San Francisco Chronicle
Lessons on public school segregation
Parent probes painful reality: ‘Where are all the white kids?’
When Courtney Martin moved to Oakland and had her first child in 2013, she would take long walks around her neighborhood with her infant daughter, Maya, nestled in a front pack. They regularly strolled by Emerson Elementary, just a few blocks away from their new home in the cohousing complex Temescal Commons.
Martin found herself frequently stopping and listening to the boisterous sounds of kids playing on Emerson’s blacktop. She admired the purple flowering vines covering the school’s wroughtiron fence, its giant redwood tree and colorful murals.
“I remember thinking it was quite beautiful,” Martin recalls in a recent interview with The Chronicle to talk about her provocative and personally searching new book, “Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America From My Daughter’s School,” out Tuesday, Aug. 3.
“But I’d look and think, ‘Where are all the white kids?’ It was weird, because there are so many white families in this neighborhood.”
Back home at her computer, a quick web search and visit to GreatSchools.org revealed that Emerson, a majorityBlack school, was designated “failing,” rated 1 out of 10 on a scale with 10 being the top score, due to its test scores and sluggish rate of academic improvement.
Chabot and Peralta, on the other hand, two other nearby public schools, were rated 9. They had demand rates of 150% to 205% compared with the anemic enrollment at Emerson, where there were just 11 white children out of nearly 300 students.
When Martin, a seasoned journalist and author of three previous books, including 2010’s “Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists,” started touring kindergartens a few years later, she didn’t find “even one white friend who was seriously considering our neighborhood public school.”
Answering that question — particularly in a city as proudly progressive as Oakland, where so many white parents who march for racial justice and have Black Lives Matter signs in their front yards still refuse to send their children to schools that reflect the community’s diversity — “was the start of a journey of a thousand moral miles,” Martin writes.
“Learning in Public” is partly a memoir about Martin’s decision to send Maya to Emerson (where she’s thriving; her sister, Stella, will join her this fall) and embrace the cause of integration. She documents contentious, even absurdist, Oakland Unified School District meetings and being unexpectedly voted School Site Council president.
The book is also a rigorously researched investigation into the persistence of unequal and segregated schools in America today.
Nearly 70 years after the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, few people realize how little it actually changed American schools, “other than the philosophical ground it broke,” explains Martin, adding that “school integration hit its peak in 1988.” Black schoolchildren are now more segregated than they’ve been in half a century; though the city of Oakland is 36% white, the school district is only 10% white.
Martin cites UC Berkeley public policy Professor Rucker Johnson’s comprehensive data proving the positive longterm impacts of desegregation, including its efficacy in breaking the cycle of poverty. “Like the vaccines that have saved millions of lives … the medicine called integration works,” he writes in his book “Children of the Dream.”
Despite such overwhelming proof, and evidence that privileged children like Martin’s fare no worse academically at schools where whites are the minority, Martin seeks to understand what so many white parents in her gentrifying neighborhood are afraid of. She strikes a direct, at times blunt, tone in “Learning in Public,” writing, “We act mystified by inequity, all the while propping it up with our choices.”
Martin notes what she hears in her discussions with wellmeaning economically privileged parents: What do they really mean when describing a majorityBlack public school as “chaotic,” “rough,” “not a great fit”? Or when they justify opting out of public school entirely (like 25% of San Francisco families, compared with the 9% average statewide) because a child is “gifted” or “sensitive”?
Growing up in Colorado in the ’80s, Martin had never heard the phrase “school choice.” She attended her neighborhood school and had an innate curiosity about the chance nature of inequality, why she was born into a comfortably middleclass family, while others lacked and scraped by.
After attending Barnard College in New York City, studying abroad in South Africa and spending a decade in Brooklyn, Martin moved to the East Bay “because I’ve always been excited by the idea of intentional living,” she says. Her family lives in one of the nine private homes in Temescal Commons, where the interfaith residents share twiceweekly meals, common outdoor space and a belief that selfsufficiency, as opposed to a “village mentality,” has its limitations.
Martin writes a popular Substack newsletter called “Examined Family” where she explores how to better align one’s values and actions. It’s also the core message in “Learning in Public,” which she wrote during the pandemic inside her Volkswagen bus parked in their driveway.
“I had the sense while doing the reporting for this book that this notion of ‘we have to do the best for our kids’ is a really nice way to avoid ethical complexity,” Martin says. “The most liberating thing for me, and what I hope people take away from the book even though they might make a variety of choices, is really deconstructing what we think the ‘best’ is.
“I came to believe, and I know this is lofty, that the best thing for my kids is a democracy that works, and that depends on a strong public education system.”