Posts tagged ‘race relations’

May 31, 2012

Some Thoughts on Public Schooling and Segregated Cities

Cities cleave along racial and ethnic lines, and every city I’ve ever lived in proves it. When I grew up in Manhattan, there was Harlem, which was black. And East Harlem, which was Hispanic. And the Upper East and Upper West sides, which was where I and most of my friends lived. I’m white and they were, too. Over the years, I watched the formerly Jewish Lower East Side, where my grandpa used to own a textile shop with a handful of his brothers, turn Chinese. Later on I lived in Oakland, where the hills were white. There’s a Chinatown there, too.

In Baltimore the racial divide feels more extreme. Small numbers of young Jews are moving back to town, but the Jewish community at large worships outside the beltway. The Spanish speaking population is growing but per the 2010 U.S. Census only 4.2 percent of Baltimoreans are of Hispanic or Latino origin. The racial split is almost purely Black and White, 63.7 to 29.6 percent. And a fifth of people here live below the poverty line.

Baltimore City School demographics are another indication of how segregated and poor this city has become. This school year, 2011-2012, the public school student population is 86 percent black, though there are still individual neighborhood public schools – like the one in Hampden – where the racial breakdown looks more like that of a New England liberal arts college than of an HBCU. That is, the percentage of students of color in Baltimore’s predominantly white public schools is large enough that an elite college with similar numbers would tout itself as highly diverse. (Everything’s relative.) The big difference: 84 percent of kids in Baltimore City Schools come from low income backgrounds.

Given my private school background, my thoughts on public schooling are skewed. My thoughts on  integrated elementary schooling are just as funky. I was born in Israel. Before my first birthday, my mother took me from Tel Aviv to New York, where I attended a yeshiva from kindergarten through sixth grade. I learned all the things most public school students would learn. I also learned about my cultural heritage and Jewish identity.

My background colored my thinking about the reports and opinions in the New York Times a few weeks ago – they came out around the time of the May 17 anniversary of the decision in Brown v. Board – about what is effectively segregated public schooling in New York City schools. My thoughts went something like this: If the de facto segregation in predominantly Black or Latino or Asian elementary schools included curricula that engaged students in learning about their heritage and grappling with the meaning of their identity as Black or Latino or Chinese, wouldn’t our pluralistic society be better off? Is it enough to prepare students for “democratic citizenship” (if that is what public schools are doing) by teaching them about the Declaration of Independence and Constitution? Maybe we would have a more vibrant political culture if we also prepared students by teaching them about themselves.*

Learning about where I came from when I was young shaped my thinking for life. Is there a better place to do that than in school? Is whitewashing personal and cultural history part of the tragic legacy of the separate but equal logic that led to forced and legally enforced desegregation?

Can public schools teach us about our complex identities? Should they? Do they?** Can it be done in schools where integration is forced?*** I have many questions and few answers. So I read.

* Baltimore-based writer Stacey Patton’s piece on Black studies in the Chronicle of Higher Education also got me thinking about disciplined approaches to teaching identity. The piece kindled a well contained conflagration of controversy when a blogger for the CHE not only questioned the merit of dissertations in the field but outright ridiculed them based on their titles. She was fired.

** Hebrew charter schools are ruffling feathers in the private Jewish day school world. I attended a panel at the Project for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) conference in 2010 that included the founder of the Hebrew Language Academy Charter School in Brooklyn. The school cannot teach prayers or engage students in religious study. They can teach Hebrew and cover topics such as Israeli independence. (Nevertheless, I found it online by searching “Jewish charter school.”) Washington D.C. approved a Hebrew language charter school on April 25, 2012.

*** In thinking about all this, I returned to the 20th century political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s controversial essay, “Reflections on Little Rock.” It’s difficult to make sense of her thinking without knowing something about her allegiance to distinctions between the private and public realms and her critique of the rise of the murky region she calls “the social,” but it’s worth a look.

Up next, some curated links to posts on and around these issues.

December 31, 2011

The Thought Evolution of a City Mom: Backstory (2010)

The most important book I read in 2010

I was minding my own business the other day when an African-American man – a critic – tweeted at me about the first line of this post: “‘I hadn’t much thought about the racial dimensions of education reform before October 20, 2011,’” he mocked, “are you serious?”

Well, yes. (Though me not giving something “much thought” is another man’s spending hours in quiet contemplation.) I live in Hampden, a notoriously white neighborhood in Baltimore City, the land of failed desegregation, redlining, and massive white flight. While the principal of my zoned elementary school is African American, when thinking (as I have done a whole lot) about how to make my neighborhood public school more attractive to parents like me – parents who prefer the farmers’ market to Royal Farms – race is not my primary concern. Class is.

Flashback to 2010

I started thinking about all this way before my son – my only child – turned one. It was the year To Kill a Mockingbird celebrated its 50th anniversary. And it was then, as I wondered if it might be easier to attract Hampden’s middle-class white parents to a predominantly poor black school in Charles Village than to our predominantly poor white one, that I made a literary parallel: We were Atticus Finch, enlightened defenders of equal rights under the law. Those other Hampden parents, they were Bob Ewell. Lucky for Atticus, he didn’t have to worry about the Ewell children’s bad habits rubbing off. Because after the first day, those cootie-ridden truants never showed up.

This is a caricature of immense proportions, I know. But when nouveau parents living in Hampden spot their first teenage girl with a cigarette between her fingertips and her adolescent palms around the handlebars of a hand-me-down stroller – time to check the listings in Roland Park. (Am I right?)

Sensing my mindset was warped, I decided to call the principal of Hampden Elementary and see the school for myself. We set up an appointment. I took the first hour of that morning off work. She didn’t show up.

At that point, I had ties to two fledgling parent-led charter start-ups with visions of organic lunches and Reggio Emilia-inspired ateliers. My allegiance was (as you might expect) teetering. I felt the urgency of what we/they were doing. I knew the tide was in our/their favor. But I couldn’t help feeling how selfish it seemed, how precious, how entitled, how gentry.

Determined to persist at Hampden Elementary – by 1) reading the charter school chapters of a high-priced sociology text that my boss had handed to me (pictured), 2) a tenuous email relationship I had struck up with the acting chair of the Hampden Community Council’s Education Committee, and 3) a few conversations with neighborhood parents who were thinking along the same lines I was – I cut ties with the charter efforts. “I’ve decided to take my energy for improving Baltimore schools and commit it to Hampden,” I explained in an email to one founder. That was May 4, 2010. (The other tie would prove a bit more complicated to sever.)

For the rest of the year I ratcheted down my intensity in the school department. I noticed when Diane Ravitch came to town, giving a voice to thoughts I’d had about the charter movement and sparking some new ones. I kept in touch with my new friend at the HCC. I went to some panel discussions at Margaret Brent that parents in Charles Village set up. I held onto my vision of sending my son to the neighborhood public school. A school that kept parents like me in the neighborhood well after their kids turned four. A school he could walk to.

My son started to walk that September. And that was the greatest excitement of 2010.

2011 was a different story…

December 16, 2011

Open Thread: “If I Were a Poor Black Kid”

So, on December 12, Gene Marks came out with “If I Were a Poor Black Kid,” the most incendiary education post of 2011. Which is no small feat, given that it’s almost Christmas. Here’s the link, if you haven’t seen it yet. And here’s a rebuttal, by Kelly Virella from Dominion of New York.

If you’d like to comment, please do. After your first comment is approved, you’ll be free to post at will. So you can use this space for longer form exchanges than you can have on Twitter.

Go!

October 24, 2011

Breaking the Barriers: Talking About Race in Baltimore

Baltimore in Black and White from Urbanite. Thanks to Michael Corbin for the tip.

A number of heavy hitters in education reform name closing the achievement gap as a driving mission. They’re mostly white. Because I was curious about whether closing that gap was in itself a driver for education reform-minded African Americans, I made my way to the Enoch Pratt Free Library on the night of October 20 to listen to two black male professors tackle the subject of black male achievement.

The event was called “Breaking the Barriers: Helping Black Males Achieve Academic Success,” the twelfth event in the Open Society Institute -Baltimore‘s Talking About Race series. The panelists: Ivory Toldson, associate professor at Howard University, and Raymond Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University. The moderator: Shawn Dove, campaign manager for the Open Society Campaign for Black Male Achievement.

In the first answer of the night, Toldson questioned the “achievement gap” talk in precisely the way I was hoping someone would:

“…I started my research because I wanted us to talk about race – particularly as it pertains to African-American males – much differently than I’d seen it represented in the media. One of the things I noticed when I first started research related to African-American male achievement was the absence of the word ‘achievement.’ Most of it had something to do with ‘failure.’ It had something to do with an ‘achievement gap.’ …What I wanted to do was look at black males who were achieving…

You can listen to the event on the Enoch Pratt Library’s website. Here’s a look at my notebook:

Toldson:
Root cause of underachievement: There’s a disconnect between young black males and their teachers.
Nationwide, 63 percent of the teaching force is white female.
Teachers in urban schools come from outside the communities they serve. Understanding the nuances of the community is necessary to give context to behavior. (Result = unnecessary suspensions.)

Winbush:
The system of racism – and how black males fit into it globally – is something we need to talk about. We need to fix the system of racism.

Toldson:
The Justice Policy Institute Report came out in 2002 saying more blacks were in prison than in college by a margin of 100,000. That was up for debate then. Twelve years later, that finding has never been replicated.
There are more than 400,000 black men in college now than there are black men in prison. But we’re still operating with old data. And while the 100,000 number might rile up activists from inside the black community, it feeds negative perception from the outside (most importantly, among the white female teachers who are tasked with teaching black boys). “We need real-time data to change perception,” he says.

Winbush:
Likens teaching blacks to teaching in a foreign country. You need to know the history, the language, the culture to teach effectively.

Toldson:
Responds to a question about the school-to-prison pipeline. (See his report, Breaking Barriers 2.) Talks about unfair expulsions and suspensions. (Calls it “push-out”).

Sixty-six percent of suspensions are of students who don’t understand the material or who aren’t socialized to the environment.

Recommends policy change: Stop suspensions for academic reasons (e.g., repeated lateness, “last straw” suspensions). End “zero tolerance” language. Zero tolerance doesn’t work.

FACT: There are more blacks in prison now than were released from slavery. 

Toldson:
Nationally, 1.8% of teachers are black males. While the percentage in Baltimore may be higher, it needs to be 6% nationally to reflect percentage of black males in the United States.

Too few blacks are graduating high school. 16% of blacks have a B.A., as opposed to 30% of whites.

* * *

Listen to the whole thing if you have some time. My notes heavily skew toward Toldson’s comments over those of Winbush – an imbalance I plan to correct in another post. (UPDATE: See “The Failure of Desegregation in Baltimore City Schools: An Interview with Ray Winbush,” by Edit Barry, for Baltimore Fishbowl, Nov. 29, 2011) In the meantime, here are some potentially useful links:

Published Reports

Breaking Barriers: Plotting the Path to Academic Success for School-Age African-American Males [PDF]

Breaking Barriers 2: Plotting the Path Away from Juvenile Detention and Toward Academic Success for School-age African American Males [PDF]

Cellblocks or Classrooms?: The Funding of Higher Education and Corrections and Its Impact on African American Men [PDF]

Notable Organizations and Programs

Books Mentioned

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen

The Isis Papers by Dr. Frances Cress Welsing

The Warrior Method: A Parents’ Guide to Rearing Healthy Black Boys by Raymond Winbush, PhD

Happy reading, Baltimore.

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