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Birmingham, Alabama, was at the heart of the civil rights movement, a major front in the battles that ended legal segregation. When the schools did become integrated, many white parents fled the city. And today, as Dan Carsen of member station WBHM reports, some of those families are trying to reverse that trend.
DAN CARSEN, BYLINE: Birmingham's public schools are 95 percent black and 90 percent on free or reduced lunch. The 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. So it was unusual when Laura Kate Whitney enrolled her 4-year-old, Grey, in pre-K at Birmingham's Avondale Elementary.
LAURA KATE WHITNEY: Our neighborhood school hosted an open house, and we were completely shocked, in a good way, as to what we saw.
CARSEN: Whitney and her husband are white middle-class professionals and part of a group of two dozen similar families who are not buying the conventional trade-off - that if you live within city limits and have means, you send your kids to private school, period.
Whitney's friend Elizabeth Brantley also enrolled her 4-year-old at Avondale, which last year was 4 percent white. But Brantley grew up in nearby Mountain Brook, one of the wealthiest communities in America. So her impressions of Avondale might come as a surprise.
ELIZABETH BRANTLEY: 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.
CARSEN: These parents want convenience and higher property values, but they also really believe in diversity. Whitney says she's not concerned with her child being in a place where he looks different from the other kids.
WHITNEY: I feel like at this age, they don't really see color. 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.
CARSEN: 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.
KATRISA LARRY: I love it.
CARSEN: One thing that they're trying to do is sort of say to people, hey, Birmingham schools really are OK.
CARSEN: You think that's a good thing for them to be doing?
LARRY: Oh of course, because we need them, most definitely.
CARSEN: Tondra Loder-Jackson co-directs the Center for Urban Education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She says studies show integrated schools affect students' perceptions of other races.
TONDRA LODER-JACKSON: White graduates from those schools believe that they're more open-minded about race and less likely to stereotype. 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.
CARSEN: But the white parents coming to Avondale aren't counting on a lovefest. 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, just published a book on school gentrification. She offers a warning.
JENNIFER STILLMAN: In America, we often try to sort of talk about how much we value diversity. 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, like, it can be very uncomfortable to have this clash of parenting values.
CARSEN: She 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. But Stillman, who lives New York's Harlem, respects the parents who do stick it out.
STILLMAN: Being an urban educator, I was extremely conflicted, and yet I couldn't bring myself to do it. I definitely have admiration for people who are out there that are trying to make integration a reality.
CARSEN: But parent Laura Kate Whitney is optimistic.
WHITNEY: It's so funny that our kids can be the bridges that bring us together and maybe spread this throughout the city.
CARSEN: Despite her good intentions, she acknowledges 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. For NPR News, I'm Dan Carsen in Birmingham.
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