Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Re-segregation of Public Education

Another school year is coming to an end. As the sunsets on this most recent pursuit to offer quality education to all our children draws near; we leave behind numerous reminders that things aren’t what they used to be before merger, “No Child Left Behind” and the emergence of gangs. With each passing year comes the surfacing of new issues left to be packed on top of the already huge load to overcome.

My recent blogs have considered the quality of education offered at Durham’s Hillside High School. Responses have fluctuated from a firm rebuke of anyone with the guts to attack the school, to passionate pleas for someone to fix the mess before it’s too late. Thrown in the middle of it all was my apology for pondering the matter at all. Some have addressed my apology. One parent reminded me that I had no reason to apologize. That, in that parents opinion, everything I wrote unraveled the sad truth of what is happening at the school.

Lost in this discussion is what matters the most-elevating the standards for all our schools. Hillside High School is in the forefront of this discussion due to the vicious cycle implored to address the malady of problems there-change the dude in charge. My initial blog spoke of the importance of changing the culture of our schools. Mine was a challenge to raise the bar, not a venomous rebuke of those in charge.

It is easy to make assumptions related to what is wrong in our schools. The countless opinions regarding the root of what is wrong leaves us grappling to get from out under the stack of problems that keep us in catch up mode. Eleanor Seaton, a professor at UNC, has conducted research within public schools in Chicago and Philadelphia. During a conversation she pressed me to consider the importance of researchers entering into schools to do what they do best. Until we get a firm grip on what is happening we will continue this once a year rollercoaster ride.

There are a variety of possible reasons for the achievement gap, disciplinary problems in our schools and horrific test scores. Some could blame testing of students. Others may claim it all began when crack cocaine flooded the streets of America. Still others may charge poor leadership on the school board. The rhetoric surrounding the attack does little to address the mounting problems with public education in Durham, NC and across the nation. The more we wait, the more we will witness an escalating trend-the resegregation of our schools.

The longer we wait, the more we will witness the rise of private and charter school enrollment. More parents will seek alternatives to meet the educational needs of their children. We will witness declining faith in the public education system, and, with this movement, our public school population will reflect the students with the greatest need. Disparities will remind us of why integration and merger was needed. Integration was a reaction to two separate and incredibly unequal systems-one for whites and the other for blacks. The merger of the former Durham City and Durham County School districts came after citizens demanded the provision of equal resources for those attending the Durham City School District.

Durham had failed to integrate after the monumental Supreme Court decision. Two systems with drastically disparate revenue streams continued to exist until 1995. The merger of the systems began the end of economics as an excuse for poor academic performance. It was assumed that the gap in achievement was the function of more in the county school district. The aftermath of integration and merger forces us to contemplate something more than throwing dollars to fix academic disparities.

One has to be critical of the poor academic performance at both Hillside and Southern High. Some will argue that things aren’t as bad as they seem, and will attack anyone for drawing attention to the measures of success and failure used by the State of North Carolina. Others will hide behind the failures of the population attending the school, parental involvement, economic trends and peer pressure. Each excuse may be enough to explain why Hillside, Southern and other schools with the same demographics, struggle in meeting academic goals. These may be explanations for why schools can’t get over the hump, but should we allow these excuses to defeat us before we get started?

We have proven that throwing money at the problem will not fix what ails us. It will take much more than that. The problem is we have little credible evidence regarding what it will take to shift the tide. Why? Because we continue to regress while presumptuously contending the same methods will produce different results.

There’s one truth that I refuse to forfeit-we must demand more from our students. We should never consent to mediocrity. We should never defend an institution that, for whatever reason, fails to prepare those enrolled to survive in this evolving world. Shame on us if we are satisfied with having two separate and very unequal systems. Shame on us if we exert energy in promoting and protecting places that fail our youth.

That’s what got us here in the first place. Will someone sing with me “We Shall Overcome, Someday”

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Watch Those Assumption

Assumptions should never be made when it comes to evaluating the work of others. In my previous blog I apologized for hurting students. The apology came after meeting with teachers, students, parents and Earl Pappy to hear their concerns. My previous blogs were rendered after time spent with students at the school. The aftermath of my last blog takes me by surprise. Rather than accepting that apology, some of my readers have decided to lash out at my credibility.

I have thick skin. Over the years I have remained silent as my readers confront after reading my commentary. This produces a laundry list of assumptions about my work and my commitment to change. So, to those who have decided to attack me for a lack of participation in making a difference-shame on you for speaking before you checked the facts. In doing so you are guilty of the very thing you claim I’ve done-failed to get all the pertinent information before writing my blogs.

I have given my service to Hillside High. I’ve been at the school virtually every day this year. There are students in the school who know me. I pick them up, take them to eat, help them with their homework, mentor them, serve as their advocate. I have encouraged many of Hillside’s students to work toward pursuing a college degree. I have offered to pay for their application fee.

I submitted paper work to volunteer at Hillside High School. Afterwards, I presented a proposal to work with a group of African American boys within the school in a program I call “I-2-I”. In that program I proposed to use quotes from African American men to educate youth and to serve as a means to promote the development of character. I waited to hear from Hillside. After submitting the proposal and not hearing from the school about that proposal, I was contacted by the Smith Middle School in Chapel Hill, NC. The program was implemented there last year and continued this year.

It saddened me that Hillside didn’t respond. It could be the paperwork was lost in the shuffle. Maybe the failure is mine for not pressing more. Or, it could be Hillside struggled with finding the space and time for the program. I desperately wanted to give my services to Hillside. In passing, I mentioned the concept to Mr. Pappy. I contacted Minnie Forte after not hearing from central office about my application to volunteer. After months of waiting, she made the call and I was contacted the same day.

What is my point? I attempted to give my time to Hillside. I came with a model that was designed to connect young people to the amazing voices of the past. My desire was to teach history, literature and to instill tremendous pride within the young men who would have participated in the activity.

There’s more. I contacted women to do the same with the female students. I reached out to Monica Daye, a local spoken word artist and Hillside High graduate, about offering her service to the school. I spoke with Nakia Jones, a substitute teacher at Hillside, about participating in the program. My excitement dissipated when I received no word from the school.

The call I received from the Smith Middle School shifted my emphasis, but it did not alter my desire to work with the school. I have done that by working with students in the school. My readers made an amazing mistake in evaluating my work. One does not have to be in the school to work on behalf of the school. I’ve given tickets to the school to attend events at the Carolina Theatre. More than that, I have offered my support to the school. I have made it clear that I’m willing to do what I can to support Hillside High.

One should never make an assumption. I made a few that I regret. I failed to consider the feelings of the students at Hillside when I wrote that first blog. They have experienced far too much to endure more than they have. Assumptions can destroy the work before it has a chance to materialize. It’s so easy to stand behind them and attack void of any proof of the claims made. It was wrong for me to not consider the emotions stirred by my words.

For those who make assumptions related to the work that needs to be done at Hillside, and the failures of a minister and journalist who should do more than write about the problem, take a deep breath and listen. Everything you suggest was attempted. Not only that, much of that work has been done. The real issue is not about what hasn’t been done, but the root behind it not being done.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Hillside: I'm Sorry

My father’s example of manhood has taught me to always apologize when you hurt someone. It’s one of those things that is easy to do in private space, but amazingly difficult to do in public view. I pray each day to live my life in such a way that by the end of that day I would have made a difference. I believe each day is a gift from God. We should never take it for granted. We should never wait to say what needs to be said when you know, deep down, that your words have hindered the growth of others.

So, I apologize to the students at Hillside High School. I apologize to the parents of those students. I beg the forgiveness of the teachers at Hillside. My words have hurt you, and for, that I am sorry. My prayer is that we can move past that pain and have a meaningful conversation about how we can work together to make a difference at Hillside.

My apology is generated after hearing from students, parents, teachers and Earl Pappy. I’m thankful for those conversations. They have helped me understand something about Hillside that can’t be uncovered in brief discussions with a few or a quick walk through the halls at the school. There is a pride at Hillside that we all should celebrate. That pride is rooted in a long legacy, but, even more than that, it is based on Hillside quest to prove to outsiders that there is much more to this story than can be told in a few test scores or police reports.

I was deeply moved as I listened to Earl Pappy talk about how hurt he was after hearing about my blogs. Although he didn’t read them, his reaction came after hearing his students talk about how they felt. More than listen to him talk, I took notice of his facial expression. He cares for the students at Hillside. I knew after watching him speak that my mistake was in failing to witness what he has endured for the past three years.

Although there was no malice in my words, I failed to understand something deeper than what I reported. Hillside needs to be left alone to heal. Those on the outside, myself included, have failed to comprehend the pain that comes with being disregarded when you are doing the best you can to achieve your goals. Hillside needs something that state agendas and school board members lack the patience to give-loads of love and support.

Those test scores don’t tell the truth. Guns confiscated on or near school property don’t tell all that needs to be said regarding the merits of this school. Yes, Hillside faces tough challenges due to dynamics that have little to do with the people who have given their best to educate students. The problems at Hillside are related to what comes to the school, not what the school produces once they arrive.

Hillside, and so many other schools like it, is victimized by “No Child Left Behind”. Needed are creative ways to educate students; however, our fascination with measuring success has broadened that evil achievement gap that remains as a dark cloud over many of our schools. I’m shocked that students aren’t being taught to write. I worry that this generation will not be equipped to compete in the fast changing technologically centered world.

My mistake was in blaming Hillside rather than pointing the finger where it belongs-you and me. Where are those white children who live in the Hillside district? How many were granted transfers to other schools within the Durham Public School system? How many are at Jordan High? How many black parents were denied the same? How many parents decided to send their child to a private school rather than deal with all of those black kids over at Hillside?

What happened to the promise of merger? Do any of you remember how things were back in 1995 when the new Hillside was opened? We were sold a line of bull. We were told the newly merged school system would put an end to the disparities in public education caused by disparities in funding. We were also told the racial divide would come to an end. It didn’t happen because of pressure coming from parents to maintain a system similar to the one we had before merger.

I blame Durham residents for not taking merger seriously. We have become content with maintaining disparities and racial divides. We are quick to be critical of some of our schools while refusing to celebrate the power of diversity in education. We merged our schools on paper, yet failed to implement a strategy that put an end to the old mindset that forced merger in the first place.

I’m sorry Earl Pappy. I apologize to the students, parents and teachers at Hillside. I’m sorry for doing the same thing others do to pull you down while you are working so hard to move past all that negativity.

I hope you will accept my apology. If not, I will continue to work to make a difference.