they did have questions, mostly about the poor test scores. That was fair. Ms. Juman expected those questions. She did not expect the other set of questions she got a lot from parents.

jillian juman

Is there weapons? Is there — you know, are you scanning? Are you a scanning school, because kids are dangerous and they have weapons? I’ve heard that there’s —

chana joffe-walt

Scanning, like metal detectors?

jillian juman

Right. I heard there’s fights and those kinds of things. I don’t know what school you’re talking about. I have never heard of that incident ever happening, ever. So the fears of what this building is and what this building has represented has transcended itself. There’s a different story of International Studies outside this building.

chana joffe-walt

How much of that do you think is racism?

jillian juman

I think our entire society is fearful of the unknown.

chana joffe-walt

Excellent principal answer. Principal Juman is black, by the way. She needed these parents. Schools get money per student. A shrinking school means a shrinking budget. Ms. Juman was worried if this continued, the middle school could be in danger of being shut down by the city. SIS is in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Leafy streets, brownstones, it’s a wealthy, white neighborhood that’s gotten wealthier and whiter in the last decade. But white families were not sending their kids to SIS. Ms. Juman told these parents, choose SIS. We’re turning things around. We’re in the process of bringing in a new, prestigious International Baccalaureate curriculum, renovating the library. Here’s the new, gorgeous yard. It’s an excellent school. The parents seemed interested, but I believe that might have had just as much to do with what was happening outside of the school as what they were seeing inside the building.

rob hansen

Sure, so my name is Rob Hansen, and I’m a parent. So we were — the middle school process is interesting.

chana joffe-walt

Rob lives nearby SAS, but he had never heard of the school.

rob hansen

You know, probably eight school —

chana joffe-walt

In his district, Rob could choose from 11 middle schools. The majority of white families sent their kids to the same three schools. Rob’s white. Those were the schools he’d heard of, and those were the schools he toured.

rob hansen

And it also had space.

chana joffe-walt

But they were packed. There were too many wealthy, white families in the district to continue cramming into just three schools.

rob hansen

There’s a couple of citywide ones where we went and we stood on line for like an hour, an hour and a half, and then joined in an auditorium full of parents, and then had them announce that they were accepting 15 students in the following, in the coming class.

chana joffe-walt

And they’d been running tours all day. Most cities have some amount of school choice like this, tours and options. New York City, though, is an amped-up version of what happens elsewhere. The level of competition, the level of wealth, the diversity of people sorting into different schools, everything is more intense. Rob found this process frustrating, although Rob is very even-tempered even when he’s frustrated. He’s Canadian. When he gets especially hot, he starts calling things “interesting.” And this whole middle school thing was very interesting. He asked other parents on school tours, what are we going to do? Someone said, have you guys heard of SIS, that building down the block? Rob hadn’t. The others hadn’t. They decided to all go check it out together.

rob hansen

I walked away, and lots of parents walked away from those tours thinking, wow, you know, people are jamming up into some schools, and you’re leaving 60 or 70 seats empty, empty all year long. If you have 30 kids, it doesn’t — that’s, you spread them out around, and that’s a big school, then all of a sudden, you’re sort of like, wait a second. What’s — there’s nobody here.

[music]
chana joffe-walt

As Rob toured SIS, he had an idea. That night, he emailed Principal Juman, and he asked, would she be open to starting a dual-language French program at SIS? They had one at the elementary school Rob’s kids went to, and everyone loved it. Sure, Principal Juman was open. So Rob started spreading the word. SIS is starting a dual-language French program. We should all go. Rob says there was interest, but a lot of people he talked to had this question. Wait, are other people going?

rob hansen

And families have that kind of fear. Like, what if I’m — if I look around, nobody else came with me. And I came for something that’s not here, because nobody — so it’s a collective action problem.

chana joffe-walt

Wait, why is it a collective action? Why do you need a collective —

rob hansen

Well, just on the — just, I think, overall, there is a collective action issue. But if you’re interested in this, in part, because of the French dual-language part of it, if you’re the only one to show up, there’s no French teacher for one student. But there’s a program if 15 come, if 20 come. But we all have to, then, take one step forward at exactly the same time. The vision requires people to come. And what if nobody comes?

chana joffe-walt

When it came time to choose middle schools, parents are supposed to rank their top choices. Right before they did, before everyone chose their schools, Rob sent a survey out to the families he’d been talking to try to ensure that a group of them would choose SIS together. It was a simple SurveyMonkey. If enough people said Yes, they’d rank SIS as one of their top picks, and they would be able to act as a collective. People said Yes. The numbers were stunning. In 2014, there had been 30 sixth graders at SIS. In 2015, there would be 103. That 200% increase was almost entirely white kids.

chana joffe-walt

Did you think about yourself as integrators? Or did you think about —

rob hansen

No. [LAUGHS] My pause was because I was trying to think if that had gone through my mind. And no, no. The — not integrators. Participants in a school that was going to, hopefully, be diverse, but yeah, not — that’s not a framing or a way of thinking about it that would have occurred to me at the time. [LAUGHS]

chana joffe-walt

Nobody I talked to from SIS characterized what was happening there as “integration.” But here’s why integration was on my mind. The New York City Department of Education was aware their schools were segregated. It was also aware that desegregation is the most effective way to close the gap in achievement between black and white students. But it did not want to mandate racial integration through zoning or school placements. The city was trying to make integration happen through choice, hoping to lure white families into segregated schools. The school tours I went on for my own kids, the sparkly programs and amenities, that was the new approach to integration. But can this work? For white parents to opt in to integration not because we have to, or because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s a selling point? Because we get a dance studio, and STEM, and a school that was, hopefully, diverse? Integration, without talking about race. [CHILDREN CHATTERING] The kids at SIS, though, they did talk about race — immediately. Fall 2015, the first few weeks of school, a senior named Kristen leans over to her classmate, Chris, and mumbles, there are a lot of white kids in the school. And Chris says, oh, yeah, a teacher warned me about that over the summer.

chris

Like, he told me, like, oh, there’s going to be a lot of white kids coming in, French white kids from upper economic statuses. So be prepared for that.

chana joffe-walt

Kristen nods. Yeah, I guess we were prepared. And then she turns to me to say, I should have been ready for that. We saw the parents on the tours last year.

kristen

It was like we would see them walk to the hall, but we never knew it was so serious that a whole group of Caucasians would come in, like it would be so diverse. But mm-hmm, it’s such a big change. Like, not to be prejudiced or anything, but I noticed the big change. High schoolers are more Hispanics and Blacks, and with the few Caucasians, and then, the new group that came in were all Caucasians. They had tried to make it so diverse.

chana joffe-walt

“Diverse.” This was a word I heard over and over in the first few weeks of school — “diversity.”

chris

I love diversity. So it doesn’t — so when I did see other white kids, I’m like, so?

chana joffe-walt

“Diversity” seemed to have two different definitions. White families would talk about all the diversity at SIS, and they were talking about Black and Hispanic kids. When kids of color noted the diversity, they were referring to the new white kids. For a lot of kids of color, this looked a lot like something they’d already seen happen in their neighborhoods — white families showing up in large numbers, taking over stores, familiar spots. There’s a word for that. It’s gentrification. But I noticed that no one was using that word about the school. What was happening here was “diversity.” That’s how the adults talked about it. Diversity is a good thing, something you’re supposed to be OK with. For the most part, the kids were. It was different for the parents. Some of them saw specific advantages to the diversity, like Kenya Blount, the co-vice president of the PTA at SIS. He was excited.

kenya blount

Having the new parents coming in and the diversity that, in particular, maybe comes from the new — as I’ll call it — the “new” neighborhood, the way that things are changing in the neighborhood, is that we have a gentleman who his profession is fundraising.

chana joffe-walt

Rob Hansen, the dad who started the SurveyMonkey. Rob raises money for nonprofits and foundations for a living. Over the course of the year, I’ll here Rob Hanson referred to as Todd Hanson, Ted Manson, Mr. Handsome. Kenya was the only one who went with “the gentlemen whose profession is fundraising.” The most common was just “the guy who gets the money.” Rob told the PTA he was eager to raise money for the school. To Kenya, this meant more resources at his own kids’ school. His boys and all the kids could benefit.

kenya blount

He has brought on the challenge and taken it upon himself to raise $50,000. So —

chana joffe-walt

5-0?

kenya blount

5-0, with three zeros after that, yes — $50,000. Which, again, this again goes back to the whole, I’ll say, diversity thing and new people who were thinking outside the box. As our PTA, I don’t think that we were thinking that big.

chana joffe-walt

They were definitely not thinking that big. Because the PTA was run by Imee Hernandez and her co-president, Susan Moesker. Imee is not a gentleman who fundraises. She’s a social worker. The first time I met Imee, she was wearing a T-shirt that said, “I’m not spoiled. My husband just loves me.” She’s Puerto Rican, grew up in Brooklyn. Her husband Maurice is Puerto Rican and Black and really does adore her. He grew up in Brooklyn, too. They have one daughter, one pit bull, one Persian cat, and one school.

imee hernandez

I make it my business to stick myself in her school. [LAUGHS]

chana joffe-walt

For Imee, the new diversity, it gave her pause.

imee hernandez

Like, what I saw in September the population that came in, I was like, oh, that’s a little frightening. [LAUGHS] And even the socio —

chana joffe-walt

If you could describe it for people who are on the radio and don’t know what you saw.

imee hernandez

I saw a lot of white people with very high socioeconomic backgrounds. You know, they have money. And that’s great, but money tends to scare people. And I’m one of the people it scares. [LAUGHS] I’m one of the people it scares, because it twists everything around, and I don’t like that. I don’t like that. I don’t like that — I’d rather have a dinner where people of different cultures bring their food and we share together than have somebody else cater it. Like, that’s how I feel you build community. I’m a social worker. That’s my background, and that’s what I believe in.

chana joffe-walt

Imee was in her second year at the school. The year before, she put on community events, teacher appreciation, a spring carnival with face painting and hot dogs. They raised some money here and there, but Imee’s vision for the PTA wasn’t really about fundraising. The new parents, though, they wanted to be active in their new school, and they were accustomed to supporting their kids’ schools by fundraising. The two approaches came face-to-face at a PTA meeting in October.

imee hernandez

Three more minutes.

speaker 1

All right, all right.

imee hernandez

And then it’s up to everyone —

speaker 1

Yes, I’m very —

imee hernandez

Because y’all got your — you got to go home.

speaker 1

I got my —

imee hernandez

[LAUGHS] You got to go home.

chana joffe-walt

There are about a dozen grownups, sitting on small plastic chairs around a classroom table, the PTA Executive Board. Principal Juman is here, too. Imee’s leading, and the principal jumps in. She says she wants a minute to share how much the new fundraising committee had raised so far. Imee looks confused. Principal Juman goes on to say, the new fundraising committee has had a lot of success.

jillian juman

The total they have raised, according to Rob, about $18,000.

imee hernandez

Mm-hmm, OK.

jillian juman

And then, we just had a donation from a family a couple weeks ago who wanted to be anonymous that they’re going to give either 5 to 10 grand in December. So this is big money.

chana joffe-walt

People seem unclear what to do with their faces. This is good news, right? But also, wait, what’s the Fundraising Committee? Imee turns to her husband, Maurice. A retired cop, Maurice is also the treasurer of the PTA, because when he retired, his wife told him he couldn’t just sit around at home. Maurice shrugs at Imee, doesn’t seem to know anything about this new money. Imee turns back to Principal Juman. So can we use that money?

imee hernandez

— answered my question.

jillian juman

Yeah.

imee hernandez

That was the question, if the PTA can have access to this money. Because I know already —

jillian juman

But what is the PTA? So that’s all part off the question that’s going around.

imee hernandez

Right, yeah.

jillian juman

So this $18,000 Rob has raised under the umbrella of PTA.

chana joffe-walt

That’s principal Juman.

imee hernandez

OK.

jillian juman

So — I think.

imee hernandez

But who’s — who’s got it? And where’s it going? Like, yeah.

speaker

This PTA member don’t know nothing about it, so you know? [LAUGHS]

maurice

How can that be access for Mr. Negrone.

chana joffe-walt

Maurice asks, how can that money be accessed for Mr. Negrone, who wants new gym uniforms, or Mr. Lowe, to get his microscopes? Imee nods

imee hernandez

I mean, God bless Rob, and more power to him.

jillian juman

Yeah.

imee hernandez

But he’s not an official member.

jillian juman

Right.

imee hernandez

So I think that’s what makes it confusing, at least for me. You know, he is a PTA member because he’s a parent, but he’s not part of the executive board. So I think that’s what makes it —

jillian juman

That’s probably true.

imee hernandez

Yeah, it makes it tricky.

jillian juman

Right.

imee hernandez

I mean, and again, I’m not [INAUDIBLE].

speaker

And then, I mean, I’m not going to lie —

imee hernandez

I he could bring in the money, that’s great, but you know —

chana joffe-walt

Principal Juman nods, repeats that she wishes Rob had been able to make it. She was hoping everyone could be here and get on the same page about money. But Rob is chaperoning a sixth grade overnight trip. They’re late getting back. One mom, a white woman, who came in with a new group of sixth graders, says, look, I know Rob. He means well.

speaker 1

I think Rob, he’s a professional fundraiser.

speaker 2

Yeah, he’s great.

speaker 1

And therefore, he took it as his initiative —

speaker 3

They need money.

speaker 1

— to do the fundraising.

speaker 3

Yep.

speaker 1

And I think that’s great. But I don’t — he should communicate with the PTA. And my impression is, I don’t think he’s meaning to offend anybody.

all

No.

speaker 1

I think he’s sort of so laser-focused. That he’s not thinking about, like, well, maybe you might want to let somebody know what he’s doing.

jillian juman

And he’s been amazing. He really has. Yeah, yeah.

chana joffe-walt

That’s principal Juman. At this point, everyone seems to feel a little weird about how long they’ve spent talking about a fellow parent who is not present. And anyway, it’s money for the school. We’re all for that. We just need better communication. Imee she says, yeah, it’s just usually, money raised by parents goes through the PTA, so we can all talk about where to spend it.

speaker 1

Yeah, OK.

speaker 2

Because then we have to decide who has the say, because if it’s a collective PTA —

speaker 1

Hey!

speaker 3

There’s Rob.

speaker 1

There he is.

speaker 4

There he is!

rob hansen

Sorry I’m late.

imee hernandez

I can’t believe you made, after everything —

chana joffe-walt

Rob walks into the room. He just got back from the sixth grade trip. He sits down, and they all start to talk. We need to sort out some questions about money. Then, a mom from the fundraising committee says she’s worried about me recording and asks me to stop. So I do.

maurice

It’s been requested, but we don’t know —

chana joffe-walt

They let me stay, though, and take notes. Rob apologizes and then explains. A group of them have been meeting to raise money for the school. The new dual-language French program is expensive, and they promised the principal they’d help raise money to cover it. They were just eager to help, Rob says, so they formed a committee. He’s really sorry. He should have communicated and coordinated better with the PTA. But good news is, it’s going great. Someone has a contact with the French embassy, a guy at the Cultural Services Arm in New York, and he says he wants to help cover the costs of new French teachers and books. They’ve already kicked in around 10 grand. At this point in my notes, I wrote, “lots of looks, big money.” Rob says, “The embassy suggested we do a fundraiser, an event. They can help.” Here I wrote, “Looks — confused, mad? Nobody really talking.” Imee says, “This fundraiser will be at the school though, right? And free, for everyone?” Rob says, “Yes.” “Good, good.” She asks one more time, “Free? I just want to make sure everyone can go.” Lots of nods. Rob says, “Totally. This is a community event, for our community.” After about 20 minutes, Imee says, we’re out of time, guys. I can’t tell if this is out of a professional commitment Imee has to stick to the schedule, or a personal commitment to getting out of that room.

[music]
chana joffe-walt

Before I came to SIS, I never thought much about the role of PTAs — ever. At SIS, early on, I have this feeling of, oh, a PTA is actually critical to the success of an integrated school. A PTA has a very simple democratic structure. Every parent has an equal vote. Smart — it’s like a built-in system to equalize power, to help them make a budget together, make decisions, set priorities collectively — or not.

imee hernandez

So we’re lucky enough that we have Rob here, who has really taken over fundraising and tried to bring it to the next level here at our school. So —

chana joffe-walt

It’s another PTA meeting, and the whole collective thing is not really happening. It seems like the new parents are still raising money separate from the PTA, and the communication problems do not seem to be resolved. And some of the new parents have an idea. They propose a formal separation — the PTA and the people doing fundraising. Rob says this way, there’ll be two organizations collecting money for SIS.

rob hansen

— is there will be two sorts of ways dollars are raised. One would be a community raise — bake sales, direct gifts.

chana joffe-walt

That would be the PTA side, the community fund. Then there would be a separate organization that would go after grants and big donors. Up until this point, there seemed to be tension bubbling under the surface between the new parents and the old parents, but it wasn’t really until this moment that the unsaid started to get said — mostly by Imee’s husband, Maurice.

maurice

I think a lot of us feel that there’s two different groups. There’s the fundraising group and the PTA, which is — That’s what it looks like. You guys have this goal of making $50,000 that is going to the French program. Now, as you said, what about the rest of your school? Where’s all this money going? We have no answer. We don’t know.

maureen

And it’s very easy to feel steamrolled.

chana joffe-walt

That’s Maureen, a white mom who’s new. There are lots of nods.

maureen

And I just don’t want —

chana joffe-walt

Maurice is asking, is this new money you’re talking about, is it just for the new French dual-language program? Which is another way of asking, is this money just for your kids, or is it for everybody? Rob says emphatically, it’s for everybody. Maurice says, really?

maurice

I mean, that’s being naive. We think, OK, they’re going to donate all this money through the French embassy, and we’re going to, OK, well, we’re going to buy new chalkboards. That’s kind of — that’s being naive. Now, you’re saying the 50,000 will be for the PTA community to decide where it’s going to go. So I mean, I hear what you’re saying, which sounds great. But again, maybe I’m still talking about last meeting, when Jillian said, OK, well, are we only get a percentage of that? So we still don’t have an answer.

chana joffe-walt

Later, talking to Rob, I learned that the new separate fundraising arm he’s talking about is actually a foundation. They want to create a school-based foundation at SIS. The plan is to call it the Brooklyn World Project. I asked Rob, why do you need another way to raise money?

chana joffe-walt

There’s a PTA. Most people have heard of a school PTA. Why do you need a separate organization that’s not the PTA?

rob hansen

Yeah, so probably the easiest way to explain it is to not think about it from the school side, but to think about it from the potential donor side. So basic idea that we’re following is that the — let’s say the international says, we want to do extend today, and we want to do theater. And so we go and we find a donor who loves theater, and loves the French language, and loves the idea that kids who’ve never spoken French and had no exposure get the chance to go and compete, actually, against some of the most established schools in the city. And a donor just loves that. Like, I love it. I love giving that kind of opportunity to kids. I’m going to cover all of that, because I think it’s that important. If that money goes to the PTA, you could have a situation that the PTA says, or members that PTA say, I don’t know that we really like the theater program. I’m not sure I think that we should be using those dollars to do x, or y, or z. Now, normally, you’d be able to say, well, donor intent is what it is. You should probably use it towards what it was intended for.

chana joffe-walt

You mean normally, in another fundraising context?

jillian juman

Yeah, meaning in nonprofits. So there’s a basic kind of morality of a nonprofit to say, if a donor gives you it to you to do something, you should try to do that. Donor intent is an important part of it. It’s sort of a trust that’s established.

chana joffe-walt

Rob says, because the PTA is a democracy, it makes things complicated. The very thing I saw as a strength of a PTA — one parent, one vote — to Rob, that’s a problem for fundraising. Parents come and go and change their minds about what’s important. A private donor wants stability, and Rob is trying to raise money for the kind of programming that was available at his son’s wealthy elementary school. At that school, Rob was co-president of the PTA, and the previous year, his PTA pulled in close to $800,000. $800,000 — money that paid for after school programming, and ballroom dancing, chess, art, music, a garden. $800,000 for a school that is 75% white and serves a tiny fraction of the poor kids in the district. There aren’t enough wealthy parents at SIS to raise that kind of money. That year, Rob helped raise $800,000, the SIS PTA raised $2,000. So Rob was trying to be creative. A foundation was a way for his new school to catch up. The school leadership, the principal, was behind the idea. . Ms. Juman told me she saw the foundation as a path to equity and access. More resources meant they’d be able to provide all kids with opportunities — like, say, a school trip to France. But the parent leadership, they found it annoying. Imee knew the new parents were trying to help the school. But she already liked the school. She felt like she was being saved against her will. Plus, they’re new, she said. Shouldn’t we be the ones helping them? She was fine with them bringing in ideas, but she didn’t understand why they hadn’t brought them to her first. They hadn’t thought to consult her. She to me, multiple times, why are they coming up with all these private plans and meeting in secret committees?

jillian juman

You were pissed about that.

imee hernandez

Totally.

chana joffe-walt

Yeah.

imee hernandez

Because I wasn’t involved.

chana joffe-walt

I mean, why were you angry about that?

imee hernandez

Because here I am trying to build something with the school. Why didn’t you just involve me? Why didn’t you just tell me about it? Like, it felt like it was a secret. I don’t know if it was or if it wasn’t. I’m invested in the school. Clearly, I’ve proven to you I’m invested in the school. And you couldn’t tell us that you wanted to fundraise in a different way?

chana joffe-walt

Rob and the new parents did tell the principal that they wanted to fundraise in a different way, but Imee felt like, what about the rest of us? She felt like the PTA was ignored. At that last meeting, Imee went quiet. She told me she just felt enraged, and then embarrassed for feeling so enraged.

imee hernandez

I guess I just threw a tantrum. [LAUGHS] And I just didn’t want to be a part of it. Which is not right, but I think, again, in the moment, I just felt like — I was hurt.

chana joffe-walt

Do you usually throw — was the tantrum the thing I saw? Because that did not seem like a tantrum.

imee hernandez

No, that was not a tantrum. I could have been a lot worse, and I was really, really trying to restrain myself. Yeah, I really was. That was really under control — really, really under control. It wasn’t, but it was really, really under control.

chana joffe-walt

I asked, was there another time?

imee hernandez

Tantrum? Yeah, at home with my husband. [LAUGHS] That’s when I threw my tantrum.

chana joffe-walt

So it was tense, among the parents. But this is a school for children. Did it matter if the adults were not getting along, or who controlled which pot of money? Yes. Yes it did. That’s coming up after the break. The school year went on. Rob’s fundraising committee moved forward with the French Embassy to plan a fundraiser. It was now being called a “gala.” The PTA moved forward with parent volunteers to plan a spring carnival. It was being called “the spring carnival.” Quiet resentments locked in place. On the phone one night, Imee’s co-president on the PTA, Susan Moesker, told me she worried the school was changing in ways that were damaging to the community. Susan is white herself, but she didn’t come in with the new white parents. When she started, her son was one of the only white kids in the school. And now she felt like they were all being written into a narrative that wasn’t true, that SIS was a bad school before, and now that the new white families had arrived, it was being turned around.

susan moesker

It is noticeable. I think it is something that even my child has picked up on — just like a very different feeling among some of the students and some of the parents, this real sense again that here they come to save our poor struggling school that couldn’t possibly make it on its own without their money and their vision. And we do not all feel that that is, necessarily, the case.

chana joffe-walt

What do you feel?

susan moesker

[SIGHS] [LAUGHS] Ah —

chana joffe-walt

This was a long conversation. The upshot? She’s not happy with the way the new parents are behaving. It was true. A new narrative was taking hold at SIS. It’s not like the kids were talking about it all the time, but it was in the air, and the kids were starting to pick up on who was valued and why. In the cafeteria, I’d hear middle schoolers saying, the French kids could kill someone, and they’d get away with it. Upstairs in the high school, I’d hear kids complain, all the attention has shifted to the new middle schoolers. We’re being pushed aside. And down in the library, I met three sixth grade boys, white boys new to SIS. They’re sweaty from playing soccer and looking very small against their huge backpacks. These boys, even at 11 years old, they’ve absorbed the same messages — that SIS wasn’t so good before. It was a bad school.

boy

The kids wouldn’t pay attention, and they had all the — zone out every little thing. And I bet they learned very little. And now, this generation, with us, I think we’re doing a lot better, and I think that we’re learning at a much faster pace.

chana joffe-walt

He and his friends, they’ve turned the school around. That’s what he’s learning.

boy

It’s going to be one of the top choices. Already, in the Brooklyn, when you’re applying to middle schools, you get a book on statuses and stuff. And I think this school is actually really high up in the statuses.

chana joffe-walt

Nobody calls it “the book on statuses.” They call it a directory of schools, with info like enrollment numbers for different schools, test scores, and special programs. But I love the calls it, “the book on statuses,” because this is what happened at SIS. The school had a bad reputation among white families, and then, suddenly, it was in demand. Its status had changed because of the white kids. A powerful draw for white families into any school is other white families. Once you have a critical mass of white kids, you pass what one city calls “a bliss point.” This is a real thing researchers study — how many white kids are needed at a school to make other white families feel comfortable choosing it. That number, the bliss point, is 26%. That fall, white families were crowding the school tours at SIS, not because the test scores had improved — the new scores hadn’t even come out yet — but because the other white families made them feel blissfully comfortable.

[music]
chana joffe-walt

Of course, the thing that made the new white parents comfortable coming to SIS in the first place was the promise of a French program. They wanted French, and they got French. So now, all the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth graders are learning French. It wasn’t a true dual-language program where kids learned in French for half the day or whatever. That first year, most of the French was happening in the after school program. You’d sign up for regular after school stuff like culinary, or soccer, or drama, and it would be conducted in French.

teacher

Hey, hey! [KIDS CHATTERING IN FRENCH]

Hey, everybody, you have to listen, OK?

chana joffe-walt

We’re in the auditorium. And it’s sweet. The kids are onstage rehearsing this play they wrote in French. And it’s like they’re having fun. But I couldn’t help feeling like there’s something off balance about this. Most of the kids doing this drama program seem to be native French speakers, but not all. A sixth grader named Maya is standing to the side of the stage, script in hand, waiting for her line.

imee hernandez

For me, it’s a bit weird, because I have no idea they’re saying. Yeah.

chana joffe-walt

Really? Even in the play that you’ve been practicing, you don’t know what they’re saying?

imee hernandez

Yeah, I don’t know what they’re saying still.

maurice

You have the translations of the script.

maya

Yeah, but sometimes, when a teacher talks in French to the class, I don’t understand.

chana joffe-walt

And do you figure it out? Or is it confusing?

maya

Confusing.

chana joffe-walt

Still, she’s excited. She’s grinning, watching the other kids on stage. She’s hanging out with her friend Constance. Maya gets up to deliver her lines.

maya

[FRENCH]?

constance

Oh you did a wrong line.

maya

Yeah, what?

constance

[FRENCH].

maya

That’s confusing.

constance

You just say [FRENCH], and then [FRENCH] is [FRENCH] after.

chana joffe-walt

Constance, a native French speaker, tells Maya, you said the wrong thing. Constance correct her, pronounces it for her.

constance

[FRENCH].

maya

[FRENCH].

teacher

But it’s OK.

maya

Yeah, because I can’t do it that well.

chana joffe-walt

Maya says, I can’t, and her friend says, I’ll do it for you.

constance

OK, I’ll just say it.

maya

[FRENCH].

constance

[FRENCH].

chana joffe-walt

Learning another language is not new to Maya.

maya

My dad speaks Arabic, and my mom’s Turkish.

jillian juman

Uh-huh, and now you’re learning French.

maya

Yes, it’s so confusing. Three languages at the same time.

[music]
chana joffe-walt

When the new white parents asked for a dual-language French program at SIS, Principal Juman said yes. SIS was supposedly an international school, but she told me they didn’t really have a lot of international programming, so it seemed like a good idea to her. But there was no school-wide debate about it, or consensus. The community didn’t decide. What if they had? More than 1/3 of the families at sis are Hispanic. What if the dual-language program was Spanish, or Arabic? 10% of the students speak Arabic. If they had made a different choice, if SIS had a dual-language Arabic program, Maya would be teaching Constance how to read her lines. She’d be the one explaining the cultural references and teasing her friend about her terrible accent. She’d be the one translating the teacher’s stage directions. There was money for a French program, which meant that at SIS, French had value. Arabic didn’t. Spanish didn’t. That’s something Maya is learning at school, along with her French script.

From the very beginning, Imee and the others had insisted on three things from the new parents and the fundraising committee — that the gala fundraiser they were planning with the French Embassy, would, number one, be open to everyone, number two, take place at the school, and number three, be free. Then, four weeks before the gala, the PTA asked for an update, and a parent named Deb showed up — a mom to a new sixth grader, part of Rob’s fundraising committee.

deb

So I will start with the fact that I had a nice conversation with —

fabrice

Fabrice.

deb

Fabrice. Is it Fabrice?

fabrice

Fabrice, yeah.

chana joffe-walt

Deb volunteered early on to help organize the party and she tells everyone, I met with our partner, Fabrice, at the French Embassy, and the event can’t be at the school. The embassy won’t be able to draw their supporters to Brooklyn. It’ll be at the Cultural Services Building on the Upper East Side, Manhattan, 45 minutes away.

deb

I apologize if I’m saying things you guys already know, but I didn’t know some of this info, so it was good. But the event is really — it’s their event. It’s not really our event.

susan moesker

Oh!

deb

It’s their event.

chana joffe-walt

That’s Susan with the “Oh.” Maurice leans forward, elbows on the table. Imee is not here. She knew the meeting would be almost entirely about fundraising, and she’s sitting this one out. Maurice is now concentrating on Rob, who turns to Deb and says, “In what sense is that their event?” “They make the rules, she says.”

deb

With our input, but there are certain things that are not flexible. The biggest thing is, nobody will be allowed in at the door. You have to be on a list. You have to RSVP. You have to be on the list. All names.

chana joffe-walt

Security. It’s a government building after all.

deb

He sends out the invitation to 22,000 people on his mailing list. So now, making it a free event is a problem, because now we’re inviting 22,000 people for free to drink wine and eat food that may not have any interest in us. So we thought the best thing to do would be a suggested donation. Can’t afford to go?

rob hansen

Can I give a variant on that?

deb

Yeah.

chana joffe-walt

That’s Rob, asking to give a variant, which is, how about we have a separate invitation for our people that doesn’t ask for any money? Rob seems to be picking up on the instant irritation in this room, and he’s adding many variants to Deb’s report.

rob hansen

It’s either a modified version, or just a clarity that everybody in this community —

deb

He won’t. There’ll be one invite. It will say the same thing. That’s what I suggested. I suggested $50 a head on the outside.

rob hansen

Even if we simply put a cover note saying, no charge. We want you to come join us, our community.

deb

Right, but on the invite, it will say, “suggested donation.” Then, if you want to — however we want to forward it, we can say that. But they will only do one invite.

chana joffe-walt

Deb hasn’t been able to make previous PTA meetings. So all Deb knows is she got an email from the fundraising committee at her kid’s new school, which she assumed was part of the PTA. She’s volunteering her time, a ton of her time, to organize a huge event. She does not understand that the email list she’s on is for a separate fundraising committee that just became even more unpopular with the official PTA leadership. I think I stopped moving watching Deb. It’s so tense. She’s like a porcupine who’s just wandered into a balloon store.

deb

They’re serving wine, water, and then French hors d’oeuvres. And as far as the auction, we have a couple of cleanses. We have restaurants. We have a soccer camp. We have a vacation rental in California. We’ve got a couple hair salons. Very few from the community here, and that’s really when I wanted to talk about.

speaker

Is he from the parent community or geographic community?

deb

Parent community and geographic community.

chana joffe-walt

Deb says at her kid’s elementary school, they got a lot more donated items from parents. She tells the room, you can ask at the restaurants you go to if they do gift certificates. The salon, your employers — you’d be surprised what people can offer. Just ask.

deb

Then that’s what people like my friends — and most of my friends, though, they’re all in other schools. I’m just new here. I don’t really know many people. So the only people I’ve been able to reach out to are the 36 on Rob’s email list. [LAUGHTER] And then, a quarter of them gave, have donated something already, like found something. So I’m telling you, that house in Sonoma County is gorgeous — four bedrooms, three baths, beautiful.

chana joffe-walt

I think about a PTA meeting a few months before where I watched Imee gently explain to one of the new parents why it might be hard for some families to throw in $5 for classroom supplies, that even being asked to donate can feel alienating. Some people in this room seem to be experiencing this whole thing as a routine update about public school volunteering. Others look like someone who’s walked into the wrong room and is now looking around to the friends they came with for affirmation, we’re in the wrong room, right? How do we get out?

deb

Usually, I get more tickets to shows, games, things like — I’ve gotten Broadway tickets, but I haven’t gotten anything in the ticket arena. Knicks?

speaker

I have a contact at the Knicks. I’m willing to reach out.

deb

Yeah, they always go. Everybody wants to go to a game. There’s always somebody. And they also make great Christmas gifts. And that’s the other thing we’re lacking, is actual items. We used to have a parent — well, we still have the parent, but she’s not in my school — that worked at Tiffany. And we always had some beautiful Tiffany pieces, or a Coach bag, some products — makes it look nice.

[music]
chana joffe-walt

I spent a small chunk of that meeting occupied by an admittedly sentimental thought. Just looking around, the room was kind of incredible. People with homes in Sonoma and people who live in public housing, sitting together at a long wooden table in the library of a public school that they all share. That never happens. And I didn’t want them to mess it up. But of course, they are. This is not something we have a lot of practice in. New York City has one of the most segregated school systems in the country. White parents here have very little practice sharing public schools. Maybe this is all to be expected. White parents will charge ahead, will sometimes be careless, secretive, or entitled. In response, parents of color will sometimes be cautious, or distrustful, defensive. These are well-established patterns, repeated over generations. It’s easier for us to continue operating on separate tracks, because it’s what we already know how to do.

The guy from the French embassy apparently has a mailing list of 22,000 people in the New York area. 300 people RSVPed to the gala for SIS. I couldn’t believe it. And I couldn’t believe that one of them was Imee.

susan moesker

Hello. Good evening!

chana joffe-walt

You guys look lovely.

imee hernandez

Hi, how are you? [LAUGHS]

chana joffe-walt

Imee, Maurice, and Susan carpooled together to the Upper East Side. It’s winter. Central Park is across the street. It’s cold. Imee told me she decided she needed to be a grown-up and come. They got stuck in traffic, so they’re rushing up the sidewalk.

imee hernandez

We’re not that late, are we, Susan?

susan moesker

It’s not serious.

imee hernandez

No, we’re not that late.

chana joffe-walt

The Cultural Services Building is ivy-covered with columns. The doors are wrought iron. The entryway is marble.

[music]
susan moesker

All right, you guys all came in together? All right.

chana joffe-walt

A huge marble staircase winds up the side of the room. Later, I look up the architectural style — Italian renaissance, Palazzo style. It’s a palace. There are people milling, sampling 17 different cheeses. I don’t recognize anyone else from the school. Who are these people who have chosen to come out on a weekday evening for a fundraising event for a not-prominent or well-known-at-all public school in Brooklyn?

man

I’m not involved with the school, but my wife is involved with the —

chana joffe-walt

I started asking people how they heard about the event.

jillian juman

And what brought you here tonight?

barbara

Actually, an invitation by my wonderful French professor.

chana joffe-walt

A lady named Barbara tells me she’s never heard of SIS, like most people here, but she loves French, and she loves Paris, and it sounded like a fun night with other people who do too. She goes to France every year.

barbara

October is my saison preferee. Actually, I found this October too warm, but I like it when it’s a nice fall, crisp, and you wear your scarf, your foulard.

chana joffe-walt

I enjoy a person who likes to talk, where you can just get on the ride and sit back. Barbara is definitely that kind of person.

barbara

And my apartment in Paris, it’s sort of — I’m confused sometimes. I say, am I in Gramercy Park, or am I in Saint-Germain-des-Pres? It’s got a similar ambiance of being a neighborhood. It’s great. Have you been?

chana joffe-walt

I’ve never been.

barbara

Oh my god, she hasn’t been to Paris. Barbara’s looking around for her French teacher to tell her the news. Barbara’s teacher, it turns out, heard about this evening the same way most people here did. She was invited by this man, Fabrice.

fabrice

For the School for International Studies, we are hoping we will raise $100,000 each year for the next seven years.

chana joffe-walt

Fabrice Germain works for the Cultural Services arm of the French Embassy. He tells me he’s fundraising for dual-language programs in public schools because his mission is to promote French language and culture. He called it “soft power,” which I was kind of surprised he said out loud, since I associate that with something we do in developing countries, not something you’re allowed to do in American public schools. After Fabrice and I talked, I walked into the main room and immediately saw Maurice. Maurice was so skeptical of this whole embassy thing, but there he is at a table, selling raffle tickets next to Imee, cheerfully raising money for a program neither of them ever wanted at their school.

maurice

We are raffling off two airline tickets to France. Warm blue ticket’s going to win. It could be yours!

chana joffe-walt

Maurice, amiable as ever, is trying — and mostly failing — to convert ticket sales into social connections. He asks everyone, so if you win, when are you thinking of going? Oh, you’re going anyway? For Easter? Oh, nice.

maurice

How’s your there in Easter?

speaker

Yes, I am from France.

maurice

How’s the weather there in Easter?

speaker

Good. Fantastic. I’m — before we do it, I have a question. Can I from here, from this ticket, buy something to go from Paris to Marseille, when I’m leaving?

maurice

No.

chana joffe-walt

Barbara, from Gramercy Park, the woman who loves fall in Paris, wanders across the marble floor toward the raffle table, beside where Imee is sitting. And I thought, oh, no.

imee hernandez

It’s a pleasure to meet you.

barbara

Hi, how are you?

imee hernandez

Good, thank you.

barbara

You’re one of the parents of a bilingual student?

imee hernandez

She’s not bilingual, but she does go to the school. [LAUGHS]

barbara

She will be bilingual, eventually.

imee hernandez

Oh, she will be, yes, eventually.

barbara

What a wonderful thing. Are you pleased with the program?

imee hernandez

Yes, I love the school.

barbara

It’s so important to learn another language. It opens the world for you. And what is your name?

chana joffe-walt

Chana.

barbara

Anna. I was just telling Anna, when I go to Paris, which I do every year —

imee hernandez

Cool!

barbara

It is cool. And it’s cooler because I can speak the language. And you have entree into their society. Not totally; one will never have total entree. But you can interact with your neighbors. You can interact in a restaurant. You can interact at the dry cleaner, at the supermarket. And they so appreciate an American who can speak French.

imee hernandez

Yes, yes.

barbara

And the language is beautiful.

chana joffe-walt

Imee starts looking around. Maurice moves closer and leans in to hear why his wife is doing that nervous laugh, as Barbara explains Imee, a Puerto Rican woman, that being bilingual makes a person more sophisticated. Imee is exceedingly polite.

barbara

Paris is a lodestar, and if you really want to enjoy it, you’ve got to speak the language.

imee hernandez

[LAUGHS] It was a pleasure. Thank you.

chana joffe-walt

That entire conversation, Imee never mentioned to Barbara that she does speak another language — Spanish. Later, I ask her why. She shrugs it off.

imee hernandez

[LAUGHS] I was like, no, I’ll just let her talk. It’s OK. It was all right. So —

chana joffe-walt

Do you remember when you were telling me about the silent tantrum that you’re having —

imee hernandez

Yes.

chana joffe-walt

How would I know if that was happening?

imee hernandez

You wouldn’t. Only my husband would. [LAUGHS] If I’m throwing a silent tantrum. He would know if I’m throwing a silent tantrum. Is that happening right now?

maurice

No, not right now.

chana joffe-walt

Imee turns her back to her husband, facing me, and behind her, Maurice is looking right at me, nodding vigorously — yes.

So here we were in our fancy clothes on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, raising money for a French program at an utterly normal Brooklyn public school. That was already weird. But the toasts — the toasts were when the cognitive dissonance of the evening really kicked in for me. Fabrice steps up onto the marble staircase and clinks his glass, announces it’s time to celebrate what we’ve created and raise some money.

fabrice

It takes a village. It takes a dedicated principal. She’s here with us. It takes — [CHEERS] Yes, yes, yes.

chana joffe-walt

Fabrice hands the make to Principal Juman.

jillian juman

Hi!

all

Hi

jillian juman

It’s so nice to see all of you. And I think the number one thing is I think all of us standing here believe in public education and believe that all students — [APPLAUSE] Yes.

chana joffe-walt

One by one, people are talking about equality, and diversity, and community, and the meaning of public education. Here, at the Cultural Services Palatial Palace, full of white people.

rob hansen

So I went on the sixth great trip, 11-year-olds going on an overnight trip up into the Catskills. I would not recommend doing that.

chana joffe-walt

Rob gives a toast about that time he went on the overnight trip. It starts off OK, but then veers into strange and sort of cringe-y territory. He’s on a ropes course, 40 feet up, looking down.

rob hansen

Below me was that diverse group of kids. They were diverse kids belaying me, making sure that when I jumped, they would actually cushion my fall. That day, each of those kids was going to climb up that pole and was going to have the same opportunity and the same challenge. And it made me think that that’s what this school is about. It’s about the opportunity to do the International Baccalaureate, the challenge of it, so the opportunity to explore French, and the challenge of it, for all kids. And —

chana joffe-walt

I agree with Rob. It’s great to give kids equal access to opportunity. But what they’re being given access to are the opportunities that Rob and the other white parents care about.

Downstairs, I find Susan, Imee’s PTA co-president, on a bench by herself. She’s near the band, drinking wine, looking a little dumbstruck. I ask if she’s OK. This is something else, she says. And then she adds, it’s just hard to explain how this is a public school fundraiser.

When the founder of American public education, Horace Mann, laid out his vision for public schools back in the day, he rode his horse around Massachusetts, podium to podium. And his pitch was common schools would make democracy possible. They would bind us to one another, indoctrinate us, give us the skills and tools we need for democratic living. Public schools, he believed, would be the great equalizer. Rich and poor would come together and develop what he called “fellow-feeling,” and, in doing so, quote, “obliterate factitious distinctions in society.” For that to happen, you need everyone in the same school together. At SIS, they’ve gotten that far. Everyone was in the same school together. But there was no equalizing. We can be in the same school together and not be equal, just like we can be in the same country together. It’s not enough. What do we do about that? After the gala, money poured into SIS, and more white families enrolled their kids at the school. But in the years after that, there was a backlash, and SIS changed in ways that made Rob question himself. He wondered if he’d made mistakes. He told me he thought they all wanted the same thing for the kids. He just didn’t know. Not knowing? That happens a lot with white parents. I looked into the history of this school, and I learned that this wasn’t the first time white parents showed up here. White parents have been involved all along, all the way back to the very beginning of this school half a century ago, doing the same kinds of things I’d just seen. It happens again and again, white parents wielding their power without even noticing, like a guy wandering through a crowded store with a huge backpack, knocking things over every time he turns.

Horace Mann believed public schools would make us equal, but it doesn’t work. I’m not sure how to fix that, but I want to lay out the story, the whole story of this one American public school, because what I am sure of is that in order to address inequality in our public schools, we are going to need a shared sense of reality. At the very least, it’s a place to start. That’s next time on “Nice White Parents.”

[music]
chana joffe-walt

“Nice White Parents” is produced by Julie Snyder and me, with editing on this episode from Sarah Koenig, Nancy Updike and Ira Glass. Neil Drumming is our Managing Editor. Eve Ewing and Rachel Lissy are our editorial consultants. Fact-checking and research by Ben Phelan, with additional research from Lilly Sullivan. Music supervision and mixing by Stowe Nelson. Our Director of Operations is Seth Lind. Julie Whitaker is our Digital Manager. Finance management by Cassie Howley, and Production management by Frances Swanson. Original music for Nice White Parents is by The Bad Plus, with additional music written and performed by Matt McGinley and Dan Reitz. Special thanks to Whitney Dangerfield, Rich Orris, Amy Pedulla, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Scott Sargrad, Jackie Carrier, Gene Demby, Charles Jones, Lenny Garcia, and Valero Doval. At The New York Times, thanks to Sam Dolnick, Stephanie Preiss, Nina Lassam and Julia Simon.

“Nice White Parents” is produced by Serial Productions, a New York Times Company.

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