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Podcast Examines How 'Nice White Parents' Become Obstacles In Integrated Schools

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Hello again. This is the first time I've hosted our show since Labor Day while I've been tending to a family health crisis. I'm deeply grateful to my on-air partner Dave Davies for hosting the show while I've been gone, to our book interview producer Sam Briger, who also stepped up to record some great interviews and to everyone else on our team who has protected me from having to think about anything but family. And thanks to our listeners who have expressed concern and support. It will probably be a few more days before I'm back full time, but it's great to be back to work.

And now onto today's show - you probably know my guest Chana Joffe-Walt from her work as a producer and reporter on "This American Life." Now that protests against the police killings and beatings of Black men and women have led to a new chapter in the American conversation about racial justice and racial inequity, Joffe-Walt has a five-part podcast about why there's still so much racial inequity in our public school system. She says in previous reporting, she'd looked at some of the many programs and reforms we've tried to fix our schools - like standardized tests and charter schools, smaller classes, longer school days, stricter discipline, looser discipline. Her series focuses on the problems caused by white parents - white parents who say they want their kids to go to schools with diversity. That's why her series is called "Nice White Parents." It's the latest season of "Serial."

Along with Nikole Hannah-Jones, Joffe-Walt won a Peabody Award for their 2015 reporting on "This American Life" on education and school segregation. Her "This American Life" episode Five Women focused on one man accused of sexual harassment by examining his behavior from the point of view of five women. Her current podcast, "Nice White Parents," focuses on a middle and high school that was formerly known as the School for International Studies in the gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood Cobble Hill. Before gentrification, the students were Black and brown kids from poor and working-class families. When white parents started sending their kids to the school, Joffe-Walt found the school's priorities changed to suit the needs of the white kids from homes with more money. Some white parents and students thought that a bad school was being made better by their presence. It's a point Joffe-Walt makes in the first episode of "Nice White Parents" while she's taking us on a tour of the school.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "NICE WHITE PARENTS")

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: And down in the library, I met three sixth-grade boys - white boys new to SIS. They're sweaty from playing soccer and looking very small against their huge backpacks. These boys, even at 11 years old, they've absorbed the same messages - that SIS wasn't so good before. It was a bad school.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: And the kids wouldn't pay attention, and they had, like, zone out every little thing. And I bet they learned very little. And now this generation, with us, I think we're doing a lot better, and I think that we're learning at a much faster pace.

JOFFE-WALT: He and his friends, they've turned the school around. That's what he's learning.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: It's going to be one of, like, the top choices, like, already. And, like, the book - like, when you're applying to middle schools, you get, like, a book sort of, like on statuses and stuff. And I think this school is actually, like, really high up in the statuses.

JOFFE-WALT: Nobody calls it the book on statuses. They call it a directory of schools with info, like enrollment numbers for different schools, test scores and special programs. But I love that he calls it the book on statuses because this is what happened at SIS. The school had a bad reputation among white families, and then suddenly it was in demand. Its status had changed because of the white kids.

A powerful draw for white families into any school is other white families. When there are enough other white families in a school, you reach what one city calls a bliss point. This is a real thing researchers study - how many white kids are needed at a school to make other white families feel comfortable? That number, the bliss point, is 26%. That fall, white families were crowding the school tours at SIS not because the test scores had improved - the new scores hadn't even come out yet - but because the other white families made them feel blissfully comfortable.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: Chana Joffe-Walt, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on "Nice White Parents." We should start by acknowledging that a lot of students are doing remote learning now and the meaning of school has just kind of changed since the pandemic. So let's start by acknowledging that.

JOFFE-WALT: Yeah, my two are home.

GROSS: Yeah, right. Right. So what we just heard - is the bliss point something you heard reflected by other white parents?

JOFFE-WALT: Yeah. I mean, nobody used that term, but I think so much of the conversation that parents have about schools uses sort of proxy language when it comes to race in particular. I mean, the things that parents talk to one another about is test scores or programming or, like, is that school safe or the pedagogy, which obviously - and the school test scores, obviously all very important questions when you're looking at a school. But it's pretty rare that you'll hear parents talk about the race of the kids who are in a school when they're searching for a school to choose. I think that's especially true of white parents.

And even though we know that race influences parent choice in school - and you can see that in places where there is a lot of racial diversity, like the neighborhood around this school - the schools can still remain segregated. I think white parents are pretty savvy at evading the explicit conversation around race, although it's clearly shaping our thoughts about schools.

GROSS: You started reporting this story when you were figuring out where to send your kids. And you were living in Cobble Hill in Brooklyn, the neighborhood in which this story is set - you know, in which the school that you're reporting on is in. What were your options, and what were your priorities in choosing a school?

JOFFE-WALT: I went in knowing a little bit about schools 'cause I had been reporting on schools, although I still think now that I was fairly naive in thinking about what I wanted from school and the way I thought about public school. I think I just sort of - I wanted my kids to go to the school nearby. I had a romantic idea about my kids walking to school with all the other kids in the neighborhood. And it was important to me that the school was racially diverse.

And I had - so I had the choice of my zoned school - where I live, you can go to your zoned school; you also have a lot of other options. So depending on how much research you do and how interested you are in exploring those other options, you can apply. You can have your child tested at 4 years old in New York City to be - to qualify for a gifted and talented track. And if you qualify for that track, there are schools that have those programs in them that are outside of your zone that you can go to. There are other kind of specialty programs like that - magnet programs, there was a dual-language program that we looked at. So I looked at a couple schools. I didn't go super deep into touring.

GROSS: What were the tours like of the schools, and how were white parents sold? How were they being kind of recruited to join the schools when you were shopping around for your kids?

JOFFE-WALT: I mean, one of the things that was really surprising, although probably should not have been surprising to me, was how much it really did feel like shopping - going on school tours. So I would show up in a school building - you'd look up on their website when they have a tour. You show up at, you know, 9 or 10 a.m. So that's already a fairly self-selected group of parents who are able to show up on a Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. to do a tour of the school. And very often, the schools that I was touring, the people who showed up for those tours were white parents and sometimes Asian parents. And the kids in the building were very often Black and Latino kids, a large majority of the students were. And so we'd sort of follow an administrator around the school as this, like, group of white parents following an administrator - very often a person of color - who was telling us about their school and really selling, like really talking about, we have a partnership with the Lincoln Center and we do yoga and we have a dance studio and you're going to be comfortable in this way - and parents asking, like, all sorts of questions that parents want to know about schools, about homework and the food that they have in the cafeteria.

I did not, on any of those tours, hear anybody mention the race - that the sort of race of the people in the group touring the school was completely different than the race of almost all the kids in the school. And that felt the most stark, and in particularly two schools that we looked at that had gifted and talented programs. So they have a track - a separate track for kids who are in the gifted program. And those kids are in separate classrooms. And so we would, as a group touring the school, peek into one of those classrooms. And you would notice, like, oh, here's where all of the white students are in this school - not entirely, but very, very noticeable - and also that nobody noted it.

GROSS: And that the gifted and talented program was, in a way, creating a new form of segregation within an ostensibly racially diverse school.

JOFFE-WALT: Yeah, yeah. The one school that I did ask about the gifted and talented program, I think I asked in a not very explicit way. But I think I said something like, do the kids - don't the kids talk about that they're in the gifted and talented program? And the person showing us to the school said, oh, no, no, no. Don't worry. They don't know. They can't - like, we never talk about it. We don't refer to them that way. The kids don't know.

And the school that my kids go to now has a gifted and talented program. And was - it was in first grade that my oldest son asked, why are all the other white kids (laughter) in the - he doesn't know it's called the gifted and talented program, but he knows it's a different class and that the white kids seem to all be in that class.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, your series examines, you know, this whole idea of diversity in the school from two different points of view - one, from the white parents looking for diversity for their schools, for their children, and the other from the parents of the, you know, Black and Latino children who were already attending the school and see this more as, like, gentrification; like the white, wealthier people are moving in and changing the priorities to suit their needs and not the needs of the children who were already here.

And also, in terms of the dual perspective on this, the white parents that you report on see, like, diversity as a real priority. For the Black parents and the parents of Latino kids, of Latinx kids, they just want better schools. And they think that the better schools shouldn't necessarily require the presence of white students and the activities of white parents. Eve Ewing, who has - she's a sociologist who writes about public schools in America. She asked you at one point, why are you so obsessed with the idea of integration? What did her question do for you in terms of making you think about what integration means?

JOFFE-WALT: It was a super helpful question. And I really remember the moment that she posed it because we were talking for, you know, several hours of kind of laying out the story for her. And the assumption that integration was a goal was sort of - shot through everything that we were talking about. And so I remember when she said, like, what is it that obsesses you? Why are you obsessed with integration?

It took me aback, I think, because I have taken as an assumption in my own life and also in my reporting that, you know, integration is good. And integration is good partially because segregation is anathema to the American promise, and that it's a part of the mission of public schools that schools be places where kids of different backgrounds come together and develop, you know, what Horace Mann called fellow feeling and connection to one another.

And I think Eve led me sort of down a path of really just trying to understand better what it - where integration comes from, where the push for integration comes from. The push for integration in almost all early integration cases come from a desire for equal resources and equal access and equal opportunity. And that doesn't have much to do with sitting next to white kids in a classroom or, you know, benefiting from the presence of white kids. It is really about - yeah - access to quality education. And it's a means to an end. It's not the goal in and of itself. And I think integration in my mind, and in the mind of, I think, a lot of progressive, white parents, has been turned into kind of a virtue in and of itself.

GROSS: Well, let's take a break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Chana Joffe-Walt. Her podcast "Nice White Parents" is the current season of "Serial." We'll talk more about school segregation and attempts to create racial equality in our public schools after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT MCGINLEY'S "INTO THE ARCHIVES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Chana Joffe-Walt. Her five-part series "Nice White Parents" is the current season of the podcast "Serial." It's about how some white parents, even white parents who say they want integration and diversity, have ended up being obstacles to true equity in our public schools.

The school that you reported on, the School for International Studies, this wasn't the first time that white parents were interested in the school, in creating an integrated school in the neighborhood. You found a folder with letters from parents dating back to 1963, when the school was known as Intermediate School 293 and it was in the process of being built. And so what were some of the common themes in 1963 from the white parents who were writing letters to the city saying they wanted the school to be integrated?

JOFFE-WALT: The most familiar thing was the way white parents were talking about integration. And in the '60s, it was integration. And, I think, in 2015, the word was more diversity. But the letters - I mean, the letters felt to me really - I was really surprised to find them and felt sort of startling to imagine that there had been white parents in this neighborhood when the school was being planned who were surrounded by a civil rights movement and a kind of black-led movement for liberation and civil rights and had said, we want to be on the right side of history. We want to be part of this movement. We want to have an integrated school. And the new board of education - you're planning to build it in a place where it will inevitably be segregated. And you should put it closer to the middle of the two segregated neighborhoods so that it can be integrated, so that we can send our kids there and be part of integration.

I think in reading the letters, it wasn't as clear, but in talking to the parents, it was definitely clear that the ideas about integration then were very similar to the ideas about integration in 2015, that it was about a racial togetherness and harmony and that there was a sort of inherent virtue and value in just putting people in the same building with each other and that that itself was a worthy effort.

GROSS: One of the things that you found is - because you called a lot of the white parents who had written these letters. And the parents who you spoke to did not end up sending their kids to this school, even though they had pushed for the integrated school. Why didn't they send their children?

JOFFE-WALT: I heard a lot of different reasons about why people didn't send their kids. Some people left the city. And the school was being planned in the early 60s and opened in the late 60s. And so some of these parents had very young kids when they wrote these letters and joined the increasing number of people moving to the suburbs before their kids were old enough to have gone to a junior high school. And many parents who did stay in Brooklyn sent their kids to private schools.

GROSS: One of the things that you found is that the white parents back in 1963 who had advocated for integrated schools ended up not sending their children to the school that was integrated, but they ended up controlling where the school was going to be built, even though their children didn't end up going there. It was built in a location more convenient for the white children. Would you describe what happened?

JOFFE-WALT: Yeah, that still blows my mind. So this - I found this box of letters. And it's just letter after letter of parents from the white side of the neighborhood saying, we want integration. We believe in integration. We think the board of ed should follow through on its, like, empty rhetoric about believing in integrated schools and actually build the school in a fringe zone, which at the time was this idea of building fringe schools in strategically located places so that you could draw from two sides of segregated neighborhoods and integrate them that way. In New York City, that was possible in lots of neighborhoods. And they were arguing for the school to be a fringe school.

And in the pile of letters, there's this one letter from the tenants association for the Gowanus Houses, which is the public housing project that actually is the reason the school is being built. So there is this new, fairly new public housing project with more than a thousand families. And the board of ed recognized that it needed to increase school capacity in the neighborhood and so was planning this building because of that. And the white parents said, put the school in the fringe zone so that it can serve both communities. And the tenants association from the Gowanus Houses wrote to the board of ed to say, we actually want the school here. We want the school near where our families live so that it can serve the people who will actually go to the school and will provide desperately needed facilities. And we want the facilities.

So school, you know, is a place to get an education and is also often a place for people to gather and use the yard and use the basketball courts. And families from the Gowanus houses wanted that to be close by and wanted their kids to have a safe passage to be able to get to that school. But the school - but in the end, the board of ed built the school where the white parents were asking for it on the fringe, and then none of them sent their kids there.

GROSS: And the kids from the housing project had to walk several blocks further to get to school every day.

JOFFE-WALT: Right, yeah.

GROSS: Well, let's take a break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Chana Joffe-Walt, the reporter on the five part series Nice White Parents, which is the current season of the podcast Serial. After we take a short break, we'll talk more about the role of white parents in creating diversity in our schools and in being obstacles to racial equality in our schools. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERLIN RILEY'S "RUSH HOUR")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Chana Joffe-Walt. Her five part series, Nice White Parents, is the current season of the podcast Serial. Serial is now part of The New York Times. Nice White Parents is about attempts to integrate our public schools and how white parents who say they want integration and diversity often become obstacles to true racial equity. Joffe-Walt is a reporter and producer for This American Life.

You have a terrific example of the conflicting needs and desires of the two economic classes in the school that you report on and at the school that was formerly known as the School for International Studies, SIS, a middle school high school. And while white parents were being pitched and marketed to to send their kids to this school, somebody named Rob Hansen, who lives near this school, was considering sending his kid, suggested, well, how about a French dual-language program? He was able to sell the school on that idea. And then he's a professional fundraiser. He fundraises for nonprofits. So he started fundraising for a dual-language French program. I want to play a clip from Nice White Parents. And this is set at a PTA meeting, a meeting of the PTA executive board. The co-president of the PTA, Imee Hernandez, who's Puerto Rican and grew up in Brooklyn, is attending, as is the principal of the school. And in this meeting, the PTA executive board is talking about how Rob has raised a lot of money, thousands of dollars for the dual-language program. But most of the people at this executive PTA committee didn't even know that it was happening. So, Chana, you start this off narrating what's going on.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "NICE WHITE PARENTS")

JOFFE-WALT: There are about a dozen grown-ups sitting on small plastic chairs around a classroom table, the PTA executive board. Principal Juman is here, too. Imee's leading. And the principal jumps in. She says she wants a minute to share how much the new fundraising committee had raised so far. Imee looks confused. Principal Juman goes on to say the new fundraising committee has had a lot of success.

JILLIAN JUMAN: But total, they have raised, according to Rob, about $18,000 And then we just had a donation from a family a couple weeks ago who want to be anonymous that they're going to give either five to 10, 10 grand in December. So this is big money.

JOFFE-WALT: People seem unclear what to do with their faces. This is good news, right? But also, wait. What's the fundraising committee to pay for? Imee turns to her husband, Maurice, a retired cop. Maurice is also the treasurer of the PTA because when he retired, his wife told him he couldn't just sit around at home. Maurice shrugs at Imee, doesn't seem to know anything about this new money. Imee turns back to Principal Juman. So can we use that money?

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "NICE WHITE PARENTS")

IMEE HERNANDEZ: That was the question - if the PTA can have access to this money because I know already, like...

JUMAN: But what is the PTA? So that's also the question that keeps going around. So this $18,000 Rob has raised under the umbrella of PTA.

JOFFE-WALT: That's Principal Juman.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "NICE WHITE PARENTS")

HERNANDEZ: OK.

JUMAN: So - I think.

HERNANDEZ: But who's got it? Where's it going? Like, yeah, this PTA member don't know nothing about it, so...

(CROSSTALK)

MAURICE HERNANDEZ: So how can that be accessed for Mr. Negron...

JOFFE-WALT: Maurice asks, how can that money be accessed for Mr. Negron, who wants new gym uniforms, or Mr. Lowe to get his microscopes?

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "NICE WHITE PARENTS")

HERNANDEZ: I mean, God bless Rob. And more power to him.

JUMAN: Yeah.

HERNANDEZ: But he's not an official member.

JUMAN: Right.

HERNANDEZ: So I think that's what makes it confusing, at least for me. You know, he is a PTA member because he's a parent. But he's not part of the executive board. So I think that's what makes it...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's probably true.

HERNANDEZ: Yeah, it makes it tricky. I mean, and, again, I'm not...

(CROSSTALK)

GROSS: That's a clip from Chana Joffe-Walt's podcast series Nice White Parents, which is the latest season of Serial. So the fundraising that Rob Hansen was doing for the French dual-language program - that money was only for that program. That's the way a lot of, you know, grants and donations work - that it's assigned to one project. So what are some of the other needs in the school that were getting ignored? Because all of the money that he was bringing in was going for this French dual-language program.

JOFFE-WALT: It wasn't always clear that all of the money that the new families - Rob and other white parents - were raising was explicitly for the French program. It was clear that the people who were contributing money, including a connection to the French Embassy, that that was out of an interest in having a French program and expanding French language in public schools. But as you can hear in that meeting, like, the communication about it just wasn't super clear. In that meeting, people brought up stuff that they bring up in schools all the time - like, the gym teacher wants school uniforms, and we want to raise money for that. And the science teacher would like to have some new microscopes. And these are things that parents have heard from teachers that they want. There's nothing wrong with having, you know, a foreign language being taught in a school. It just wasn't done in a way that - it was sort of arbitrary that it ended up being French language because the parents who were coming in had asked for it. And I think the parents who are already there would've been, you know, fine with supporting that had they felt involved in the decision. I really think it was partly just that they had not been - they felt like they had not been considered.

GROSS: Was there a lot of resentment that, you know, the new white family or families were creating this priority without the participation or even knowledge in some cases of other members of the PTA and other parents in the school?

JOFFE-WALT: Yes. Yeah. I mean, there was mixed feelings, though not everybody - but there was definitely some skepticism that turned into resentment that turned - like, that kind of deepened over the course of the year when it became clear to parents like Imee that these conversations had been happening actually all the way earlier in the summer and that there had been a lot of coordination of the parents who came in.

The one big other discussion that was happening that year was about creating a foundation - so still about fundraising. But there was an interest among some of the new parents to create a foundation within the school, a school-based foundation - so a way to raise money that - where the school could go to larger donors and companies and get bigger money. And there was definitely tension around that, in part because in the same way that people had skepticism that the French Embassy was going to be really interested in what the needs and interests of everybody in the school was, when it started to be like, we're going to go to Microsoft, and we have a meeting with Apple, and we're talking to these different companies. There was concerned that the interests of those companies and whatever programs they were going to be interested in were going to drive the agenda at the school.

GROSS: Is it fair to say there was a sense of entitlement, too, that - like, the white parents had contacts. They could contact the French Embassy. They knew wealthy people who were willing - they knew Francophiles who were willing to, like, donate money to this as opposed to just, like, cupcake sales or something. So because of their contacts, because of the power that they had, they were creating the priorities and raising the money. And, again, it seems like - from a lot of the Black parents and Latinx parents, it seemed like a loss of control.

JOFFE-WALT: Right. Right. So it wasn't always an objection to whatever was being proposed. Like, you know, Microsoft is going to give us more computers - great. It was an objection to the sort of we're - we have access, we are the ones who are bringing in these resources and interest from outside of the school, and a fear that that meant that for the parents who were there, that they were going to lose power and voice in a school that they had chosen and, for many of them, really liked already.

GROSS: OK. Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Chana Joffe-Walt. Her podcast "Nice White Parents" is the current season of "Serial." And "Serial" is now part of The New York Times. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MATT MCGINLEY'S "THE BLISS POINT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Chana Joffe-Walt. Her five-part series "Nice White Parents" is the current season of the podcast "Serial." It's about how some white parents, even white parents who say they want integration and diversity, have ended up being obstacles to true equity in our public schools.

The school that you reported on, this wasn't the first time that white parents were interested in creating an integrated school in the neighborhood. You found a folder with letters from parents dating back to 1963. I want to play a clip with one of the women who pushed for an integrated school and ended up not sending her child there. And she had been a public school teacher who taught in an integrated elementary school until she had her own children. Her name is Elaine Henchy (ph). And you spoke to her by phone. And here's what she had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "NICE WHITE PARENTS")

ELAINE HENCHY: I mean, one of the problems is that many of the white kids had higher sort of academic skills. They could read better. They, I think - I mean, if - the white kids knew how to read in first grade. And I guess there were Black kids who also could. But it just seemed as if most of the Black kids, you know, didn't really learn to read. But...

JOFFE-WALT: But part of - I mean, part of the vocal complaints of Black parents at this period of time was that their kids were not learning how to read because schools were segregated. And their kids were kept in schools that were inferior. And that was part of the argument for integration...

HENCHY: Yes. Yes.

JOFFE-WALT: ...That their kids were not going to get the resources and quality teaching and good facilities unless they were in the same buildings with kids like yours.

HENCHY: Right. I don't know what to say to that. I just - I guess I just began to feel that things looked really difficult for these kids. Schools were not made for them. If the schools were made for them, with their background, what would they be like? I think there was - and that's another whole thing. I don't know about it. I think there was sort of anger in the Black community at the white community. A lot of the teachers were white. There were more white teachers, I suppose.

People said that that was racism. And, of course, it was racism. But maybe the kids were a little angry at the school. I wouldn't - I couldn't fault them for that. But on the other hand, then they don't get as much from the school. I don't know. I thought the problems were kind of enormous. And I guess I just - at one point, I decided that my kids should go on to Brooklyn Friends. And, I mean, we could afford to pay for it. (Laughter) It wasn't easy, I mean, you know? But...

JOFFE-WALT: Did your feelings about integration change? Like, did you believe in it less?

HENCHY: Maybe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HENCHY: I think I would have said no, theoretically. But maybe they did. But I guess I saw it as a more difficult project then. I sort of - I did back off from it. I didn't...

JOFFE-WALT: Yeah. It felt, when you guys wrote these letters, like this is - integration is this exciting ideal and we can be part of it, and it's going to be a meaningful project that's also going to be kind of easy?

HENCHY: I certainly didn't think it would be so difficult. But I was innocent, you know? I don't know. I still believe in it, I do.

GROSS: When she says there, I was innocent, you think she really meant, I was naive?

JOFFE-WALT: Yeah. Yeah. And I think she was. And I think a lot of progressive, white parents - nice, white parents - have - share this with her. I definitely recognized myself in what Elaine was describing as a sort of attachment to this ideal of racial togetherness and a desire for that to happen without it asking much of me or costing me much.

GROSS: What were some of the hardest things for you in getting people to talk honestly with you about race? I think, for a lot of people, it's really - and, maybe, particularly for white people, it's difficult to talk about race and racial inequity.

JOFFE-WALT: Yeah. I mean, it was so - it definitely was more difficult with white people. I did not have the same problem getting lots of people of color to talk to me, although there was, like, a question of what I was doing and who I was. But I think that there was much more comfort in those conversations.

I think partly, I had to work really hard on being direct. I mean, the conversation that you played with Elaine, who was the only person who wrote letters in the 1960s who actually looked at the school and seemed like she was truly committed to this - some idea of integration and wanted to send her kids there and didn't - you know, we spoke once, and I listened back and was like, whoa, I totally chickened out. Like, I was just a coward in that conversation and didn't ask her directly all these things that I was wondering.

And I, myself, didn't kind of have the comfort to have conversations with other white people about the choices that we make. I think I was much more practiced at the conversation about schools where you say, like, yeah, we wanted to go there, but it was just so chaotic and we couldn't. And you're like, oh, OK. Yeah, get it. And you move on. You know, you just sort of accept the ways in which we excuse ourselves from our commitments and obligations to schools so easily. So I think in part, I just had to really work on explicitly naming a lot of the thoughts that I was having in my head and questions that I was having in my head and feeling more comfortable asking them and following up when somebody said something that, like, kind of made sense but sort of felt like a little bit of a shield.

GROSS: Finally, Chana, what's it been like for you to have your children learning at home during the pandemic? I mean, you've been studying schools, reporting on schools for years. And now the school for your kids is your home, and the responsibility to help them learn long-distance is yours and your husband's. So tell us what that's been like for you.

JOFFE-WALT: I've learned that I forgot a lot of math.

GROSS: Yeah.

JOFFE-WALT: And...

GROSS: I relate.

JOFFE-WALT: I think it's just made me think about what schools are for. What do I want them to get from school? And you do have a very, like, close view of what they are actually learning in school.

And for me, I've just mostly, like, missed - I really value the - just the socialization of being in a school. And that is - though I think in terms of reading and writing and, you know, continuing to be curious and engaged - like, those are things I worry about, although I worry about them less than just their ability to learn how to be with other people and learn from other people who are not just us.

I think it's just miserable all around. I don't think anybody is like, remote learning is really awesome...

GROSS: Yeah.

JOFFE-WALT: ...And what I always wanted was for my kid to have, like, seven different passwords on Google products and sit in front of a computer all day. So I've heard a lot of stories about if you're able to work from home right now and your kids are doing remote school next to you, you're learning basically what they're going to be like as an officemate to somebody in the future.

GROSS: (Laughter).

JOFFE-WALT: And I have noticed that my older son hums the entire day, all day long. Like, Jacob (ph) is a person who kind of, like, quietly hums to himself, which I did not know before and is, you know, something that his future officemate will get to enjoy. So, yeah, you just kind of get to observe your kid in a new context.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much, Chana, for talking with us.

JOFFE-WALT: Thank you. It was fun.

GROSS: Chana Joffe-Walt is a producer for "This American Life." Her five-part series "Nice White Parents" is the latest season of the podcast "Serial," which is now part of The New York Times. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.