When Laura Kate Whitney enrolled her 4-year-old, Grey, at Avondale Elementary, a public school in Birmingham, Ala., she and her husband were bucking a trend. Whitney and her husband are white, middle-class professionals. Public schools in Birmingham are 95 percent black, and 90 percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch.
Whitney's is one of about two-dozen similar families who are not buying into the conventional tradeoff that if you live within city limits and have means, you send your kids to private schools.
Birmingham was at the heart of the civil rights movement, a major front in the battles that ended legal segregation. When the schools were integrated, many white people fled to suburbs and private schools.
Today, the school system is hemorrhaging students and has been under state control since June. Even many poor black families do what they can to enroll their kids elsewhere. Birmingham schools have a stigma.
Despite the bad rap, Whitney says she was pleasantly surprised when she visited Avondale.
"Our neighborhood school hosted an open house, and we were completely shocked, in a good way, as to what we saw," Whitney says.
Whitney's friend Elizabeth Brantley, who also enrolled her 4-year-old at Avondale, grew up in nearby Mountain Brook, one of the wealthiest communities in America. When she visited the school, which last year was 4 percent white, she was surprised not by the differences, but by the similarities she saw.
"The minute we walked in, we were like, 'This is just a normal school. This feels like the kind of school that I went to when I was little,' " Brantley says.
An Uncommon Trend
These parents want convenience and higher property values, but they also really believe in diversity. Whitney says she's not concerned about her child being in a place where he looks different from the other kids.
"I feel like at this age, they don't really see color," Whitney says. "They go straight to playing together and learning about each other and talking and sharing snacks. I want him to have those type of experiences. I mean, we live in a city that is extremely diverse."
Researchers say in most cases of school gentrification, which is relatively rare, wealthier people move into a newly desirable neighborhood, and the school's demographics follow suit. But the area around Avondale is already white and middle class. Unrelated to that, it's actually one of the better schools in the system. Even so, Avondale parent Katrisa Larry welcomes the new families.
"I love it," Larry says. "We need them, most definitely."
According to Tondra Loder-Jackson, who helps run the Center for Urban Education at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, integrated schools have other benefits.
"White graduates from those schools believe that they're more open-minded about race and less likely to stereotype," Loder-Jackson says, summarizing a body of research. "The black graduates, they're more confident about competing with whites, and they're also not as likely to see whites as being categorically racist."
A Clash Of Classroom Cultures
But the white parents coming to Avondale are not counting on a love fest. Inner-city schools tend to be more authoritarian, relying on a teacher-centered model of instruction, as opposed to more modern methods favored by many middle-class parents, where kids initiate much of their learning.
Jennifer Stillman, a research analyst for the New York City Department of Education who just published a book on school gentrification, says the issues that surround school integration are complicated.
"In America, we often try to sort of talk about how much we value diversity," Stillman says. "But when we talk about it, we sort of speak of it as in, 'We're all the same, and we just have to get over our superficial differences.' But people actually can be very different. And ... it can be very uncomfortable to have this clash of parenting values."
Stillman and Loder-Jackson point out that it's the middle-class "integrators" who have a choice — the families who've already been there for a while usually don't have the means to leave. If the new parents are unhappy, Stillman says, the gentrifying group almost always falls apart and the kids go elsewhere.
Stillman, who lives New York's Harlem, says she respects the parents who do stick it out.
"Being an urban educator, I was extremely conflicted, and yet I couldn't bring myself to do it," Stillman says. "I definitely have admiration for people who are out there that are trying to make integration a reality."
Laura Kate Whitney is optimistic that sending her son to Avondale will be good for her son and her community.
"It's so funny that our kids can be the bridges that bring us together," Whitney says, "and maybe spread this throughout the city."
Despite her good intentions, she acknowledges that the next few months will be critical in shaping the future at Avondale, and possibly at other even more challenging schools in this civil rights crucible.