Zip Codes Still Matter
by Sonia Nieto on September 27,2016
My family’s slow ascent into the middle class began in 1957, when I was thirteen years old and we moved to East Flatbush, a middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn. For the first ten years of my life, we had lived first in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment in Williamsburg, and, later, a tenement building in Fort Greene, both largely poor and working-class communities. The move to East Flatbush was both positive and traumatic.
I had started first grade speaking only Spanish, but thanks to a patient teacher and my older sister Lydia, who had started school two years earlier, by the end of that year I had learned enough English to survive the English-only environment, the sole option for immigrant children who spoke no English. I was a good student, evident in all the glowing report cards my mother dutifully saved. But what was considered an excellent student in schools serving mostly poor Puerto Rican and African American students was not what was considered excellent in the middle-class schools I encountered when we moved to East Flatbush.
The neighborhood in East Flatbush was far different from those we had known before: here, we would no longer hear the cacophony of sounds and accents we had heard in Williamsburg and Fort Greene; here, the streets were tree-lined and quiet and, rather than fire escapes and empty lots, small front porches and postage-sized backyards provided our new scenery. But what was most different were the schools.
As I wrote in my 2015 memoir, Brooklyn Dreams: My Life in Public Education, I was completely unprepared for what awaited me. Not only did the schools look different from our former schools—with abundant resources, a curriculum that was a far cry from what we had been exposed to in our previous schools, and only White classmates—but our new schools also had different expectations. Years later, my sister wrote “I Remember,” a poem about this difference (Cortes 2000). Lydia had been a good student at Girls High School, a school serving primarily poor and working-class girls. When we moved, she transferred to Erasmus Hall High School, at the time one of the most highly regarded public high schools in the city. The transition was a grueling one. In her poem, Lydia wrote,
I remember going from Girl’s High to Erasmus Hall
I remember going from smart to borderline in one day…
Even today, these lines might well describe the experience of going from schools in poor neighborhoods to those in middle-class neighborhoods. As for me, I went from Junior High School 117 to Junior High School 246, two schools that couldn’t have been more different. At JHS 117, almost all the students were African American and Puerto Rican, with a smattering of students from other struggling immigrant families; at JHS 246, the students were middle-class, mostly White and Jewish and other second- and third-generation European immigrants fully assimilated into middle-class American life.
Stepping into JHS 246 on that first day in 1957 was the first inkling I had that schools in different neighborhoods provided exceptionally different educational experiences. It was there that I was to learn that one’s neighborhood too often determined the quality and kind of education one received. Zip codes were not in existence until several years later, so it was only when I became a teacher that I could give voice to the lesson I learned at JHS 246, that “zip codes matter.” Though I didn’t yet have the language for it, my experience at JHS 246 was an awakening. There, I went from being a student with a 90+ average to one whose first math test grade was 18. I went from having teachers who, even if they cared for us and tried to do their best, knew little about our backgrounds, families, and experiences, to having teachers who knew their students and students’ families intimately; from having teachers who had few expectations of us to those who would accept nothing but the best work from us; from undemanding and rote curriculum to engaging (although not yet critical or multicultural) options in the curriculum that made me eager to return to school every day. Given these conditions, by the end of seventh grade, my grades had mostly recuperated. But the lesson stayed with me until long after I became a teacher and, later, a teacher educator.
I wish I could say that, like the poodle skirts and transistor radios of the 1950s and ’60s, school outcomes based on where children live are a thing of the past. Unfortunately, however, zip codes still matter. Despite Brown v. Board of Education and other failed attempts to integrate our public schools, they remain stubbornly segregated by race, ethnicity, and social class, as are residential areas in most large and mid-size cities and suburbs. And these things are related. In a 2012 analysis of the connection between national and metropolitan data on public school populations and standardized test scores, Jonathan Rothwell discovered that in the 100 largest metropolitan areas, housing costs an average of 2.4 times as much (or nearly $11,000 more per year) near a high-scoring public school than near a low-scoring one. No wonder, then, that gross discrepancies in educational outcomes persist.
Exacerbating the situation, inequality in our nation has grown dramatically; it is even worse for children. In their 2014 annual report, the Children’s Defense Fund found that one in five children in the United States lives in poverty, with 40 percent of those living in extreme poverty. In addition, powerful vested interests, including the outsized influence of middle-class and wealthy parents, as well as of foundations and other organizations supporting the privatization of schools, keep children of color who live in poverty and white middle-class children in highly segregated schools. As well, quickie teacher preparation programs such as Teach for America end up doing more harm than good by placing enthusiastic (albeit inexperienced and poorly prepared) teachers in the neediest schools, something that would never be tolerated in middle-class schools.
I’d like to say I succeeded in school and in life simply because of my merit or my smarts, but I know from experience as a teacher, teacher educator, researcher, and parent that this isn’t the case. As I concluded in my memoir, “There is a long road ahead until true equity for students of all backgrounds is a taken-for-granted reality” (Nieto 2015, 254). I am luckier than most children who’ve attended schools in high-poverty areas because when I changed zip codes, I had opportunities not available to poor children. I know that I’m where I am today because my family just happened to move to a different neighborhood when I was thirteen. In that neighborhood, I had options I would never have had before, from honors classes to tutors, from engrossing curricula to an unquestioned assumption that I would, of course, go to college.
Zip codes still matter, and until our residential, political, and educational policies change to reflect this fact, grossly unequal outcomes will continue to exist. Our young people, and our nation, will be poorer as a result, never achieving that ideal of “liberty and justice for all” that we claim to hold so dear.
The State of America’s Children, Children’s Defense Fund (Washington, DC, 2014).
Lydia Cortés, “I Remember,” in Puerto Rican Students in U.S. Schools, ed. Sonia Nieto (New York: Routledge, 2000), 3.
Sonia Nieto, Brooklyn Dreams: My Life in Public Education. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2015).
Jonathan Rothwell, Housing Costs, Zoning, and Access to High-Scoring Schools, Brookings Institution (Washington, DC, 2012).