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When Middle-Class Parents Choose Urban Schools

Class, Race, and the Challenge of Equity in Public Education

In recent decades a growing number of middle-class parents have considered sending their children to—and often end up becoming active in—urban public schools. Their presence can bring long-needed material resources to such schools, but, as Linn Posey-Maddox shows in this study, it can also introduce new class and race tensions, and even exacerbate inequalities. Sensitively navigating the pros and cons of middle-class transformation, When Middle-Class Parents Choose Urban Schools asks whether it is possible for our urban public schools to have both financial security and equitable diversity.
Drawing on in-depth research at an urban elementary school, Posey-Maddox examines parents’ efforts to support the school through their outreach, marketing, and volunteerism. She shows that when middle-class parents engage in urban school communities, they can bring a host of positive benefits, including new educational opportunities and greater diversity. But their involvement can also unintentionally marginalize less-affluent parents and diminish low-income students’ access to the improving schools. In response, Posey-Maddox argues that school reform efforts, which usually equate improvement with rising test scores and increased enrollment, need to have more equity-focused policies in place to ensure that low-income families also benefit from—and participate in—school change. 

232 pages | 2 line drawings, 4 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Education: Education--Economics, Law, Politics, Pre-School, Elementary and Secondary Education

Sociology: Social Institutions


“Sociologically sophisticated yet broadly accessible . . . When Middle-Class Parents Choose Urban Schools presents an important case study of a school grappling with the ramifications of its own success in attracting new middle-class families and increasing the level of parental involvement in the school . . . [it] makes an invaluable contribution that will inform political efforts to promote equity in urban public school districts. It is highly recommended not just for scholars and students interested in urban education, gentrification, and inequality in American cities but also for teachers and other practitioners in urban schools who must work actively to adapt to the shifting needs of students and families as their schools undergo rapid socioeconomic change.”

American Journal of Education

“Calls for upholding equitable urban change, which requires monitoring of demographic shifts, as well as establishing policies to ensure low-income families are included and benefit. This book is particularly recommended to stakeholders who are committed to high-quality and well-resourced urban schools. . . . Recommended.”


“This book is indeed thought-provoking. It raises important questions about equity, parent involvement, school, and society itself. The return of White mid­dle-class parents did change the school, and in this case, it changed it in an extreme way. The broader gentrification that quickly followed the initial return of middle-class families changed the school and the neighborhood around it. The issues raised by Posey-Maddox not only deserve but demand to be part of the dialogue of education reform and urban revitalization. In the end, the book raises a critical question for urban planners, educa­tional leaders, policymakers, academic researchers, and, yes, parents interested in school reform that benefits all students: Can the choices and engagement of parents, particularly middle-class parents, be relied upon as a substitute for more structural reforms to improve urban public schools?”

School Community Journal

When Middle Class Parents Choose Urban Schools demonstrates the efficacy and power of white middle-class social networks and the power these parents have to transform schools as well as neighbourhoods. However, just as gentrification of residential areas has squeezed out working-class families from their historic locales, this albeit well-intentioned initiative has led to the unintended consequence of squeezing out low-income and, in the case of Morningside, African-American families from the school. It has also had the unintended consequence of shifting the nature of diversity away from racial and ethnic and class diversity, and ironically undermining one of the important motivators for some families in wanting to send their children there.”

British Journal of Sociology of Education

“Posey-Maddox’s book makes an original contribution that is important to current conversations about urban schools. The question of what role middle-class families can/should play in urban school reform is a pressing one, and her research raises a series of questions that I have not seen raised elsewhere as clearly or directly. It captures key dimensions of how cities are changing and the impact those changes are having on our most important institutions.”

Amanda E. Lewis, Emory University

“In this important new book, readers will find an insightful analysis of how a small but growing number of urban schools are being affected by the process of gentrification.  While racial integration in schools has long been seen as a desirable social and political goal, relatively little attention has been given to how schools respond to the needs of different children and their parents as changes in the demographic composition of schools occur. Posey-Maddox reminds us that creating a school that succeeds in serving all children well is an extremely complex undertaking, especially when imbalances in power and privilege are significant.  For those who want to understand the contemporary challenges posed by integration, this book will be an invaluable resource.”

Pedro Noguera, New York University

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Tables

One / Middle-Class Parents and City School Transformation

Two / Reconceptualizing the “Urban”: Examining Race, Class, and Demographic Change in Cities and Their Public Schools

Three / Building a “Critical Mass”: Neighborhood Parent Group Action for School Change

Four / The (Re)Making of a “Good” Public School: Parent and Teacher Views of a Changing School Community

Five / Professionalizing the MPTO: Race, Class, and Shifting Norms for “Active” Parents

Six / Morningside Revisited

Seven / Maintaining a “Commitment to Everyone”: Toward a Vision of Equitable Development in Urban Public Schooling

Appendix A / Social Class Categories
Appendix B / Methodological Approach


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