The New Reality for Suburban Schools

How Suburban Schools Are Struggling with Low-Income Students and Students of Color in Their Schools

by Jessica T. Shiller (Author)
©2016 Textbook XX, 156 Pages
Series: Counterpoints, Volume 473


Since the year 2000, the population of people of color and of poor families in the suburbs has been rapidly increasing, making these areas far more diverse than they were a generation ago. Along with the increase in diversity has come re-segregation, leaving some schools with very high concentrations of low-income students and students of color, while others remain mostly white. These re-segregated schools are often not well-prepared to deal with the issues their students face. In addition, they are often subject to strict accountability demands that focus on improving test scores. These conditions create a unique situation for schools serving high populations of students of color and low-income students, one that is strikingly similar to urban schools. The New Reality for Suburban Schools presents three case studies of inner-ring suburban middle schools coping with these issues. Although the principals and teachers were aware that students faced poverty and lived in increasingly racially and ethnically diverse communities, a variety of factors prevented them from using practices that would have addressed the students’ needs. As a result, these suburban schools did not provide much better educational opportunities to low-income students and students of color than their urban counterparts. Readers of this volume can learn how school leaders and teachers try to negotiate educational mandates while serving their students. The book concludes with suggestions for improving the ways these schools serve their students.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface. Why a Book About Suburban Schools?
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. Changing Demographics: The New Reality for Suburban Schools
  • Chapter 2. Barrow County: An Example of the New Suburbia
  • Chapter 3. Lanfield Middle School: Tension and Division in the New Suburban School
  • Chapter 4. Goodwin Middle School: Cultural Gaps and Resistance to Facing Them
  • Chapter 5. Oakwood Middle School: Teachers Who Can Connect but Don’t Expect Enough
  • Chapter 6. Conclusion: Where Do We Go from Here? Lessons from and for the New Suburban Schools
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index
  • Series Index

← VI | VII →Preface

Why a Book About Suburban Schools?

I graduated from a suburban New Jersey high school in 1989. My graduation class of 350 students was overwhelmingly white. When I went back in 2002 to attend my younger sister’s graduation, the graduating class looked different. There were still white students, but the arena where the ceremony was held was filled with people of color. As the names were read and the graduates crossed the stage, I was struck by how the student body had changed. There were so many Latino/Latina, South Asian, and African American students that whites were no longer the majority. My parents said that the town had changed as well.

I had not lived in the suburbs since I finished high school, so I was surprised to see diversity there. Like many of my peers, I was disenchanted with suburban homogeneity, predictability, and quiet. I wanted to be around diversity and activity and to be able to walk where I wanted to go. In the fall of 1989, I left for college in upstate New York, and by 1993 I was living in New York City. I never imagined going back. I also never imagined that the suburbs would change as dramatically as they had.

My parents and grandparents had the opposite experience. Growing up and living in Newark, New Jersey, for much of their lives, their stories could have been set in a Philip Roth novel. They left the city as soon as it started to diversify racially. Like so many whites in ← VII | VIII →the 1950s and 1960s, they fled to surrounding suburbs in search of a bigger house, well-paved roads, and neighbors who looked like them. My grandfather and father still worked in Newark, but we never spent much time there. It was a place that my family was happy to reminisce about, but Newark had changed too much for them since the 1950s and they could not relate to it anymore. They feared it.

By the time I was born, my family was living in a white, relatively affluent suburb only six miles from Newark. My early perspective was developed around an urban-suburban binary: Urban spaces were places where people of color lived, and suburban spaces were where white people lived. Urban spaces were poor; suburbs were affluent. Urban spaces were filled with crime, and suburbs were safe. Urban and suburban were polar opposites, corollaries of each other. Media reinforced this perspective. As I grew older, I became more aware of my surroundings and developed a more nuanced perspective, noticing affluent people of color who lived in the suburbs and wealthy and working-class whites who lived in the city. Still the overall binary was left intact. The suburbs appeared to be mainly white and affluent, and the city appeared to be mainly working-class people of color.

When I moved to New York City in 1993, gentrification was taking hold but had not hit the level that it had in the 2000s. There were still poor, middle-class, and affluent people and people of all races and ethnicities living in close proximity to one another. There were hundreds of languages being spoken. Many working- and middle-class people could still afford to live in the city. Soon that changed as gentrification, a luxury housing boom, and curtailment of public housing and section 8 programs would make real estate prices out of reach for so many families. The makeup of the city, especially Manhattan, would change dramatically and become more white and more affluent than ever before.

The suburbs were changing at that time, too. People who could not afford the city were moving to inner-ring suburbs. Suburbs were also receiving immigrants at increasingly high rates. As the cities were becoming more wealthy and more white, suburbs were becoming less affluent and more populated by people of color.

← VIII | IX →Over the 25 years since I finished high school, there was dramatic demographic change in the suburbs. As Amy Stuart Wells (2014) and her colleagues note:

Beginning slowly in the 1980s, the process of increasing minority suburbanization took off. During this time, growing numbers of middle-class black, Latino and Asian families left urban communities for the suburbs, seeking the lifestyle advantages whites had sought decades earlier—larger homes with yards, lower crime rates, less noise and dirt, and, the perception of better public schools. By 2000, nearly 40 percent of blacks were living in the suburbs. Suburbanization has also increased among immigrant families—mostly Latino and Asian and by 2000, 48 percent of immigrants were residing in suburban areas. (p. 3)

Suburbs rapidly diversified over the last couple of decades. They were getting more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and economic class, and as Stuart Wells and her colleagues found, “By 2006, the number of people living below the federal poverty line was greater in the suburbs than the cities” (p. 5). Given the massive demographic shift happening, I should not have been surprised to see the diversity in my sister’s high school graduating class in 2002. Yet I was. Many people still have the image of the suburb that has been etched into the American psyche by movies, television sitcoms, and novels. From Leave It to Beaver to the shows I grew up with such as Family Ties, the suburbs were depicted as lily-white and plentiful. The reality is quite different.

Suburbs Have Changed. Have Suburban Schools Changed, Too?

At my sister’s graduation, in 2002, I kept wondering: How did the teachers, most of whom were white (some of them were even the same teachers I had in the 1980s), teach the new students they encountered? Did the diversity among students present new challenges to the teachers and the principal? How did they change what they were doing in the classroom and in the school? Or did they change?

I was interested in those questions because at the time I was a teacher in New York City public schools. As a white teacher in a school filled with children of color, I realized that I was not only in a school ← IX | X →where the students looked different than me. I was in a “contact zone,” a “social space where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in the context of highly asymmetrical relations of power such as colonialism and slavery” (Pratt, 1991, p. 496). Being conscious of that fact was key to my development and success as a teacher. It made my social studies classroom a place where I was not the center. My classroom was meant to be a place for students to discover themselves, to see themselves in history, and to feel as though they had the ability to make history. I wanted them to have the experience of “seeing the world described with them in it” (Pratt, 1991, p. 506).

As a white woman from the suburbs, I needed to do a lot of learning and listening to be successful as a teacher. I needed to use culturally relevant teaching practices to engage my students, who were all low-income students of color. I needed to build relationships with them and their families. So, I imagined the teachers at my old suburban high school, to be successful, would have had to do the same.

This led me to think about how teachers in suburban schools faced the new reality of demographic change. To what degree have suburban schools, faced with the new reality of a diversifying student population, shifted their practices—inside and outside of the classroom—to meet the needs of their students? To what degree did principals and teachers view their schools as “contact zones”? What were the students experiencing?


XX, 156
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
race school reform minority
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XX, 156 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Jessica T. Shiller (Author)

Jessica T. Shiller (PhD., New York University) is an assistant professor at Towson University in Maryland. She was named 2011–12 PDK emerging leader in education and is the author of several publications, most recently «Preparing for Democracy: How Community-based Organizations Build Civic Engagement among Urban Youth,» which appeared in the January 2013 issue of Urban Education.


Title: The New Reality for Suburban Schools
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
180 pages