With each step, the divide among the 11 parents and teachers gathered at Roosevelt K-8 School in Hyde Park grew wider.
They had started on the same red line in the gymnasium, then edged forward or backward depending on how they answered such questions as whether they had been targeted by racial slurs or had known someone killed by violence. By the end of the exercise, most white participants wound up at the front of the gym, and most black attendees toward the back.
“How does it feel to be where you are?” a facilitator asked.
What unfolded next was a frank discussion about race and racism, with participants pondering the role skin color may have played in their lives. Not exactly the kind of discussion they would broach during chance encounters on the schoolyard or at the PTO bake sale.
In a school system where race remains a highly sensitive topic 40 years after desegregation polarized the city, Roosevelt is among a growing number of schools tackling the issue head-on, holding a series of “race dialogues” with small groups of parents and teachers. The program, which started four years ago with the YWCA, aims to bridge an unspoken, and often unintentional, racial divide.
Organizers hope the talks will build a more cohesive community that will lead to greater involvement by all parents, reduce gaps in achievement among students of different backgrounds, and instill more trust in schools.
For many parents who grew up in Boston, stepping inside a city school can bring back painful memories of court-ordered busing.
“Race is such a key issue in BPS,” said Becky Shuster, a Roosevelt parent who is white and one of the creators of the talks. “The issue of race infiltrates every aspect of our community, from the challenges of the achievement gap to the school assignment process to our values.”
So far, dialogues have been held in five Boston schools, including Curley K-8 in Jamaica Plain and Gardner Pilot Academy in Allston.
But more schools should have the talks, said Carroll Blake, executive director of the school system’s achievement gap initiatives, adding that they hold great potential in eradicating racism.
About 83 percent of students in the Boston public schools identify as black, Hispanic, or Asian; only 13 percent are white.
“When you talk about race, people get nervous or scared: it’s like opening a Pandora’s box,” Blake said. “But when we don’t talk about it, it’s like the elephant in the room.”
In a school system that has seen an infusion of families from dozens of countries, the quiet divide among parents has moved considerably away from the classic black-and-white paradigm that dominated the busing crisis, requiring a more complex solution. Parents not only have to bridge numerous cultural, religious, and economic differences, but also in many cases language barriers.
Parents and administrators at the Mendell Elementary School in Roxbury picked up on this awkward divide a few years ago, as more middle-class families, largely white ones, sent their children to the school. The new parents, fired up to help boost the school’s fortunes, revitalized the parent council, started new afterschool clubs, and hosted fund-raisers.
Yet they struggled to get much participation from parents of the other children. Principal Julia Bott, who had created a family-engagement team to get all parents involved, decided to give the race dialogues a try.
The talks led to subtle changes at the school, such as parents of different backgrounds making more of an effort to talk with one another on the schoolyard, parents said.
“We got to know people we didn’t know before,” said Jennifer Rodine, co-president of the parent council. “It’s natural for people to talk with people they know or share the same language. That shifted after the dialogues.”
Across Boston, schools experiencing the most pronounced but silent divide among parents are those in neighborhoods undergoing gentrification. While middle-class families can bring more energy and resources to the schools their children attend, their efforts can come with unintentional downsides, said Susan Naimark, who teaches at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston and who wrote “The Education of a White Parent: Wrestling with Race and Opportunity in the Boston Public Schools.’’
“We want middle-class families to use the schools, but often what happens is those parents become the ones who are the most active, who do the big fund-raising, and decide where the funds go,” said Naimark, a former Boston School Committee member. “The more active that group becomes, the more other groups feel alienated.”
For many black parents who grew up in Boston, scars from segregation may keep them away from schools — places in their childhood perceived as unwelcoming and that in many cases offered a substandard education, experts said. In other cases, some immigrant groups come from countries where volunteering at a school is not part of their culture.
But these parents often are involved in their children’s education in other ways, such as helping with homework or stressing the importance of school.
Michele Brooks, assistant superintendent of Boston’s Office of Family and Student Engagement, said she hears from schools all the time seeking advice about how best to create a more cohesive community among parents.
“We have made progress, but we still have a lot of work to do around this,” she said.
In the talks, facilitators encourage parents and teachers to talk openly without fear of offending anyone.
“Just put it out there and we will fix it,” Rosa Hunter, a facilitator, told the Roosevelt participants before the gym activity.
After the last question was asked inside the gym, many participants appeared at ease discussing their ending places. White participants tended to express guilt for being out front, while black participants expressed frustration about being further behind.
“I felt a little uncomfortable the more separated I got from the people I’m close to,” said one mother, who is white. “We live on the same street. We go to the same school. Our kids play together. We belong together.”
But another mother, who is black, said that “no one should feel guilty.”
“I’m striving to get the same things for my kids,” she said.
Shuster, director of training at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, pushed for the dialogues at Roosevelt about four years ago, gaining the backing of then-principal Emily Glasgow. At the time, all leadership positions on the parent council were held by white parents.
Since then, about 70 Roosevelt parents have participated in the dialogues, which are credited with helping to diversify the ranks of the parent council’s leadership. Dacia Campbell, who is black, said she doubted she would have thought of joining the council and becoming its co-president had she not participated in the talks four years ago.
“Parent councils are not traditionally made up of people of color, and you wonder if they might be cliquey,” Campbell said. “When I found out that was not the case, it made me feel like I wanted to do more.”James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.