Saturday, April 30, 2016

Flight For Diversity in West Windsor, New Jersey?

My last blog looked at the cultural impact of gentrification and the economics of real estate on some sections of New York City.

Today let's switch gears and turn our focus 68 miles south of New York City to the rapidly-changing suburbs of West Windsor, New Jersey where demographic shifts that fall along racial and ethnic lines are giving rise to a different kind of community tension.

I graduated from West-Windsor-Plainsboro High School South back in 1987, my family lived there from August, 1985 until about September 1996 after we sold our house just off of Village Road in the wake of my father's passing in June of '96. 

When my family moved to West Windsor in the summer of 1985, the demographics of the community and the schools at the time were mostly white, but given the upscale nature of the area, even then it was still fairly diverse.

In real estate, the old adage "location, location, location" pretty much sums up West Windsor.

The Township sits on about 26 square miles of flat former farmland about 10 or 15 minutes from downtown Princeton, and the Princeton Junction train station makes it an ideal location for professionals who commute to work in New York City, New Brunswick or Philadelphia via Amtrak or New Jersey Transit.

My mother earned her masters degree in education and worked in the public school systems in Philadelphia and Montgomery County, Maryland over the course of her career, and was also very actively involved with parent organizations in West Windsor when my younger brother Steven and I were students there.

She estimates that in 1985 West Windsor-Plainsboro schools were about 88% white, 6% African-American, 4% Asian-American and maybe 2% divided between Hispanic-Latino, Native American and what would be considered two or more races or "other" - an inaccurate term I don't like to use.

West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South
Today it's estimated that a culturally diverse mix of Asian-Americans make up well over 50% of the resident population of West Windsor, including the Township's current Chinese-American Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh.

African-Americans now comprise about 3% of in a sprawling upscale suburban community that boasts a nationally-recognized, high-achieving public school system with about 9,700 students.

According to data from a 2014  US News & World Report ranking of the nation's top 100 STEM high schools, WWP South HS ranked 19th and the student population was 58% non-white; breaking down to 45% Asian-American, 42% white, 6% African-American,  6% Hispanic and 0.1% categorized as "two or more races".

The rapid demographic shifts sparked by the huge influx of Asian-American families into the community of West Windsor in recent years have changed the cultural fabric of the community.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a huge advocate of the value of diversity for any community, my intent here is to try and convey a sense of how fast and significant the cultural changes in West Windsor have been.

When my family moved there in 1985, if you drove around West Windsor or went to the store or the gas station, most of the people you saw were white. Today, if I drive through West Windsor, it's common to pass some of the sprawling developments with large houses and see people of Indian, Pakistani, Chinese or Korean descent walking along the sidewalks or working in their yards.

Princeton Junction Train Station
About a year and a half ago I drove to the Princeton Junction train station to pick up my sister who'd taken a New Jersey Transit train in from New York City.

It was the rush hour when the driveways are packed with vehicles picking up family members and friends who commute in from New York or Philadelphia.

When the train arrived and passengers began emerging from the stairs to waiting rides, the vast majority of people were Asian-American.

It was an almost total reversal of the racial / ethnic make-up of West Windsor back in the late 80's, the same kind of reversal that you see in local stores like Wegman's or Shop-Rite.

In recent years this demographic shift has caused conflicts between parents of West Windsor students about the nature, purpose, expectation and quality of education in the public school system.

These tensions made national headlines last fall when the superintendent of the West Windsor school district David Aderhold sent a 16-page letter to parents warning them that the quality of life and health of the students was being negatively impacted by the exponential demands of increased homework and academic pressure to keep up with the demands of parents for students to take more Advanced Placement (AP) courses, supplemental advanced math courses and extracurricular activities to improve student's chances to get into the nation's top colleges; for example between 2013 - 2015 at least 16 different WWP South seniors were accepted at M.I.T.

WWP School District Superintendent David Aderhold
Aderhold (pictured left), rightfully concerned that West Windsor might potentially become like communities such as Palo Alto, California where large numbers of students taking their own lives in response to academic pressure to succeed was creating "suicide pockets", called for steps like homework free nights and limits on the numbers of AP courses students could take in a given semester -he also eliminated midterm exams.

Many Asian-American parents, some of whom intentionally exert pressure on their children to succeed academically, were upset over the letter and as Kyle Spencer reported in a December 25, 2015 article in the New York Times a contentious school board meeting was held.

As Spencer's article details, at that meeting white parents occupied one side of the room and Asian-American parents occupied the other side; a symbolic representation of the cultural divide that's taking place in West Windsor.

Click the link above and read the article to get a better sense of how the increased nature of the hyper competitiveness in the classrooms and the rifts being caused within what's traditionally been a tight-knit community.

I wanted to share an interesting discussion I had with my best friend Will the other week.

We graduated high school together and he grew up in West Windsor, in fact he lives in the same neighborhood where I lived in West Windsor.

Will knows two different families who've made the decision to move out of West Windsor because they believe the demographic changes combined with an alarming obsession on the part of some parents eager to see their children succeed in a highly competitive environment are having a negative impact on their children's social development, learning environment and esteem as students.

To be clear, the hyper-competitive nature of the West Windsor school system is now actually motivating some families to sell their homes and move to communities with solid schools with more racially and ethnically diverse student populations.  

Will is paying an average of $17,000 a year in local taxes.

He's got a neighbor, a white guy with a family that includes an older daughter near high school age and a younger child in elementary school who recently sold their home in West Windsor to move to New Hope, Pennsylvania just across the Delaware River to a smaller more diverse school system with lower property taxes.

Not because the West Windsor school system is becoming majority Asian-American, but because he wants his children to attend schools with a more racially diverse population rather than one that's almost all Asian-American.

Would the same guy make the same decision 20 years ago when West Windsor was majority white?  I don't know, I doubt it, but interestingly Will has another friend he knows who made the same move.

Now this guy is a very successful Korean-American guy who works for a large European-based global bank who decided to move his family from West Windsor to nearby Princeton in order for his son to have a more racially diverse class environment.

What's interesting is that as a 2nd generation Asian-American born in Queens, he is concerned about the fact the bulk of his son's classmates are Asian-American and he wants them to grow up in a community that is more racially diverse and more reflective of the overall U.S. population.

Now I found this pretty fascinating - high-achieving White and Asian-American professionals with the means to live where they want to, making the decision to move their families away from West Windsor to nearby communities that are more racially diverse.

No one, including Will, is going to fault parents for wanting the best for their kids.

But I know Will's son Joey. He's a smart, well-adjusted kid who, along with other kids in his elementary school class, are dealing with pressure from the parents of Asian-American classmates who send their kids to extracurricular advanced mathematics courses in order to prep them for AP classes in high school.

Joey is in 3rd grade.

There are Asian-American parents of kids in Joey's class who send their kids to after-school programs to study advanced mathematics who literally complain to the teacher (during class) that "they already know" the age-appropriate math that's being taught to the class.

So Will's son is dealing with pressure from parents who feel that their 3rd graders are being "held back" by teachers who are teaching a normal 3rd grade curriculum in a school system that's above the national average.

So literally, Joey, and other kids in his class, are finding their self esteem as students being impacted in a negative way by students who's parents are pushing them to master math skills that are one and two years ahead of their actual age.

As a result, Joey and other kids like him, are being made to feel awkward in their own classroom environment - for doing the work appropriate for their age level.

Now I'm not writing this to lambaste Asian-American parents in West Windsor; no way am I going to criticize parents who want the best for their kids.

But when I read New York Times article that quotes parents like former West Windsor PTA president Catherine Foley as saying that their fourth graders complain that "I'm not going to amount to anything because I have nothing to put on my resume.", it's clear that something is out of balance.

My impression is that the imbalance has less to do with racial-ethnic make-up than it does with the cultural expectations of a newly relocated populace comprised of people who are at once upwardly mobile and first generation middle-class American.

A lot is being written about how wonderful West Windsor schools are, in fact, Will tells me that adult peers have told him that West Windsor schools are actually being marketed to professionals in China, India and other countries as a desirable place for Asian-American professionals to live because of the quality of the schools.

That's not wrong, no more than people who've been priced out of living in Manhattan wanting to live in more affordable neighborhoods in Brooklyn creates demographic shifts.

But it does contribute to distorted perspectives, and in the same way people are forced to move from neighborhoods in Manhattan or Brooklyn, some people are making the choice to move from West Windsor, New Jersey.

Not because of the lack of diversity, but interestingly, to seek it.

3 comments:

Ala Aga said...

What place is “more diverse” than a town that has no racial majority like the current one? Lol.

The “more diverse” New Hope, PA? It's 95% white

Ala Aga said...

Newsflash, if you want a less anal and competitive environment, you don't change racial compositions, you change socioeconomic compositions. Aka, move to a less affluent school. Maybe even a failing school. But these parents of course avoid "those" schools for being "bad." Affluent, status obsessed, competitive soccer moms may not like having Johnny in a poor school, but they also can't handle Johnny not stacking up against Chang and Patel XD

Newsflash, affluent white parents are every bit as anal and competitive, just in different ways. Cause really, how different is filming Jacob's soccer games for college recruitment at age 9 different than Chang going to SAT tutoring after school? I went to an anal competitive affluent school that was 90% white. Same shit different colors. But I suppose white parwnts are more comfortable competing with fellow whites rather than "other" people.

Yeah, WW is "too Asian" and not diverse at like 50-60% Asian, but a 80-90% white school is "plenty diverse" for these parents 😏

Ala Aga said...

It’s funny that, in some people’s minds, more diverse somehow means less minorities. The ability of people to rationalize can be utterly amazing.

40-60% Asian (which includes groups not only culturally different but look nothing alike, e.g. East vs south Asians) is not diverse enough

70-90% white is plenty diverse

I suppose humans' ability to rationalize can never be underestimated