SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio — It’s an article of faith in this Cleveland suburb: If any place can navigate the complex issues of race in America, it’s Shaker Heights. Sixty years ago, black and white families came together to create and maintain integrated neighborhoods. The school district began voluntary busing in 1970, and boundary lines were drawn to make schools more integrated. Student groups dedicated themselves to black achievement, race relations and cross-racial friendship.
So why, last November, was 16-year-old Olivia McDowell on the stage of Shaker Heights High School, begging the packed auditorium to understand how hard it is to be one of the few black kids in Advanced Placement English?
“I need answers,” Olivia said after escaping her seat, jumping onstage and taking the microphone out of the principal’s hand. She had ignored her mom’s admonition to keep quiet and, unable to suppress her rising anger, outed herself as the student at the center of a swirling controversy.
“It’s my education,” she said. “My education.”
Sixty-five years after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision declared segregated schools inherently unequal and ordered desegregation plans, many school districts remain deeply segregated. Racial issues are raw in many systems.
Yet in Shaker Heights, healthy race relations are a cornerstone of the community’s identity, the reason many choose to live here, a central organizing principle for the schools.
In the 1950s, the first black families arrived, an event that triggered white flight in so many other communities. In Shaker, white families knocked on doors and got to know their new neighbors. Founded as a wealthy and white enclave of privilege, Shaker reinvented itself.
Through it all, the schools built and maintained a reputation of excellence, sending large numbers of students to elite colleges and developing robust Advanced Placement and, later, International Baccalaureate programs. Theater and arts programs are top-notch. Students can take classes in French, Spanish, German, Latin or Greek, plus Mandarin, which is taught to all elementary school students. Last year, the high school sponsored seven international trips for students.
Taxpayers, including some of the wealthiest people in the Cleveland area, approved one tax levy after the next, driven by the slogan “a community is known by the schools it keeps.”
While some inner-ring suburbs flipped from virtually all white to almost entirely black over time, Shaker schools remain nearly half white and just over half black decades after the first black families moved to the city.
But the story of Shaker Heights shows how moving kids of different races into the same building isn’t the same as producing equal outcomes. A persistent and yawning achievement gap has led the district to grapple with hard questions of implicit bias, family responsibility and the wisdom of tracking students by ability level. Last school year, 68 percent of white 11th-graders were enrolled in at least one AP or IB course, but just 12 percent of black students were.
Racial achievement gaps in Shaker
Share of black and white public school students,
identified as on track
scoring average or
higher in English
in high school math
or physical science
scoring proficient or
higher in English
enrolled in at least
one AP or IB course
within four years
Source: Shaker Heights City Schools
KATE RABINOWITZ/THE WASHINGTON POST
Racial achievement gaps in Shaker Heights
Share of black and white public school students, 2018-2019
as on track
average or higher in English
Eighth-graders enrolled in
algebra I, geometry or
high school physical science
proficient or higher in English
11th-graders enrolled in at
least one AP or IB course
High school students
graduating within four years
Source: Shaker Heights City Schools
KATE RABINOWITZ/THE WASHINGTON POST
Racial achievement gaps in Shaker Heights schools
Share of black and white public school students, 2018-2019
Kindergartners identified as on track
Fourth-graders scoring average or
higher in English/language arts
Eighth-graders enrolled in algebra I,
geometry or high school physical science
Ninth-graders scoring proficient or higher
on English end-of-course assesments
11th-graders enrolled in at least
one AP or IB course
High school students
graduating within four years
Source: Shaker Heights City Schools
KATE RABINOWITZ/THE WASHINGTON POST
“Any time you break our data out by race, we look like two different schools,” said Chris Rateno, director of student data systems for the district, which is home to about 31,000 people and eight schools.
The racial tension coursing through the packed auditorium last November traced back to a tense exchange between Olivia and a veteran AP English teacher, Jody Podl, six weeks earlier. Olivia had been dozing in class, playing with her phone. Now, her first big assignment of the year was late. The teacher had admonished and embarrassed Olivia. Olivia’s mom fired off a three-page complaint, suggesting racism and charging bullying. The district put the teacher on leave to investigate.
The racism allegation was quickly dismissed, but on Nov. 6, two days before the community meeting, the district had reprimanded Podl, who is white, for bullying. Her fellow teachers were furious. Would they be accused of racism or bullying every time they told a student to do better in class? They arrived to the community meeting in force, wearing red union T-shirts.
“What happened to Jody (and is still happening to Jody) could happen to any one of you,” the union president said in an email encouraging teachers to attend the meeting.
And yet this is a district trying to raise the achievement levels of black students. Shouldn’t teachers do everything they can to encourage promising African American kids?
It’s a struggle close to my heart. I grew up in Shaker Heights and went to Shaker schools from kindergarten through 12th grade. I received an excellent education with many courses more challenging than what I would find in college. I took AP English and history, subjects that came naturally to me, but also AP math, struggling my way through calculus.
As a white kid in an integrated school, I thought Shaker was a special place that had gone a long way toward figuring out race. But how true was that? Over the course of more than two years, I talked with nearly 100 people — parents, students, teachers, administrators and community leaders, both black and white, and with my own high school teachers and classmates. Returning as a reporter, and walking the hallways of my old schools, I set out to understand with fresh eyes a place I’ve known my entire life.
‘An American dream town’
Earline Hooper’s youngest daughter graduated from Shaker Heights High in 1984, but she heard there was trouble at the school, found out about that Nov. 8 meeting and decided to attend.
Hooper, now 90, still lives in the house she and her husband bought in 1965. They were part of the early wave of African American families, and one of their daughters was in the first class of students bused to a mostly white elementary school across town. At the November meeting, she heard heartbreak, and her heart broke a little, too.
“There were some people that sat near me — did what I felt like doing — crying,” she said. “It was just that depressing. And my feeling was, has it come to this?”
Established in 1911, Shaker Heights was developed as a bedroom community for Cleveland, with rigid architectural guidelines and deed restrictions meant to keep black, Catholic and Jewish families out. It featured a rapid transit line to ferry workers downtown and manicured man-made lakes. In 1960, it was reportedly the wealthiest community in America, with Tudor mansions and expansive colonials lining certain streets.
“Here is the inside story of an American dream town come true,” boasted Cosmopolitan magazine in 1963. The magazine noted a range of housing, including some rentals, but reported a near absence of poverty or unemployment.
Cosmo hardly mentioned it, but in the early 1950s, black families began moving into Shaker, many to a middle-class neighborhood called Ludlow, bordering Cleveland. The first reaction was hardly welcoming. In 1956, a bomb exploded at the site of a home being built for John Pegg, a prominent black attorney, and his wife, Dorothy.
No one was hurt, but the incident jolted white neighbors and set off a drive for integration. White and black neighbors vowed to get to know one another and formed the Ludlow Community Association for socializing and strategizing. The group encouraged and helped finance white families to buy in the neighborhood, and fought off predatory real estate agents seeking to scare them away.
The association’s work morphed into the Shaker Housing Office, which would show homes for sale, but only to families who would improve the racial balance in a neighborhood. As a practical matter, this meant encouraging white buyers and discouraging blacks. To try to stave off white flight, the city banned “for sale” signs on lawns.
Ludlow remained integrated for years, but by the late 1960s, Shaker realized that Moreland Elementary School, the school attended by the Hooper children, had become almost entirely African American.
John H. Lawson, then superintendent of Shaker schools, made the case that integration was needed to ensure all children received a great education. He began touting a busing program that became known as the Shaker Plan.
My mother didn’t have any school-age children yet, but she recalls being at a community meeting and speaking in favor of the plan, which drew national attention as a rare case of voluntary integration. Some feared that property values would fall, or that transportation would be too expensive, but the program began in 1970 with widespread support.
Black students from Moreland were bused to mostly white elementary schools, and vice versa. In the 1980s, Shaker closed several elementary schools and redrew the boundaries to racially balance the remaining buildings.
Hooper says she and her husband did not hesitate to bus their daughters to Malvern, a mostly white school on the wealthy side of town. But she had been a Girl Scout leader at Moreland and wondered if the white parents would let their daughters join an integrated troop. They did.
‘Unfortunately, those statistics are valid’
Reuben Harris was not in the high school auditorium the evening of Nov. 8, although he watched the spectacle online later. It felt familiar.
By the mid-1990s, integration was well established in Shaker Heights, but so was an unsettling racial achievement gap the district wasn’t talking about. Then came Project Achieve, a committee of parents, teachers and community members formed to dissect the district.
Harris, who is black and whose daughter was then in the Shaker schools, served on a subcommittee on achievement that broke down data by race. He assumed there would be disparities. He was right.
The report, finalized in March 1997, found that whites made up about half of all students but 93 percent of those in the top 20 percent. Black students made up 82 percent of those who failed at least one portion of a state proficiency exam. Of all grades earned in core high school classes by black students, about 40 percent were a D or an F.
Shaker was portraying itself as high-achieving — and that was true, for some. No one wanted to talk about the lower achievement levels of black students, fearing the community reaction. “There was this hush-hush about it,” said Scott Stephens, the district’s spokesman.
Once the data was public, black students and parents became furious. Some felt they were being painted as academic losers. At a community meeting, the crowd was in something of a frenzy when Harris took the microphone.
“Unfortunately, those statistics are valid and are accurate,” he said. He tried to turn the question around: “What are you going to do to change those?”
“For me, it was painful — to see the reaction of students and parents,” Harris said in a recent interview. “Not unexpected, but painful.”
The reasons for low achievement are complex. Some black parents detect teacher bias. Almost every black parent seems to have a personal story.
Mark Joseph, an African American professor at Case Western Reserve University, recalled a parent-teacher conference for his son, then in middle school, where a teacher was puzzled when Joseph asked how they were going to get his son to the next level. “Malik’s above average. What are you asking?” she said, according to Joseph.
“I wondered, is she saying this to white parents also?” he said.
Ayesha Bell Hardaway, an African American member of the school board and a 1993 graduate of Shaker Heights High, remembered being told by her ninth-grade honors English teacher that she should drop down a level “because African American students don’t do well in honors and AP.”
Then, she told me who that teacher was. I was stunned to learn it was the same teacher I had, and loved, for AP English. Sheepishly, I called my former teacher, who had left the district years ago, to ask about that conversation with Hardaway nearly 30 years earlier. She said she didn’t remember it.
‘It’s time to take action’
For 24 years, the district was led by Mark Freeman. Freeman, who is white, speaks with pride about his work to integrate school buildings. Over that span, Shaker tried to tackle the racial gaps.
The Student Group on Race Relations formed in the 1980s to foster black-white relationships. The Minority Achievement Committee crowned MAC scholars, high-achieving black boys to serve as role models. Black students were encouraged to join study circles. Outside experts were imported to study Shaker schools.
But in interviews, Freeman seemed somewhat resigned to segregation within buildings. Asked if there was a solution to the achievement gap, he set a high bar: “Eradicate racism and eliminate poverty.”
He was well aware that advanced classes were dominated by white students, while regular college prep, or CP, courses were dominated by black students. The disparity was so obvious that some African Americans joked that CP stood for “colored people.”
In 2000, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights investigated a complaint about racial disparities in AP enrollment. Freeman said his response was: “Okay, what do you want us to do? What do you suggest?” The district entered into an agreement vowing to fix the problem.
By the time Freeman retired in 2013, a growing contingent of parents was ready to see him go. Freeman describes himself as having “mixed feelings” about his departure.
The community signaled a desire for the next superintendent to focus on equity. They got it with Greg Hutchings, a black educator with a shaved head and a taste for bow ties. Hutchings spoke in a clip and didn’t mince words.
“In Shaker, we’ve been talking about diversity, we’ve been talking about equity for a very long time,” he said in his 2017 State of the Schools speech, announcing the start of an Equity Task Force. “It’s time to take action.”
The new superintendent found problems all over the place. Parent-teacher organizations were run “like sororities,” catering to white stay-at-home moms, with meetings in the middle of the afternoon. Parent-teacher conferences were scheduled during work hours, impossible for some parents to attend. Some of the best teachers taught only AP classes.
His Equity Task Force would ultimately recommend a policy called “targeted universalism.” It is meant to convey that Shaker will set high standards for all but resources will be targeted to make sure everyone can meet those standards. The board adopted the policy this spring, and the district followed up with small-group explorations of race and equity.
Shaker also began looking at informal systems that landed white children in advanced courses more often than black students. Placement was determined by test scores and teacher recommendations, but parents who knew to ask could get their kids into those classes. So Shaker made an open enrollment policy explicit.
To mitigate classroom segregation, Shaker sometimes combined kids of different abilities in the same classes. The district stopped letting parents request teachers and guidance counselors for their kids. And it encouraged teachers to consider whether their own biases were affecting how they worked with students.
Educators supported the goal, but some were put off by Hutchings.
“It was clear to the staff that he was blaming us for the gaps,” said Sarah Davis, a white social studies teacher at the high school who started a summer program called Bridges to help black kids prepare to take AP classes. She said what Hutchings billed as a listening tour with staff felt more like a “lecture tour.”
One teacher who complained about Hutchings’s leadership was Podl, the AP English teacher. They clashed over his decision to push out the high school principal, and she says he once called her into his office because her “body language” at a community meeting was “inappropriate.”
After Hutchings chose a new principal over the candidate Podl and many faculty members preferred, she was at a tense meeting between Hutchings and teachers. Podl said she must have reacted to something someone said because Hutchings “screamed, ‘Don’t you roll your eyes at me! That’s disrespectful.’ ”
“I was a little bit of a marked person” after that, she said. “For Greg, he just wanted people to agree with him, and if you didn’t agree with him, you weren’t on his side.”
Hutchings declined to discuss Podl but said he had tried to get teachers to understand their role in perpetuating the achievement gap. “We were at times blaming children. And that was my concern,” he said. “We can’t blame achievement gap issues on children we are hired to educate.”
Equity and excellence
Lara Mullen, a white mother of two sons in Shaker schools, sat in the auditorium at that November meeting and was disgusted, mostly with administrators.
She’d been annoyed from the start with Hutchings, and now the people he hired appeared to be botching things again.
The meeting had been called, supposedly, to introduce David Glasner as the interim principal of the high school. But the people in the room all wanted to talk about why the previous principal had been ousted, and about Podl.
Mullen supported programs to help boost kids who have untapped potential, but she had concerns with the equity push Hutchings had championed, as well as his personal style. Once, she said, he had berated her by phone for asking to see the résumé of a finalist for a top district job.
She was irritated at his move to bar parents from requesting certain teachers. She said each year she would talk with the teachers for the next grade up and consider who was the best fit for her boys. She rejects any suggestion that this system allowed certain parents to get the best teachers.
“I don’t get all the best teachers. I get the teachers who are right for my kids,” she said.
An ad hoc group of affluent parents had a growing list of concerns. Among them: Higher-achieving students would lose out if resources were shifted to lower-achieving kids. Honors and AP classes wouldn’t be as challenging if the district pushed in students who weren’t prepared. The schools might not be orderly if the district eased up on discipline.
Parental nervousness got the attention of Earl Leiken, who then was mayor of Shaker Heights. Leiken worried that if there was too much emphasis on children who needed the most help, wealthy families would leave for other suburbs.
He walked around with a pie chart showing that in 2015, 28 percent of the income tax dollars collected in Shaker were produced by families earning more than $500,000 per year and nearly half came from those earning more than $300,000. The suggestion was obvious: If those families leave the district, the economics of the place collapse.
In interviews, every one of these parents said they value diversity and wouldn’t live in Shaker if they didn’t. Some feared their views would sound racist in print and wanted people to know they weren’t.
“I love the fact that this is an integrated community,” said Kevin White, an investment banker and father of three, who is white. “My children all have friends of different races and backgrounds. That’s not possible when you live somewhere without diversity.”
But White said it’s critical that Shaker keep wealthy people satisfied or they might move away, taking their tax dollars with them. He said keeping them in Shaker benefits everyone, including people who need the most help.
“ ‘Equity’ may win votes, but if you really want to protect the tax base, your motto would be ‘excellence, excellence, excellence,’ ” White said.
“Equity means you’re picking and choosing who the heck you are focusing on,” said Jim Sammon, a white father with two children in the Shaker schools. “If you’re paying a lot of money [in taxes] and you think your kid’s not getting the benefit of it, why are you staying?”
Some feared the changes at the school were lowering property values. Adam Kaufman, a real estate agent who sells many expensive Shaker homes, said that’s not true. But he said Hutchings made his job harder.
“Shaker has always had the reputation as an affluent suburb. If you’re affluent, you live in Shaker Heights. The superintendent didn’t like that connotation. His motto was that we need to be known as being equal instead of affluent.”
A small group of fathers arranged a meeting with Hutchings to express their concerns that wealthy families would leave Shaker, and asking him to promote statistics showcasing high achievers. They came away frustrated that he didn’t seem to care.
They decided that the better course was to try to elect like-minded people to the school board, and in 2017 they successfully backed two white women.
In December 2017, Hutchings announced that he was leaving at the end of the school year. He had been offered what he said was his dream job — superintendent of the public schools in Alexandria, Va., his hometown.
Some were devastated, fearful that the equity work he had turbocharged would fall away. Some had long thought he was using Shaker as a steppingstone and said the announcement confirmed it. Others were relieved.
At his final school board meeting last year, Hutchings took a swipe at his critics, urging the board and others to ignore parents who complain.
“Most of my time is spent dealing with the ignorance that comes from adults,” he said.
‘What about the student?’
Herlinda Bradley did not want her daughter to speak at the Nov. 8 community meeting. “You will sit there,” she instructed Olivia.
On the way in, they overheard two white girls talking about how Podl, the English teacher, had been treated so badly. Inside the auditorium, they saw a huge show of support for Podl. Signs read, “Justice for Jody.”
Administrators were pelted with questions about Podl: Will the district investigate how she was treated? Why wasn’t she given the chance to defend herself?
“What about the emotional damage that’s already been done to Ms. Podl?” an elementary school teacher asked.
Olivia’s legs were shaking and she felt adrenaline coursing. Finally, she took the stage and said she was the girl Podl had admonished, the black girl in AP English who had fallen behind.
“I don’t want to get emotional, but I care about my education,” she said. “Why is it about the teacher’s feelings? What about the student? … What about the damage to a student when they’re, what, one of three, one of five black kids in their class because of the whole education gap that y’all have?”
The incident dated to the start of the school year. Most of the facts are not in dispute. Olivia admits she had been falling asleep in class and was playing with her phone. The first big assignment, an outline for a paper about “A Tale of Two Cities,” was due. She didn’t have it.
Standing at Olivia’s desk, Podl began asking questions. What English class had she taken last year? What other courses were on her schedule now? The teacher was trying to determine whether Olivia was overloaded. She warned that if Olivia didn’t improve her work, she might get a D. Podl says she was talking about a D on that assignment; Olivia recalls Podl threatening a D for the class.
Olivia was mortified that other students might have overheard the conversation. She kept her composure in the classroom but fell apart after excusing herself to go to the restroom.
After class, Podl called Olivia’s mom and learned how upset Olivia was. She went to find Olivia in her next class and apologized for upsetting her.
Teacher and student thought the incident ended there. But Olivia’s mother was furious and, 10 days later, dashed off a three-page letter of complaint to the district.
“To the class, Olivia is a poor performing African American student who may not be capable of achieving. How is this situation truly repaired?” she wrote. “Shaker constantly questions, why there are not more students of color in advanced classes? Mrs. Podl’s behavior is one example that helps to answer that question.”
Without first talking to Podl, the high school principal (soon to be removed from his post) put her on paid leave.
Mother and teacher agree that the district mishandled the allegation. Bradley says she didn’t want Podl removed from the classroom but figured the district must have had other allegations she didn’t know about. At no point did the school system bring the parties together to try to talk it out.
Podl says she can’t understand why she wouldn’t have been given a chance to defend herself before being put on leave. The allegations wounded her to the core. She’s known as a tough teacher — withering for some, beloved to others, but the kind who replies at midnight when a student emails. And Podl, a 1983 Shaker graduate, thought of herself as an ally to black students. She helped bring Facing History and Ourselves, a professional development program about racism and prejudice, to Shaker High. She added Bryan Stevenson’s book “Just Mercy” to her curriculum.
In fact, she and Olivia’s mother had participated together in a handful of racial equity events.
The district swiftly dismissed the allegation of racism. But it found other students who complained of bullying, and administrators declared Podl guilty and put a disciplinary letter in her file. The union took the matter to arbitration, complaining the district had denied Podl the right to defend herself. The district backed down and rescinded the letter, but it would not declare definitively that Podl was innocent.
In April, the arbitrator ruled in Podl’s favor. The district issued a statement saying it was “aware of the decision” and looked forward to “moving forward.” But Podl wasn’t ready to go back to the classroom.
“This has been kind of a gut punch to me,” she said. “My dominant emotion is sad. I just feel really sad.”
Bridging the gap
In 2016, the high school began a program called Bridges, which enrolled promising black students in a summer program to prepare them to take AP American history that fall. The program teaches study skills and creates a cohort of students to support one another.
On a Monday morning in June, just days after the school year ended, history teacher Brian Berger looked out at dozens of black faces and told them this program was an opportunity, not a penalty.
“You guys have been selected because you’re smart,” he told them. “Successful people work all year.”
Over time, Shaker’s challenge has grown tougher. That’s because economic gaps widened.
Thirty years ago, the median income for white families was almost double that of black families. By 2017, the typical white family earned nearly three times as much — more than $118,000 per year vs. about $43,000 for the typical black family, according to Census Bureau data.
Over the same span, the portion of black families living in poverty in Shaker Heights more than doubled, from about 6 percent in 1989 to about nearly 16 percent in 2017, according to census figures. The portion of whites in poverty inched up from 2 percent to 4 percent.
Nationally, researchers say lower achievement levels by black students can be traced to economics. Black students are more likely to live in lower-income families, with parents having less money for educational extras, more life stress and fewer hours to help with homework. Parents may have had negative experiences with school, and feel less comfortable talking with teachers.
The gaps are also social. Parent-teacher associations can serve as informal networks where parents learn what’s going on and who the most popular teachers are. They tried to diversify their leadership, but one afternoon this March, four white moms met in the middle of the afternoon to plan next year’s roster for the PTO at Onaway Elementary School.
The next evening, the PTO hosted a program with the head of the high school’s elite IB diploma program, and four students — two black, two white — explained the program. Parents were invited to consider questions such as, “To what extent does perspective shape truth?”
It was a cool presentation, one that would excite parents for the opportunities ahead, but out of more than two dozen Onaway parents in attendance, not one was African American.
A time for incremental change
Sitting on the stage Nov. 8 with a deer-in-the-headlights expression was David Glasner, who would soon be chosen as superintendent. He had just been named interim high school principal, and the meeting was called to introduce him in his new role.
No one there had the slightest interest in talking about that.
“I relive that moment frequently,” Glasner said months later. The event was not set up for success, he said, and never should have been scheduled.
School board member Lisa Cremer, who clashed with Hutchings as a parent, said Glasner represents a “day and night” personality contrast and hopes he can work more constructively with teachers. She’s concerned that, in the aftermath of the Podl controversy, many on the faculty fear for their jobs if there’s a misstep.
“Whatever equity work we want to do, it’s not going to happen until we repair the relationships with the teachers,” she said. She also thinks Glasner may have more success because “to be purely blunt, he’s a white guy,” explaining that his race may make a difference for some in Shaker although it is irrelevant to her.
On equity, Glasner is hoping to win buy-in by moving more slowly than Hutchings did.
“There are times for drastic change and there are times for incremental change. And I think I’m going to focus a little more on the latter,” he said in an interview.
One of the toughest issues he’ll face is the tracking system — what one administrator called the “giant sorting machine” — that begins separating students by ability as young as second grade, with clear racial patterns from the start. Glasner said last spring he was looking to overhaul the approach for the youngest children, though in September he said it was a subject that needs additional community discussion.
In September, Glasner named “black student excellence” as one of two priority areas for this school year, aiming to increase test scores and AP course participation.
He also had a more immediate challenge — to bring the conflict with Podl to a close. In July, he and the new high school principal met with her. Within five minutes, she told them she was not emotionally ready to return to the classroom. She suggested that one precondition for her return would be the district grappling with what happened in the case of Olivia. She also wants better policies in place for any future accusations.
“You haven’t addressed any of this, and you can’t just go on and think that’s going to be okay,” she said. She said she didn’t expect a response on the spot, and Glasner did not offer one.
In an interview, Glasner noted that new administrative personnel were in place and offered an admission of culpability, of sorts. In the Podl case, he said, “there was a failure of leadership.” He said he is reviewing the district’s procedures around staff discipline.
Podl still craves closure. She wants an exoneration, something that would help her when she runs into people she knows at the grocery store. In August, she went to the school board meeting and pleaded for the district to grapple more fully with her case.
“We teach our children and our students that when you make a mistake, you need to own up to it. What if the district had the wherewithal to do the same thing?” she asked.
For her part, Olivia began her senior year in August. Her schedule includes AP Literature.
‘The faith was real clear’
Hearing Olivia’s story got me thinking about my own. I was in AP classes, and sometimes I struggled, too. Kids in my class were crazy smart, and it seemed to come so easy for them. But I never considered that my classmates might think I didn’t belong there. It never crossed my mind that I didn’t belong. Of course I was in AP English. Where else would I be? I realize now that was a form of white privilege in action — being in AP and knowing that no one questioned it.
Yet Olivia, who is now 17, is not that different from me. She wasn’t pushed into AP courses as part of an affirmative action effort to diversify. She has been taking advanced courses since middle school. In class, she raises her hand and has lots to say, just like I usually did. She thinks she might want to be a writer. She lives with her mom, just two blocks from where I grew up with my mom, on a middle-class street, across town from the mansions and lakes that give Shaker Heights its charm.
When I visited her at home, I was gobsmacked to see that the layout of their house was virtually identical to my childhood home.
After talking with Olivia and her mom, I stopped by the home of my next-door neighbors growing up, Jim and Diane Lardie. More than anyone, they had shaped my views on race. They are white, with six children — five adopted, four of them biracial or black. Their daughter Betsy was my first best friend, and I remember as a very young girl asking my father why Betsy was half black and half white. “Because one of her biological parents was black and one was white,” he told me matter-of-factly. I grew up thinking there was nothing odd about it.
As I made the short drive from Olivia’s home to theirs, I realized that I never knew how the Lardies landed on Scottsdale Boulevard.
They told me their story. Jim and Diane met in fourth grade, growing up on the east side of Cleveland, in a white neighborhood home to many Irish Catholics. One by one, black families arrived. Jim recalled, as a child, his grandmother taking him by the hand to greet one of the first, who moved in across the street. She told him they were going to do what they did for every new neighbor — bring Irish soda bread.
“I never read in the good book where you love your neighbor unless they’re colored,” his grandmother told him.
“The faith was real clear and it was pounded into us,” Diane said.
They saw their neighborhood flip from white to black before their eyes, spurred by real estate agents who scared white homeowners into selling. Diane said her parents were the second-to-last white family on the block.
They married and had a daughter, but Diane was unable to get pregnant again, so they decided to adopt, which is how a white infant named Jimmy arrived. Soon after, the Lardies told the adoption counselor they would like to adopt again and asked if she knew any children who needed homes. “I have some but they are unadoptable,” she told them.
“That changed our lives,” Jim told me. The idea that any child was unadoptable was unacceptable to them. Jim ultimately quit his job and became a full-time advocate for children in need. The Lardies adopted four more children — hard-to-place kids. They went looking for a community where they thought their family would be welcomed.
For me, that’s what Shaker always was about. A place that would welcome the Lardies.
Talking in their living room, filled with photos of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, with Easter jelly beans in a dish on the coffee table, I had one more question. Betsy had been pulled out of Shaker schools after elementary school and sent to Catholic school. Why?
“At the end of sixth grade, I had three daughters who could not write a simple sentence,” she told me. “The Shaker schools were wonderful for a motivated kid like you. They were not wonderful for kids who had to be sat on and prodded.”
After leaving the Lardies, I knocked at my childhood home next door, and a biracial teenager, Jacob Tinnon, answered. He and his parents graciously let me look around. They showed me his room, which long ago was my room. We saw the basement with the same wood paneling and the same secret compartment in the back, behind the laundry. They told me the rosebush my mother planted was still pricking people with its thorns.
Jacob and his brother are thriving in Shaker schools. But he said it’s not always easy.
“If I say something that’s dumb in class, sometimes I’ll be judged differently — ‘Ooh, of course he’d say something like that,’ ” Jacob said. “If I get a good grade on a test, it’s, ‘Oh, you did so good!’ Like surprised. Well, I studied.”
“I kind of like that,” he added, “because I like to prove people wrong.”
Reporting by Laura Meckler. Story editing by Stephen Smith. Videos by Amber Ferguson. Video editing by Peter Stevenson. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Paula Kelso. Designed by J.C. Reed.