The Useable Knowledge series brings education research to GothamSchools readers. In the second installment, Jennifer Stillman presents her research into racially diverse schools in gentrifying neighborhoods. Stillman, a research analyst for the Department of Education’s Office of Innovation, earned a doctorate in politics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She lives in Harlem.

Leave questions for Stillman about her research in the comments section. 

What questions guided your research? 

I researched the process of school integration in gentrifying neighborhoods because I think school integration remains an important societal goal, despite the dismantling of racial integration programs across the nation. Gentrifying neighborhoods seem full of potential.

I wanted to figure out how a school without any white, middle-class families goes through the process of integration. What does it take to attract the first white families to a school in a gentrifying neighborhood? And the next wave? And the next? Why do these families stay or go? Is there a point at which we can say the school has successfully integrated? My research question was one of process, not outcomes, relying on existing literature that links integration with positive effects.

I am a “gentry parent” myself (which I define as white, middle and upper-middle class, highly educated parents who are gentrifying a neighborhood with their presence and wealth), and I understand why neighborhood gentrification is controversial. Long-time neighborhood residents might be displaced as rents increase, and the neighborhood might lose whatever was considered its authentic character. But I think there is a lot of possibility wrapped up in the demographic mixing happening in these neighborhoods, if only the people living in these neighborhoods could figure out how to engage in some sort of meaningful social mixing. My hope is that if the schools in gentrifying neighborhoods integrate along with the neighborhood, some common ground can be found between the opponents and proponents of gentrification.

How did you conduct your research?

I decided to allow the racial aspects of gentrification guide my research, even though gentrification is primarily an issue of class.  Lance Freeman, author of “There Goes the Hood,” argues that while middle-class black and Hispanic families can be — and usually are — part of the gentrification process, it is the entrance of white families into a neighborhood that overtly signals a neighborhood’s gentrification, and causes the non-gentry residents to take note and react. I decided the same reasoning would apply to schools.

I interviewed more than 50 white, middle-class “gentry parents” in three different New York City gentrifying neighborhoods about their elementary school choice process — those who were utilizing their neighborhood school, those who were sending their children elsewhere, and those who had tried their neighborhood school and left.  Because these families typically have the ability to choose something other than their zone school, I hypothesized that school integration in a gentrifying neighborhood must happen through the collective choices of the more privileged group.

What were your major discoveries?

School integration in gentrifying neighborhoods does happen, but rarely. It happens through a chain of actions and reactions of different types of gentry parents, each with a different threshold for tolerating their own minority status, each with a different idea about whether they can and should try to change a school to better match their preferences.

The first gentry parents who enroll their children in a segregated school usually find some sort of enclave program where they can concentrate their presence, like a Gifted and Talented, Dual Language, or preschool program. If this first group of gentry parents feels welcomed by the principal, and if the principal can successfully bridge the “gentry/non-gentry culture gap” that exists between the new type of parents who are coming in and the existing parent community, this first wave of gentry parents will keep their children enrolled in the school, and they will work to attract the next wave of gentry families with a flurry of activity and outreach, primarily through staging impressive school tours, all of which will give the school the label “changing” in the gentry neighborhood network.

“Changing” schools are difficult to move to the final stage of integration. Many gentry parents enter a “changing” school because it appears to have already changed enough to match their most important school preferences — diversity and progressive pedagogy. Often, however, they discover it actually hasn’t changed enough for them to feel comfortable. The school feels too traditional, too authoritarian in tone, and these less tolerant gentry parents take their children out, looking for a school that can give them what they want. If this skeptical group does stay, the final wave of gentry families will soon arrive, and the school successfully tips and becomes integrated, or “diverse,” as the gentry would say.

Schools that have the easiest time integrating seem to have the following two characteristics: First, a school with a diverse non-gentry composition appears to be more welcoming of gentry families, as there is not a single, dominant culture that already exists in the school beyond the school culture. The principal is already skilled in managing a diverse constituency, and adding the gentry to the mix is not jarring in the way it is when a school is primarily one ethnic/racial group. Second, a school that is in a neighborhood much further along in the gentrification process has a surrounding community much more accepting of school change, which gives the principal political room to adjust the school’s culture to better match the preferences of the gentry.

What can policy makers learn from your work?

Enclaves are an important tool for gentry parents who need to concentrate their presence to feel comfortable in a school. But, those enclaves that screen children, such as G&T programs, risk alienating the existing school community and usually fail to achieve socio-economic integration. To facilitate enclaves without screening, I propose the creation of Urban Education Cooperatives (UECs). As conceived, UECs would be groups of parents, formally organized by a school district (in the case of  New York City, the Community Education Council would likely be the organizing force), who are committed to public education, but who don’t feel comfortable with their zone school, and are willing to enter a district school that is underutilized by zone families if they are guaranteed two things: 1) That their children will be in the same kindergarten classroom with other members of the UEC, and 2) That they get to decide, as a group, which school they would like to attend after meeting with the principals and parent leaders of each school in the district that is identified as an option.

An alternative to UECs would be to target new charter schools in gentrifying neighborhoods, with the intentional goal of recruiting a diverse student body from day one. If the goal is integration, changing a school is much more difficult than starting a new one, especially when the new school is not restricted by zone lines and can cast a wider net for students. In New York City, there is a nonprofit organization that has recently been formed to achieve this goal, the Tapestry Project. It is currently recruiting school leaders to found racially and socio-economically diverse charter schools, and I am hopeful about its potential to foster a new crop of diverse schools in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Are there further questions you are exploring?

A serious limitation of my research is that it lacks the viewpoint of the principals who are charged with the difficult task of managing the gentry/non-gentry culture gap. From the perspective of my interviewees, school leadership was vital to whether they felt welcome to bring themselves, their children, and their ideas to a school. Because of the responsibility placed upon this one person to skillfully facilitate the integration of two disparate parenting and school philosophies under one roof, the principal’s voice is needed for a more complete picture of how the school integration process can be successful in gentrifying. Research questions might include: 1) What new challenges do principals face when leading schools that are integrating due to an influx of white, middle-class families? 2) What additional support systems do principals need in this situation?

Want to learn more? Jennifer Stillman’s new book, “Gentrification and Schools: The Process of Integration When Whites Reverse Flight,” comes out in August. Use the promotion code P356ED for a 20 percent discount.