Could Black Flight Change a Model of Integration?

Selena Boyer grew up in Shaker Heights, a leafy Cleveland suburb known nationally for its magnificent historic homes, its diverse population and its high-ranking schools. Since the 1950s, when a group of neighbors banded together to voluntarily integrate Shaker Heights, the community has prided itself on supplanting America’s racial politics with its own successful race relations.

Black and white children are told they have an equal shot in Shaker, where multiculturalism is so much a core value that the largest club at Shaker Heights High School is a group focusing on positive race relations.

But when her son was born six years ago, Ms. Boyer, who is Black, worried that something was eroding. The gap between Black and white students was widening: At least 73 percent of Black eighth graders in the district were reading at or above grade level in 2011; by 2021, that number had dropped precipitously to about 27 percent, according to Ohio’s Department of Education.

Shaker Heights was no longer a first choice for many Black families, and a creeping exodus of Black families to neighboring towns was beginning to take shape. From 2000 to 2020, the Black population in Solon, another Cleveland suburb, more than doubled to nearly 12 percent from less than 6 percent.

American suburbs have long faced the issue of white flight, where white families pack up in large numbers as demographics shift and more residents of color move in. But in Shaker Heights, it’s Black families who are leaving. Many of them point to initiatives rolled out over the past decade meant to combat systemic racism in the classroom — good intentions that they feel have done more harm than good when it comes to their children’s academic achievement.

Though the dip in Shaker Heights’ Black population has been slight, the shift is noticeable in the public school system. In 2012, Black students made up just over half of students; they now make up about 45 percent of the population. In the same time period, the white student population grew slightly from about 37 percent to nearly 39 percent.

Ms. Boyer, 42, has spent 20 years teaching first grade in the school system; until recently, her husband worked as a baseball coach. They are both the product of Shaker schools, but four years ago, Ms. Boyer convinced her reluctant husband that it was time to leave. They purchased a 2,700-square-foot home in the Solon school district, with a sprawling backyard. They are among hundreds of new Black residents who have moved to Solon over the past decade.

Home values and school rankings exist as two sides of the same real estate coin. About 90 percent of American children attend public school, and higher school spending produces higher property values. Stronger school rankings, in turn, are often offered as justification for higher property taxes. And Shaker Heights, which is governed by the motto “A community is known by the schools it keeps,” has one of the highest tax rates in Ohio.

My own parents, white Jews, chose Shaker in the 1980s, hoping its schools would give me and my sister a high-caliber education alongside many different kinds of children. They felt that access to the schools justified the city’s property taxes.

Some wealthier Black families recently told me they have decided that Shaker Heights is no longer worth the money, threatening to rip the longtime fabric of a model community of integrated neighborhoods and schools. (Solon has higher-ranking schools, lower taxes and a population that is nearly 70 percent white. In Shaker Heights, white people make up about 55 percent of the population.)

Siobhan Aaron, moved out of the Shaker Heights school district to Twinsburg, a community 15 miles south of Shaker Heights, where the property taxes are significantly lower. She enrolled her son in private school.Credit…Daniel Lozada for The New York Times

“The parents who had the means and who were Black and with Black kids who were high-performing, they left Shaker,” said Siobhan Aaron, 42, who in 2020 switched her 16-year-old son Kareem to private school and then moved out of the district to Twinsburg, a community 15 miles south of Shaker Heights, where the property taxes are significantly lower.

Despite taking honors classes at Shaker Heights Middle School, where he was often one of only a handful of Black students in the room, Kareem was often stereotyped by administrators, who presumed that because he was Black, he needed extra help, said Ms. Aaron, an assistant professor of nursing at Case Western University. She worried that recent changes would further lower expectations for her son.

Dr. David Glasner, the district superintendent, said he tried to address academic segregation by eliminating most honors classes that were skewing white.Credit…Daniel Lozada for The New York Times

Dr. David Glasner, the district superintendent, said the goal was quite the opposite: Higher-achieving students would encourage their peers to rise.

“Our goal is to level up, not down,” said Dr. Glasner, 44, who is white. “Curriculum and instruction that works for gifted students is usually good for all students.”

Ms. Boyer said she was struggling to help students who didn’t have enough support at home. She was growing frustrated that nearly all the students performing below grade level in her classroom were Black.

“People can say we have all these diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives, but it is what it is. Look at the numbers. There are so few Black kids doing well,” she said.

Ms. Boyer still teaches in Shaker Heights; her husband is now a coach at Solon High School. Their son, 6, attends kindergarten in Solon; their daughter, 5, will join him next year.

The Gap

In dozens of interviews, Black and white Shaker Heights residents said the same thing: Shaker Heights appears integrated, but within its schools, where gifted and honors classes have long skewed overwhelmingly white, it is anything but. Data in the school district’s 2020-21 Strategic Plan Annual Report reveals that 31 percent of Black students did not meet competency requirements for 10th grade language arts, compared with 1.95 percent of white students; when it comes to eighth grade algebra competency, 60 percent of Black students didn’t meet the bar compared with 5.45 percent of white students.

In 2019, a damning Washington Post article laid bare the academic disparities between Black and white students in the school district.

Dr. Glasner, who previously served as Shaker’s interim high school principal and the district’s executive director of curriculum, had only been in his job for only a few months when the article was published. Not long after, he announced Forward Together, a jointly funded plan with both the city of Shaker Heights and the Shaker Heights Public Library. It included a proposal to relocate several elementary schools, bringing white students from the city’s wealthier neighborhoods into classrooms with Black students from lower-income households. Many residents protested, fearing it would lower home values and reshape their communities. Dr. Glasner said the plan will most likely be reworked.

Then in the summer of 2020, as racial reckoning rocked the entire country, Dr. Glasner announced that the district would try to eliminate segregated classrooms by ending academic tracking in middle school and transforming the high school’s tiered structure for class levels.

“We have an opportunity to reimagine what education can be in a way that is anti-racist,” he said. Part of his motivation, he said, is to keep high-achieving Black students in the district.

But many Black parents felt that poor implementation could lead to lower standards and said the school district disregarded their concerns.

Kim Harris, a mother who has two children who attend school in Shaker Heights, said the district should have consulted Black parents before making changes in the curriculum.Credit…Daniel Lozada for The New York Times

Kim Harris, who is Black and has three sons, ages 13, 16 and 31, has lived in Shaker Heights for 32 years. She said that the plan was put into place without properly surveying Black families. “It was assumed that de-leveling would help marginalized families, but I don’t trust that Shaker really had a good idea of what Black parents wanted,” said Ms. Harris, a library technician at Woodbury, Shaker’s districtwide elementary school for fifth and sixth graders. She is the founder of Shaker African American Moms Support, an outreach group for mothers. “I have a son who needs to be around serious learners. I needed him to be in that honors course.”

When she first moved to Shaker Heights, she bought a home in the heavily Black Moreland neighborhood, with a screened-in porch that she adored. But she wasn’t in love with the neighborhood.

She now lives in Shaker’s Mercer community, where nearly three-quarters of residents are white and where the average household income is $163,000. In Moreland, the average household income is $46,000.

For Ms. Harris, 52, Shaker was about climbing a social, economic and educational hierarchy when she moved there three decades ago from Warrensville Heights, a neighboring community whose population is more than 90 percent Black. “I knew other Black people who lived in Shaker, and they were the kind of people I aspired to be,” she said.

‘The Good Life’

Shaker Heights’ reputation was built by a rejection of white flight in Cleveland that began as Black people moved to northeast Ohio in droves during the Great Migration. In the 1950s, a handful of Black and white couples formed the Ludlow Community Association — a group that encouraged Black families to move in while also imploring white families to stay. The result was the first successfully integrated community in Cleveland, and one of the first in the nation. And for many years, it was considered something of a utopia. Cosmopolitan magazine in 1963 ran a feature called “The Good Life in Shaker Heights,” hailing it as the ideal American town. The New York Times, in 1975, described the city as “one of the country’s most dramatically successful, long-term ventures in racially integrated housing in the suburbs.”

My parents wanted to be part of such a community. I went to Shaker schools from kindergarten through 12th grade, and was a group leader in Shaker’s student group on race relations. Shaker, to me, always felt singular and exceptional — not just for its winding, wooded streets lined with elegant Tudors and colonials, but for the mission of equality that quietly informed every aspect of community life. In our desire for diversity, I felt we were all like-minded.

But not only was Shaker Heights integrated, it was affluent. In 1962, the U.S. Census Bureau declared it the wealthiest community in the country — a bedroom community to Cleveland’s scions of car making and steel. Its prosperity tapered off in the late 1960s, but in 1999, as I was entering my junior year of high school, the median household income was still $63,983, which would amount to $114,336 today.

The median household income now sits at $92,463, well above the national average of $69,021 but still a nearly 20 percent decline from two decades ago. The economic gap between Black and white residents is growing, too: when adjusted for inflation, the median incomes of a white family was $68,803 higher than that of a Black family in 2010, and is now $94,109 higher.

Judge Dan Aaron Polster, whose parents were original members of the Ludlow Community Association, said the widening economic gulf among Shaker Heights residents is forcing some residents to do soul-searching about just what sort of diversity they want. Judge Polster, 71, is a federal judge of the Northern District of Ohio and a lifelong resident of Shaker Heights. He is white. “There is a much bigger economic divergence than there used to be, and that creates some challenges. People vote with their feet,” he said.

Dr. Glasner said he is aware that some families, both Black and white, are unhappy with the changes he has put into place. But he believes they are in the minority.

“When I talk to families about why they live here and send their children to school here, they’ll often talk about the value they place on diversity. But when push comes to shove, that can be challenging,” he said in an interview at his office in Shaker Heights. “Change is hard. That is as true in Shaker Heights as it is anywhere else in this country or even in the world.”

He points to many longtime Shaker Heights residents, including some of my former classmates, who say they are not going anywhere.

Shyla Nims, 39, is one of them. A Black special education teacher who grew up in Shaker Heights, she came back after college and saved for years before buying a three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath home last year, with a den where her children, 1 and 8, play with trucks and make art.

Ms. Nims and I were in the same kindergarten class. The students she works with now, she said, have fewer resources at home than she and I did.

“These kids don’t seem to have the support that we did growing up, and they’ve been through a lot more trauma,” she said. But she’s committed to Shaker Heights — not just for herself, but for her children.

“My parents graduated from Shaker, so did I and my siblings. My daughter will be third generation and that was super important to me,” she said. “I still believe in everything that is here.”

‘Moving Up and Trying to Make It’

Several Shaker Heights brokers told me the housing market remains competitive. After all the median home price, $280,000, is up 10 percent from last year. But other Cleveland neighborhoods have seen a more significant spike in home prices; in Solon, the median home price is now $399,000, up more than 15 percent from last December.

Shaker Heights now has more renters, too: Over 65 percent of Shaker residents owned their homes 10 years ago, by 2020 it was just shy of 61 percent.

As is the case throughout America, the city’s lower-income residents are disproportionately Black. Like Black students in districts across the country, they also receive a disproportionate share of discipline, which ricochets into higher suspensions and lower grades, studies have shown.

And as the gap between Shaker Heights’s Black and white residents has grown, some Black residents want to distance themselves.

“There’s a group of African Americans that have achieved and have it together. And then there’s the group that’s still caught in not having achieved,” said Ms. Harris. “And I come from the mind-set: Separate yourselves at all costs from the ones who might still be struggling.”

Parents I interviewed said they are not elitist or classist; they just want the best for their children.

“If you look at Black culture in America, it’s all about moving up and trying to make it,” said Faisal Khan, 42, a biracial attorney who grew up in Shaker Heights. He moved back to his hometown in 2014, and he and his wife, Angela, purchased a 100-year-old five-bedroom French Tudor home for $360,000.

Their daughter, Amina, 9, is in the third grade at one of Shaker’s elementary schools, and has had only positive experiences in the school district. But Mr. Khan said that if Amina’s experience changes as she gets older, he would consider private school or another district.

“Most of the reports I get about the de-tracking that’s happening at higher grade levels are negative, because you’re no longer teaching to the top of the class,” he said. “It’s tough if you’re around folks that look like you but are not thriving.”

Mozella Colon, 48, lives in Shaker’s Lomond neighborhood, and her son, Carlos, is 12. She spent nearly a decade as a stay-at-home mother, volunteering as a room parent in Carlos’s classrooms, joining the parent-teacher organization and serving as vice president on the board of trustees at the Shaker Youth Center.

She loves Shaker Heights and she believes in its schools, she said. But she’s considering a nearby private all-boys academy for high school.

“I’ve got to put my money where my mouth is and my money is my child,” she said. “He’s my currency.”

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