A Black family’s search for a quality education outside Atlanta clashes with reality

By 2017, however, new houses starting in the mid-$200,000s were everywhere, and white students were now outnumbered inside Jones Middle. There were a handful of other Black kids in Corey Robinson’s seventh-grade social studies class, including a friend whom Corey considered his ride or die.

The following is an adapted excerpt from DISILLUSIONED: FIVE FAMILIES AND THE UNRAVELING OF AMERICA’S SUBURBS, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Benjamin Herold.

 Together, the pair found nameless satisfaction in tormenting their middle-aged white teacher. As soon as Mr. Keller turned his back at the whiteboard to write something about the Suez Canal or the partition of the Middle East, one of the boys would burp loudly or lift the bottom of his T-shirt up to his chin, exposing a childish belly. Keller would swivel on his heels, eyes already bulging. But Corey and his friend would meet their teacher’s accusing questions with a chorus of yes-sirs and no-sirs and I-dunno-sirs, eventually forcing him to retreat back to his lesson.

The boys rarely pulled such crap in math. That class was taught by a no-nonsense Black woman who softened her strict classroom rules with a mother’s touch during all the in-between moments in the day. But in social studies, Corey felt compelled to keep upping the ante. It was Halloween when he earned his first suspension. For whatever reason, Corey found Keller’s manner especially grating. So he grabbed the small bottle of glue on his desk and silently squeezed its contents onto the head of the white boy who sat in front of him. When his unwitting classmate was called to the whiteboard, bedlam ensued.

After school, the Robinsons were waiting just inside the front door of their home. Keller had already emailed them about what happened. No no no, Corey said feebly, it wasn’t me. But Anthony wasn’t trying to hear it. “His dad was furious, and Corey experienced that fury,” was all Nika would say.

The first signs of trouble had popped up the previous year. Corey won most of his classmates over with his willingness to act the fool. To handle the rest, he leaned into his sledgehammer wit, sending any sorry soul who tried to match him insult for insult slinking down the mocking Jones hallways. There were some minor punishments that year, for things like cussing in the cafeteria. But it was the emerging perception that Corey might be a troublemaker that most worried the Robinsons. A few weeks before the end of school, for example, one of Corey’s teachers called and left a message accusing him of academic dishonesty. Nika composed a response in her head during dinner, then fired off an email before bed.

“I received your disturbing voicemail this afternoon regarding unfounded, and quite frankly racist and insulting, allegations that Corey committed plagiarism on his make-up packet,” her message read. “To be clear, this is not about a grade in a class that in the grand scheme of Corey’s life had no bearing or relevance on his success, but rather your complete and utter lack of cultural competence and respect for us as parents and Corey as a student.”

He’d finished the year with mostly As and Bs. Still, Corey limped into June feeling sour about himself. “I just don’t think they like me,” he’d say. “I guess I’m just a bad kid.”

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That summer, the Robinsons had turned to a trusted ally to help revive their son’s flagging spirit. The rules in Coach Russ’s gym were simple and clear. No one cared if you busted on your friends or bounced around to the music in your head. Just don’t let it interfere with drills. By the night of the seventh-grade open house, Corey was feeling almost like himself again.

“This is going to be a good year for me,” he told his parents as they stepped out of the school’s auditorium and into heavy August air.

Jones Middle, however, had habits of its own. The school’s staff was proud of how they competed with the private schools and far-exurban districts out in Hall and Forsyth counties that were always trying to poach northern Gwinnett’s whitest and wealthiest families, and administrators delighted in pointing out that Jones eighth graders scored seventy-five points better than the national average on the PSAT.

 But they were far less inclined to discuss the barrage of indicators showing that some students were relegated to the margins of their school’s success. Black kids, for example, made up less than one-fifth of Jones’s total enrollment. But they received more than one-third of all disciplinary actions at the school. On district surveys, they were also less likely than their white peers to say the adults at Jones treated them fairly.

Jones Middle School in Gwinnett County, Georgia was proud of its reputation for academic excellence, but some students were relegated to the margins of the school’s success. Credit: Image provided by Getty Images

The Robinsons had long responded to such tensions by using their odd-couple pairing to their advantage. Anthony’s strength was putting other people at ease. It also helped that his inclination to give the benefit of the doubt went double for teachers; after nearly a decade in the classroom himself, he knew full well how middle schoolers could work on a man’s nerves. To build relationships, he volunteered once a week in the Jones library, where he began chatting up staffers like the school police officer, a friendly young Black man who soon took an interest in Corey and began complimenting his sneakers in the hallway.

Nika, meanwhile, was excellent at locating the flaws in a system and the levers that might be pulled to fix them. This was partly a function of her work; now a manager at a consulting firm that had several large contracts with the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she supervised junior staff, crafted budgets, and developed protocols to keep things running smoothly.

 So part of her parenting role was studying the Gwinnett County Public Schools’ discipline policies. She also maintained a steady email correspondence with several Jones teachers, regularly sharing articles about how to engage kinesthetic learners like her son and offering tips on how to leverage the incentives the Robinsons offered Corey at home, including $100 for every A on his report card.

Because Nika was also well aware that white women tended to interpret her exuberance as aggression, she spent considerable time preparing for any in-person meetings at her children’s schools, both emotionally, by stripping her manner of anything that might be construed as threatening, locking those parts of herself temporarily away, and practically, by always having some piece of research or data she could use to steer a discussion back to neutral ground. And if a particular meeting seemed likely to grow contentious or venture into sensitive territory, she made sure Anthony was at her side.

“These people are still my child’s teachers,” she told me. “I don’t want them to treat him unfairly because they don’t like his mother.”

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Prior to Corey’s seventh-grade year, such strategies had always worked well enough. But after his suspension over the glue incident, things had quickly spun out of control. Teachers began handing out regular detentions, describing in terse notes home how Corey was disrespectful and disruptive and took too long in the bathroom. Nika considered much of it to be nitpicking.

“I just couldn’t understand what they were so anxious and upset about,” she said. “Corey has documented GI issues. If he’s in the bathroom for a long time, there’s probably a reason.”

After the Robinsons’ son was suspended for putting glue in another student’s hair, teachers began handing out regular detentions. Credit: Martine Severine/E+ via Getty Images

Shortly before the end of the first marking period, Corey and Nika told me, Mr. Keller gave his social studies students a quiz. On the cusp of an A in the class and eager to claim his $100, Corey had studied hard. But his paper came back with an 88. Disappointed, he began comparing answers with his friends, discovering that he and another boy had put down the same response for one question, but Mr. Keller had marked it incorrect only for him. Corey told me he spent the rest of the class debating whether to just eat the B. He finally decided to approach his teacher after class.

I think I was supposed to get a 92 on this quiz, Corey remembered saying.

You made an 88 because that’s what I put on the paper, he recalled Keller responding.

You just can’t grade, Corey acknowledged shooting back.

That led to another write-up, for disrespect. After school, Nika and Anthony were again waiting inside the front door. This time, however, when Nika looked at the quiz, it appeared her son was right. Okay, she said. I’m sure Keller didn’t mean to do you wrong. I’ll send him an email tonight.

When forty-eight hours passed without a reply, Nika decided to put on her friendliest face and stop by the school. She reconstructed the exchange for me later.

In this country, there’s one set of rules for the kids who look like you and another set for the kids who don’t, Nika told her son.

Hey, I know this isn’t really a big deal, she recalled telling Mr. Keller. Accidents happen all the time. I get it. But this is really important to Corey.

Keller responded by saying that Corey’s constant goofing off regularly threw the whole class off track. That’s a lot of responsibility to put on a thirteen-year-old, Nika remembered thinking. Eventually, Keller had relented and given Corey the 92. But Nika had walked away from the interaction feeling uneasy. Soon after, she decided to start popping by Jones on the days she worked from home so she could observe her son’s behavior for herself.

Her chaperone was usually a white assistant principal named Kristi Lyons. Middle-aged, with shoulder-length auburn hair, she had the tightly controlled smile of a politician’s wife; her husband was mayor in one of the exurban enclaves way out in Hall County that was still 80-plus percent white. Nika recalled the two of them walking the halls together, making small talk, Nika doing her best to mirror Lyons’s affect and keep her tone nonconfrontational. Corey’s dad used to be a teacher, she’d say breezily. Trust me, we know how hard it is. That’s why we want to work together as a team. But the assistant principal mostly responded with noncommittal nods.

“She started off being fake nice,” Nika said.

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The friction became overt when the pair began peeking through the windows of Corey’s classrooms. Nika would pull out a yellow legal pad to take notes. A pinched frown would form at the corners of Lyons’s mouth.

In her son’s English class, Nika described watching large groups of students hold side conversations, wander around the room, and complain they needed to use the bathroom. She said Corey was usually near the center of the disorder, growing more boisterous as his teacher grew more flustered. She began making notes on the issues she intended to raise with her son that evening. But then, Nika said, she saw a white boy throw an empty water bottle across the room. Lyons and the teacher both remained silent. If that was Corey, Nika remembered saying, he’d have gotten written up for assault with a deadly weapon.

Black kids made up less than one-fifth of Jones Middle School’s total enrollment, but they received more than one-third of all disciplinary actions at the school.

At that, Nika told me, the assistant principal rolled her eyes and claimed the teacher probably didn’t see what happened. Nika felt a prisoner start banging on the inside of her rib cage.

No, the teacher definitely saw it, she remembered telling Lyons, an edge creeping into her voice. Listen, she continued. We’ve never said Corey is an angel. We’re not opposed to consequences. We just want him to receive the same grace that your staff extends to white children. So what I’m asking you is to explain to me how your staff determines when misbehavior is just boys being boys and when it requires punishment.

When no answers were forthcoming, Nika and Anthony sat Corey down for a conversation they’d been holding off on for years. It’s not right, Nika said. But in this country, there’s one set of rules for the kids who look like you and another set for the kids who don’t. I saw that little white boy getting crunk in your English class, Nika told her son. And I saw how no one said a thing to him. But if that had been you?

“Is that why I’m always getting a referral?” Corey asked.

“Yes,” Nika said. “If you mess up even the slightest, they’re going to give you a referral.”

Corey sat in silence with this new information. Previous parental interventions had always focused on taking responsibility for his actions. Even more confusing was that he considered the white classmate who’d thrown the bottle a friend. In the moment, he’d been glad the boy didn’t get in trouble. Corey realized his parents were waiting on a response.

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, deciding to play it safe.

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