Affluent, Born Abroad and Choosing New York’s Public Schools
By KIRK SEMPLE
Miriam and Christian Rengier, a German couple moving to New York, visited some private elementary schools in Manhattan last spring in search of a place for their son. They immediately noticed the absence of ethnic diversity, and the chauffeurs ferrying children to the door.
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And then, at one school, their guide showed them the cafeteria.
“The kids were able to choose between seven different lunches: sushi and macrobiotics and whatever,” Ms. Rengier recalled. “And I said, ‘What if I don’t want my son to choose from seven different lunches?’ And she looked at me like I was an idiot.”
For the Rengiers, the decision was clear: Their son would go to public school.
“It was not the question if we could afford it or not,” said Ms. Rengier, whose husband was transferred to the city because of his job as a lawyer and tax consultant. “It was a question of whether it was real life or not.”
In New York, the affluent typically send their children to private schools. But not the foreign-born affluent. In a divergence, a large majority of wealthy foreign-born New Yorkers are sending their children to public schools, according to an analysis of census data.
There are roughly 15,500 households in the city with school-age children where the total income is at least $150,000 and both parents were born abroad. Of those, about 10,500, or 68 percent, use only the public schools, the data show.
That is nearly double the rate of American-born parents in the city in the same income bracket.
The census data include both immigrants and those temporarily stationed in the city for work. The disparity is even sharper for foreign-born parents with household incomes of $200,000 or more. About 61 percent send their children only to public schools, compared with 28 percent of native-born couples in the same income bracket.
As a result, some public elementary schools in wealthier parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn are experiencing an unexpected increase in foreign-born students, especially Western Europeans.
“We have never had the numbers that we have,” said Elizabeth Phillips, the principal at Public School 321 in Park Slope for 13 years. “But we’ve never had so many affluent foreign families in the neighborhood, either.”
A similar divergence exists in other major cities, the census data show. For example, in Los Angeles and Chicago, roughly 60 percent of foreign-born couples with at least $150,000 in household income send their children only to public schools, a rate far higher than that of native-born parents.
In the United States over all, there is almost no difference between the two groups, apparently because wealthy people outside of urban areas are much more likely to show allegiance to the public schools. Nationally, 73 percent of native-born couples and 76 percent of foreign-born couples send their children only to public school, according to the data, which was provided by Andrew A. Beveridge and Susan Weber-Stoger, demographers at Queens College.
In interviews, affluent foreign-born New Yorkers said that like all conscientious parents, they weighed various criteria in choosing schools, including quality, cost and location. But many said they were also swayed by the greater ethnic and economic diversity of the public schools. Some said that as immigrants, they had learned to navigate different cultures — a skill they wanted to imbue in their children.
“When they go to public school, they’re in a whole new world, a whole world of different people and different values, which is what the world is like,” said Lyn Bollen, who grew up in Birmingham, England, and attended — and taught at — state-run schools. “Shielding them from that is doing them a disservice.”
She and her husband, who works for Citigroup, moved to Manhattan with their children two years ago and now send their eldest son to public school near their home in Battery Park City.
Mamta Prakash-Dutta, the finance manager at a nonprofit organization for young South Asians, and her husband, an executive at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, are from India. Ms. Prakash-Dutta said their upbringings had taught them how to thrive in a globalized world.
“We’re always back and forth, but our kids will probably be in many more nations, so it’s important for them to be able to deal with multicultural exposure,” she said. “Many more street-smart skills are developed in public schools.”
The couple settled on a public school near their home on the Upper West Side.
Of course, affluent foreign-born New Yorkers tend to live in relatively well-to-do neighborhoods, which often have better public schools.
Still, some said that because they grew up in countries with strong public school systems, they arrived in New York with a more open mind about public education.
Immigrants from Canada and several Western European countries said that back home, private schools were often viewed as places for children with special learning needs. Most of the wealthy families they knew sent their children to public schools, they said.
“I grew up in Denmark, which is a society in which everything is public, everything is state-financed,” said Morten Degnemark, who arrived in the United States in 2004 and runs a diamond and jewelry company in Manhattan. “I’m from the public schools myself. It went O.K. for me, so, already, I started with an attitude that public school could be a good thing.”
He and his wife, who have two young children, chose Cobble Hill, a relatively affluent Brooklyn neighborhood, in part because it had a highly regarded public elementary school, he said.
“There are areas where we would never send them to public school,” Mr. Degnemark said.
For some newly arrived families, public school has served a practical purpose.
Gilles Bransbourg moved with his family to New York City from France in 2009, unsure how long they would stay. He sought a French-English program for his children, to give them a smoother transition to the English-speaking world and to help them maintain their native tongue.
“Foreigners are not always here for a long time,” said Mr. Bransbourg, a former investment banker who is now a research associate at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. “They have other issues that Americans don’t have.”
He and his wife considered the private Lycée Français de New York in Manhattan, but were also attracted to the public system’s dual-language programs. (There are currently four French-English programs and dozens of others offering English with Chinese, Haitian Creole, Korean, Russian and Spanish.)
The couple settled on a public school in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, that offered a French-English language curriculum with a good reputation — and the opportunity to become more deeply involved in the neighborhood.
“We thought it was great because our children would be part of an American community,” Mr. Bransbourg said. “It’s important to be a part of a community where you live and not to be estranged from your environment.”
Mr. Bransbourg, who has an infant and two children in elementary school, said he was also relieved to avoid the Lycée’s annual tuition of $26,100.
Private school tuition in the city has risen sharply over the past decade, with at least one elementary school topping $40,000 a year, and several foreign-born parents said they found such prices startling.
Ashima Dayal, a lawyer who arrived from India as a child, said her parents had instilled in her an immigrant’s toughness and resourcefulness. She said this experience had probably made her less demanding of certain amenities and more accepting of some of the public system’s shortcomings.
“Speaking to my American friends, they say, ‘The cafeteria is not nice,’ ” Ms. Dayal said. “I don’t give a damn if the cafeteria is nice! I would like there not to be splinters in the gym.” She paused, adding, “I just come from a different place.”
Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company. Reprinted from The New York Times, Education, of Wednesday, February 15, 2012.