The South End Library hosted a rapt audience of more than fifty local parents last Thursday night to hear a talk by education activist and author Susan Naimark, who described her experiences as a Boston Public Schools parent in the 1980s and 90s, when she and her husband John guided three children, including a foster daughter, through eight public schools. "My kids got a great education, even though none received their first choice of school," said the former West Concord Street resident who moved to a Jamaica Plain fixer-upper to raise her family. She recalled that many parents at the time left the Boston public schools over court-ordered busing and mandatory school assignments but, despite years of a crazy schedule caused by both working full time and advocating for quality education in all public schools, Naimark stated firmly "I am glad we didn't bail." Appointed to the School Committee by Mayor Tom Menino in the late 90s, where she served for a total of eight years, Naimark concluded that conversations about public education are often the wrong ones. "There are layers of dynamics around race, but we don't talk about race or racism," she said. "So I wrote a book about it." With The Education of a White Parent: Wrestling with Race and Opportunity in the Boston Public Schools, Naimark hopes to share her learning curve which, she said, is tied to national trends in public schools. "I gave a talk in Minnesota in June and parents there told me that what I had to say sounded just like what was happening in their kids' classroom today," she commented.
Searching for answers as to why so many students of color tested poorly --even though they seemed just as smart as her own white children-- or why selected school activities were dominated by white children, or why parents of color seemed less involved in school committees, Naimark looked beyond standard-fare responses that did not satisfy her. She reminded the audience that the parents, as elementary-school kids themselves, were bused to schools in hostile neighborhoods where they were stoned and spat on. "They may simply not be comfortable going to their kids' schools," she suggested. Pointing to a long history of advocacy by Boston's African-American community for better public schools, Naimark said that the first petition for school equity here was filed centuries ago, in 1798. And again in 1800, and 1840, and 1845 and 1846. The lack of responsiveness, or results, finally led to the Racial Imbalance Act of 1965, which culminated in court-ordered busing in the mid-seventies. During that time, the Boston public-school population declined from 60,000 to 40,000 students, when many white parents fled for the suburbs or private schools.
The question of why parents don't show up at their children's schools is complicated, Naimark emphasized, and differently complicated again for immigrant parents. There's a role for white parents in addressing this matter, she insisted, which starts with relationship building. To that point, she listed "ten things I wish I had known before I became involved as a Boston public-school parent," she said. They are:
- Stretch yourself to get to know others who are unlike you.
- Racism and inequity are important for everyone to speak up about. The BPS has an Equity Office that will look into racist remarks. and related problems.
- Make it a personal commitment to engage with those who appear left out.
- Don’t take perceived hostility personally—decades of racism and exclusion leave their mark.
- Make sure kids who are different get together.
- Model how to talk about race and racism to your children, even if it is difficult and no immediate solution is in sight.
- Don’t be defensive when you are challenged by parents of color: white liberals often appear most defensive about being called racist or making racist assumptions.
- The impact of what you say or do trumps the intent. Don’t argue about it.
- It’s ok to admit you don’t know certain things.
- If you don’t work for ALL kids, you send the wrong message to your own kids