Avery Biga is a friendly blond first grader, and as a white kid attending Avondale Elementary School, he’s a minority student. One day Avery was trying to get his parents, Chris and Peggy, to recall a fellow student whose name he could not remember.
“He said, ‘Well, his skin is brown like mine, but it’s darker,’” Peggy recalled. That said something to the Bigas, who are glad to have their son be a minority in a school that they are proud of and active in.
“He has a different perspective, but it fits the city,” Peggy said. “We live in Birmingham, Alabama, right? So he should not go to a school that’s all white. … I think he is learning something that we could never teach him, and that meant a lot to me.”
The way Avery views race, after moving from Fargo, North Dakota, to Birmingham’s Crestwood North neighborhood has made a strong impression on his parents. “His interpretation is not an ‘Us vs. Them,’ which is something I think you may see in different communities. It’s just, ‘Oh, we just all look different.’ He’s very nonchalant about it.”
At the intersection of gentrification and revitalization, there is sometimes a school. And that, squarely in the middle of the issue in its east central Birmingham community, is where you will find Avondale Elementary.
The school, which is part of the Birmingham City Schools system, is at the heart of why some — but certainly not all — parents have moved into the neighborhood. The district served by this public school ranges from Avondale to Crestwood to Overton to Southtown to Kingston.
In the immediate vicinity of Avondale Elementary, sitting atop the hill it has occupied since 1923, there is a population of mostly white residents in the midst of a largely African-American town. Avondale itself, and neighborhoods like Crestwood North, are hot destinations for young, educated families who want solid affordable homes in friendly, walkable neighborhoods — with diversity. Many of those families are white, and a growing number of them are enrolling their kids into Avondale Elementary, where the student body is more than 95 percent black.
These parents — who are often more affluent than the majority of the parents with kids in the school — are committed to becoming part of their community. And therein lies the rub: what kinds of changes will these new dynamics bring to the school and the community?
The issue of change
Weld’s series on gentrification has been seeking to explore those issues and whether what happens as new affluent families move into Birmingham – changing the demographics, renovating and rehabilitating houses, raising property values, bringing more business and additional involvement in the school system – is simply healthy revitalization, or more potentially problematic gentrifying.
“Gentrification is a general term for the arrival of wealthier people in an existing urban district, a related increase in rents and property values, and changes in the district’s character and culture,” wrote Benjamin Grant, an urban designer, city planner and writer. “The term is often used negatively, suggesting the displacement of poor communities by rich outsiders. But the effects of gentrification are complex and contradictory, and its real impact varies.”
The variability of the impact can be obvious at schools for good and bad.
“This reinvestment of capital in underprivileged urban communities has the effect of putting the affluent and the poor on the same streets, and has the potential to do the same in schools,” wrote Jennifer Burns Stillman in her book Gentrification in Schools: The Process of Integration When Whites Reverse Flight. “Racial segregation and concentrated poverty rarely breed an optimal environment for learning, and the arrival of the children of the gentry [her term for affluent, property-owning whites in the context of her book] in urban schools offers the potential to improve them.
“For this to happen, however, the gentry must resist what their relative privilege affords them and choose to send their children to the local, nonwhite, high poverty segregated school — an unlikely choice for white, middle- and upper-middle-class highly educated parents with the means to find other options. Resisting the pull of white flight from a school with shifting demographics is one thing; starting the reverse process is quite another.
“Not only do the individual gentry parents have to make this unlikely school choice, enough of them have to do it so that the schools actually become integrated — an unlikely course of action when the collective action required to make this come about is voluntary.”
Stillman makes an assumption some might find fault with – that the area the white gentry parents move into is necessarily “high poverty.” Nevertheless, the potential exists that the arrival of more affluent parents will affect the dynamics and culture of the school, even as it changes the dynamics of the neighborhood.
Choosing diversity against advice
The Bigas, both teachers at UAB — Peggy in biology, Chris in sociology — and several other families that have kids at Avondale have found that their arrival and their integration into the school and community has been mostly free of tension. First, the diversity of the community is something they wanted as much as they wanted to live in a nice neighborhood with old houses.
“Every day we talk about how much better it is, how much happier we are here, and lot of it has to do with Birmingham,” Chris said.
“There’s just a very vibrant community that we lucked out and stepped right into when we moved here,” Peggy said. “We met people that immediately engaged us, the positive thinking of Birmingham instead of the opposite of that.”
To find the positivity about the school system, they had to get here, first. Most of the research they did online before coming was discouraging for parents who want to support public schools.
“I was very frustrated because everything I read said how horrible the Birmingham City Schools are,” Peggy said. “Many people have told us — people that we met, from job and other places in the community that were helping us in the transition of moving here — that if you buy a house in Birmingham, you can’t go to schools, you’ll have to go to a private school. So they gave us a list of the private schools, like, ‘Here are the good ones.’
“It was painful for me,” she said. “Because we’re public school people. Both of his parents are public school teachers; my mom was a public school teacher, and we all went to public schools. … It was just very painful going through that process, looking at all of these horrible comments online and not being here, so not being able to walk and talk to people.”
They were not the only parents discouraged from looking into the local public school. “My wife and I agonized over the decision,” said Brandon Harris, pastor of Avondale United Methodist Church and father to two kids, one in preschool, the other now a first grader at Avondale Elementary. He and his family moved from Anniston.
“When we moved to Birmingham we had been told, ‘You don’t want to send your child to Birmingham City Schools.’ People even told me, with regard to Avondale Elementary, ‘That used to be such a great school.’ Picking up on the ‘used to be,’ as my son approached kindergarten age, we began exploring private schools. One of my co-workers at Avondale UMC has a son the same age as my son, and as we discussed our options, we realized that there were others in our neighborhood who weren’t satisfied that private schools were the only viable option, but we didn’t have any answers.”
For the Harrises, the answer came when they went to an open house at the school. “We were struck by how ‘normal” the school was — bright, cheery, friendly, dedicated teachers, and students in the classrooms showing off their work to all the neighborhood looky-loos,” Harris said. “The superintendent was there, and he spoke personally with each neighborhood resident. The open house, while it gave us a new perspective and opened our minds toward the school, it raised our anxiety in that it erased our certainty that this was not for us.”
Harris and his wife had put down a deposit on a private school, but after a couple of meetings at the church, between parents all wondering if they should send their kids to Avondale Elementary, they had decided to take the public school option. “Despite pressure from our parents urging us not to be martyrs and not to sacrifice our children for a social stance, my wife and I finally relinquished our spot at the private school. There was a good deal of idealism involved in the choice — hope for a diverse learning environment for our son, a desire to be leaders in our neighborhood, etc. — but we also acknowledged, ‘It’s only kindergarten,’” he said.
“It was hard to break away from the tacit and overt assumptions about Birmingham City Schools at work within our community. It took an open mind; it took a group of friends, neighbors and colleagues who were willing to discuss difficult issues of race, privilege and public policy, and it took the superintendent and school principal working hard to dismantle nearly every reason I could think of not to send my son to Avondale Elementary.
“Ultimately, however, I think my wife’s and my decision was shaped by a conviction as Christians that transformation happens when we anticipate our hopes by investing our lives in those hopes.”
The Bigas finally made the decision to send their son to Avondale after meeting one of their neighbors, Laura Kate Whitney.
“It wasn’t so much that we thought the schools were going to be bad, it was more of a thing that if we want to be community- and neighborhood-oriented, is our son going to be the only one in the neighborhood who goes to Avondale?” Peggy said. “And is he going to be an outcast from the neighbors if they all go to some other private school? And that was the impression that we had from the Internet: that he would be one of the only ones in this close neighborhood right here.
“And [Whitney] was like, ‘Nope, our son’s going there next year. He starts in the fall. Sit down.’ So we talked and she kind of caught us up about what was going on with the school board because, the month we moved here is when the state took over.”
With Whitney’s help, the Bigas made the connection to other like-minded parents.
“We found out that there were at least six other kids in a 4-block radius that would be going. So that made up our mind for us,” Peggy said. “It was enough that there was someone else in the community, that we wouldn’t be the only ones pushing for it — pushing for helping the school, being there, being a part of the community. And it was kindergarten, so you can always pull him out if you need to, and there was absolutely no need to pull him out.”
Whitney, 34, who now works for REV Birmingham, had also heard in her turn that moving to the city would be a mistake for young parents. “When we moved to Birmingham, many folks told us we’d have to move out of the city because of the schools. Then we found a great home. We met our neighbors. We settled in to a community that we just love.
“When it was time to start looking at schools, we did our due diligence and we took a tour at our public school. What we found there was exactly what we were looking for: great teachers, bright students, a beautiful environment, an opportunity to expand our family’s experience. Sold.”
Changing the community — how?
Now, the Whitneys, the Bigas and the Harrises are all among a growing number of white families involved in their community school. They’re on the PTA board. They do bake sales. They recruit other parents. And they are all aware of the trend in areas that gentrify — that as the community improves, the changes sometimes drive out residents of longer standing.
Research suggests that doesn’t have to happen in schools. It might be interesting to note, for instance, what the Brookings Institution’s report, “Dealing with Neighborhood Change: A Primer on Gentrification and Policy Changes” has to say about schools:
“The gentrification-driven influx of new residents into city school districts does not appear to have the effect of increasing school quality, and there are many neighborhoods where the entering families with school-age children place them disproportionately in private schools, often translating their relatively lower housing costs (compared to the suburbs) into tuition payments.
“Nevertheless, if incoming families were to strengthen local school quality, the benefits would accrue to new students as well as longtime residents of the area (assuming they had the wherewithal to remain in the district). Better schools increase life chances for original city residents, and increase their ability to stay in gentrifying communities and take advantage of improvements, or to go to other communities and succeed.”
To that end, some of the families driving the increase of diversity at Avondale Elementary are working toward improving not just their school but Birmingham schools in general. “The recent school board election was a huge boost to local efforts,” Whitney said. “Although voter turnout was low, it proved that the community wants a change. And we’re anxious to see how those newly elected board members perform.
“And you can bet we’ll be in their ear, on their doorstep, at their side, charging them with the only thing that matters in all this: making decisions based on the success of our city’s teachers and students. That’s a place where we feel comfortable participating. There are plenty of people representing politics and adults’ agendas. There’s always room for one more student/community advocate.”
Peggy Biga is involved in a pilot outreach program connected to the UAB biology department to encourage science education — through science fairs — at public schools in Birmingham, helping increase minority engagement in science and math in college and eventually, the workforce.
The program started this year at Putnam, a nearby middle school. If the program works, Peggy said she hopes to see it spread to other schools in the city, beginning with the other schools in the Woodlawn Innovation Network — a planned system within the Birmingham schools designed to incorporated science, technology, engineering, art and math into a curriculum for kids from kindergarten to 12th grade. The goal of the WIN plan — currently before the state board for approval — is to prepare students for college and careers. Schools included are Avondale, Oliver and Hayes elementary, Putnam and Hayes middle, and Woodlawn High.
“We’re targeting the Woodlawn feeder pattern because of the Woodlawn Innovation Network…because there’s already a movement to improve that feeder system as a start for all of the Birmingham City Schools,” Peggy said. The program has an added benefit to her: the WIN schools are in her community.
The parents interviewed for this story all said they view the whole community tied to their school as their community, and indicated that they had experienced little, if any, interpersonal difficulty because of their minority status in the school. While research on gentrification suggests that affluent families of one race moving into a community more segregated and less wealthy will sometimes cause racial or ethnic tensions to arise, the parents at Avondale said they have been welcomed by teachers and parents alike.
Building a diverse community that maintains its diversity is the goal, they said. And improving the school system as a whole — starting at the local level — can be a catalyst for positive change in the city. After listing a number of hopes for the Woodlawn Innovation Network, Whitney noted that such a program could be a turning point in Birmingham.
“Can you imagine,” she said, “a day when parents move their families to Birmingham city to get their children enrolled in a Birmingham City School?”