From GreatSchools by Carol Lloyd:
“It was like a Jerry Springer show,” recalls Michelle Lutz of the school meeting when a mother began shouting about “equity issues” with the principal cheering her on. By then the school had become a tinderbox of vitriol and hurt feelings where the middle-class parents joining a community of mostly low-income African-American and Latino families had catalyzed what experts call a “diversity crisis.”

Schools have always been places where emotions run high, but never more so than when they travel the deeper arteries of equity, class, and culture. As the anxiety about educating your child ratchets up, poisoned by budget cuts and child-eat-child college competition, many middle-class parents enter public schools with a dogged determination to improve them. They want to do good, while also doing right by their children. Yet when such efforts — however well-meaning — carry the taint of entitlement, it doesn’t take much for the ordinary elementary school to become an ideological battleground waged around bake sales and play structures.

“Public schools are like an endangered species,” says Amy Wells, professor of education at Columbia University. “It remains the one place where different people can have meaningful interactions. All the problems of a diverse democracy play out... whose ideas will drive the curriculum, what parental involvement means.”

Democracy's petri dish

When Lutz opened her letter from the San Francisco Unified School District to learn her daughter had landed a spot at Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, she felt optimistic — lackluster test scores notwithstanding. On the tour Lutz had noticed the small class sizes, the beautiful classrooms filled with light, and the civil rights theme embodied by the rainbow coalition of children beginning their day with a “pledge of allegiance to the world.”

She joined a fundraising nonprofit founded to help raise money for the school from the surrounding neighborhood. That's when Lutz got a glimpse of the hostility between a few of the parents — mostly white and middle-class — and the new African-American principal. “I thought, what have I gotten myself into?”

The fighting was “so unpleasant,” Lutz shifted her focus to co-chair the parent-faculty club. Compared to neighboring schools with turbocharged PTAs, the school’s fundraising paled in comparison. “Teachers even complained about not having the most basic of supplies,” explained one mother. So with a small group of zealous parents, Lutz helped organize events that brought in some $16,000. While the money would have been needed either way, the rising enrollment of more affluent families tipped the scales and changed the school's budgeting for the worse. As the percentage of low-income students and English language learners fell, the school lost funding that helped support teacher aides and the other extra staff. “I think there was a lot of resentment about that,” says long-time Harvey Milk parent Jennifer Friedenbach. (Tracy Peoples, the principal, did not respond to requests for an interview.)

When the YMCA aftercare program asked the parent club to send an email about how to sign up for the program, Lutz found herself on the defensive. One mother — who, like Lutz, is white — objected that email communication would exclude families who most needed aftercare. When Lutz explained that there was room for every child and no one would be excluded, she says she received emails “accusing me of being racist and being an elitist and catering to certain parts of the school. The level of vitriol was off the chart.”

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