This season, the producers of Serial (now Serial Productions) bring us to the gentrified Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, where they explore school equity and integration in one of the most progressive public school districts in America.
Nice White Parents comes from the award-winning producers of This American Life, who are “committed to fact-based journalism laid out in short story form”. Every episode is rich, yet digestible. It’s gloriously unpredictable, with all the highs and lows of a real-life drama. This season, Serial does exactly what it does best- telling a story without any of the fancy stuff. The story is so good, they don’t need to.
To fully appreciate the show, it’s important to understand how the NYC public school system works. Like most American cities, your address is designated to a specific school. Unlike most American cities, your desirable neighborhood school will be full. Your child will be assigned to another school that could be far away and probably not as good as the one you were waitlisted for.
Cue the application madness.
Host, Chana Joffe-Walt, describes “shopping season”, where parents and kids tour their top choices. Testing and grade submissions follow. The process culminates in a med school-esque matching process, wherein you pray that your kids are matched with their first,second, or third choice school.
Nice White Parents begins at the end of that process for sixth graders in 2015. Several affluent,mostly white families from the same primary school “discover” a neighborhood school with available slots. Chana tells us-
“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…”
The school, known as SIS 293, doesn’t have great test scores but the principal is open to new programs,specifically a dual language French program parents want to continue. The school needs more kids to enroll, bolstering its status so it doesn’t get shut down. Perspective parents offer to come with resources. SIS 293 goes from thirty sixth graders to 103. Sounds like a win-win,right?
The first episode of Nice White Parents explores what happens when people in power take over an institution, under the guise of “improvement”. This story touches on race, socio-economics, and the perceptions that come along with integration. Intention meets Impact in high definition.
Most of episode one is recorded in real time. Parents and students share observations as they encounter them. We listen in on some PTA meetings where you desperately want to call a time-out and explain what’s happening to the participants- Don’t go in there! Just don’t do it!. At times, it’s hard to believe these people all live within the same mile. In one year, the school went from hot dogs to hors d’oeuvres.
In later episodes, Chana explores the history of SIS 293 in context of historical desegregation efforts within the NYC Public School district. In episode two, she visits the NYC Board of Education archives, reading letters and documents dating back to the early days of school integration. Episodes three and four are even more compelling. However, if you think you know how this story ends, you’re in for a big surprise.
The series does a great job of exploring and documenting the question “How did we get here, anyway?” Serial’s approach is to ask the questions from the perspective of both white parents and their non-white counterparts.
There are no villains here; no evil plots to take over the school. The original students at SIS 293 are guarded but open. The new parents want to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Everyone starts out with the best of intentions.
“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 that 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.”
In the final episode, we learn that NY State is the most segregated school system in America. The Great Melting Pot has some serious integration and equity issues. Here, Chana manages to capture the reckoning that white people are currently experiencing-
“In my experience, part of being a white parent is rarely being asked to to account for what we have or how we got it. Rarely being treated as a demographic, so no one questions our investment in our children’s education. No one blames our culture- who we are as people- for our educational shortcoming. No one writes research papers that call us a “hard to reach population” or “lacking in college bound mindset. White Parents get to be individuals, making rational, thoughtful choices. We aren‘t forced to consider all the ways we act as a group.”
This season of Serial feels exactly right for the moment. Chana Joffe-Walt makes clear that Nice White Parents isn’t a roadmap to equitable utopia, but it does document a complicated history of public education in one particular school that could be found in almost any public school in America. It affords us an opportunity to see what went wrong, so we can make things right.
You can listen to Nice White Parents on Spotify, iTunes, and on The New York Times website here… https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/30/podcasts/nice-white-parents-serial.html?