This paper explores how urban middle-class parents with children at the elementary school level construct accounts about school choice in comparison to parents with children at the middle and high school levels. Previous studies have largely focused on the former. Data for this study come from in-depth interviews with 44 parents who enrolled their children in an urban school district. Findings suggest that parents’ choices and narratives concerning schools are affected by the school district’s institutional context. Parents with children at the elementary school level largely avoided their neighborhood-designated schools and secured spots in the city’s more desirable magnet schools. The group distinctions created at this level were “bad schools” and “bad parents” versus “good schools” and “good parents.” Parents with children in the middle and high school years similarly avoided the district’s general programs and secured the desirable slots in those schools’ academically segregated honors, AP, and IB programs. Distinctions created here were between “good students” and “bad students” and parents employed highly individualistic notions of educational success. The findings suggest that even parents with progressive social values rely on school and academic segregation to secure valued resources for their children. Districts that value integration therefore must develop robust programs to counter the self-segregation of middle-class families.


urban public schools, school choice, families and schools, race and class, qualitative methods

Author Bio(s)

Dr. Paul Knudson is an associate professor of sociology at Methodist University. Dr. Knudson’s research focuses on urban schools and families, school choice, urban development, and regional governance issues. Please direct correspondence to pknudson@methodist.edu.


Dr. Knudson would like to thank Dr. Lina Rincon, Dr. Joseph Gibbons, and Dr. Kathryne M. Young for reading previous versions of this manuscript and offering valuable feedback.

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