A large frame filled with 1,001 paper cranes hangs above the fireplace in Ali Takata’s living room. A Japanese and Hawaiian wedding tradition, people fold the cranes and give them to the bride. On a summer morning, Takata decided to teach her daughters, ages 8 and 10, how to make them.
While they fold small pieces of paper, the girls talk about what they're looking forward to for the coming school year.
“I’m excited about the teachers,” says the younger one. “Both teachers are really nice.”
It’s the second year the girls are attending this elementary school. Two years ago, Takata and her husband made the decision to move the kids out of the mostly white, mostly affluent West Austin neighborhood school to a more diverse, higher poverty school in East Austin. She says she made the choice after doing extensive research about school segregation and the distribution of resources.
(Takata asked that we not use her children's names or the names of the schools they attend for privacy reasons.)
Takata belongs to a group called Integrate Austin, which is advocating for the Austin Independent School District to change boundary lines, so schools are more racially and socioeconomically integrated. As the district prepares to close schools and many parents are fighting the idea of their children attending new ones, she is thinking a lot about her family’s decision.
Takata moved to Austin from the San Francisco Bay area with her family three and a half years ago.
When they got here, they did what a lot of people do: bought a house in a neighborhood where they heard schools were really good. But one thing immediately stuck out to Takata.
“When we first moved here, I kind of was surprised by how white Austin felt and looked to me,” she said. “It took me a little while to realize that it was not white. It was just very segregated.”
Takata’s family is what she calls “mixed Asian.” She’s half Japanese and her husband is Sri Lankan; her children are biracial. The school they enrolled the kids in felt similar to the neighborhood they had just moved to: mostly white, mostly affluent.
While the girls attended the neighborhood school, Takata was learning about her new town, including the history of segregation and the 1928 Master Plan, which designed the city in a way to exclude minorities. She says she started to understand why her neighborhood felt so white – because the city's institutions kept it that way for decades.
With that knowledge, she took another look at her kids’ school.
“After two years at the school, I feel like I started to make some observations that were disturbing to me,” she says. “And I just started to feel less comfortable at that school.”
Almost all the parents at the school had money, and that meant better resources for the students. Takata says she was aware kids at many other AISD schools didn't have the same resources.
“I felt like I was participating in the hoarding of resources,” she says. “PTA funds, the concentration of social capital and wealth and privilege. I just started to have a problem with that.”
It also seemed unfair to her that certain schools got better resources and opportunities because parents had the ability and time to lobby the district or school board.
“I really started to let go of this prevalent belief that good parents focus solely on their kids,” she says. “I wanted an alternative and something that was more inclusive and less focused on what my kid has and how much more I can get for my kid.”
Takata and her husband talked about transferring, and she began visiting schools within a few miles of her house. She eventually chose an elementary school in East Austin that demographically looked very different from the neighborhood school.
Most of the kids come from low-income homes, and 80% of the students are black or Latino. The school got a C on the state's most recent report, while the neighborhood school got a B. This new school was very different on paper – and it was exactly the environment she wanted her kids to learn in.
Takata’s older daughter, who started fifth grade this week, says she was surprised when her parents told her she’d be transferring. But once she accepted it, she says, the transition was easy.
“I think I’m just good at making friends in general," she says, "and the people there were nice.”
She had been the new kid before, when her family first moved from California during the middle of the school year. She says that transition was much harder.
“When I transferred into my old school, they weren’t very welcoming,” she says. “And then when I transferred into my new school, like right now, they were very welcoming. So, I just felt more safe or something.”
Her sister had a harder time.
“I did not want to go to a new school,” she says. “And I do not like changes, so I just didn’t like it.”
They both recognize there are differences between their old and new schools. For example, the older daughter says the Halloween carnival at their old school had rides, a haunted house and a bounce house. The new school has a carnival, but Takata says there isn’t PTA money or volunteers to do more.
The girls say they don't care.
“Kids don't need all this stuff,” Takata says. “My girls were just happy to run around and eat some candy or eat some popcorn and, you know, hang out with their friends.”
Takata says she considers the transfer a success. Both girls have made friends.
She can’t say if it was the school or the teacher or her daughter’s motivation, but her older daughter’s reading has improved. She says both girls are getting a good education at the school.
“That’s not to say it's I love 100% of this school,” she says. “You know, I struggle with aspects of it, but it doesn't bring me down and certainly doesn't bring my girls down."
While the decision was good for her daughters, Takata says the idea of self-integrating is complicated. There's a fine line between exposing your children to new people and making other students feel like a novelty. She doesn’t want to feel like a savior, coming into a school with fewer resources and acting like she can fix that. Because of that, while she's in the PTA, she has no plans to try to become an officer. She says she's trying to keep a low profile while her kids find their community.
She says the family has had deep conversations about class and race, stemming from the girls' experience with making new friends.
Next month, AISD will release the first draft of a plan about which schools to close and consolidate. The closings may put more families in schools they didn’t plan for, schools they consider bad, or schools where they feel different or uncomfortable. Takata says she’s not naive and knows there are a lot of challenges in that kind of situation, but she says a positive attitude can make a huge difference.
“If you're going into a new place and feeling like, ‘My kids don't deserve to be here,'” she says, "it's not going to go well.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Ali Takata was not in the PTA.