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”


  1. Wasn't it Einstein who gave us that classic definition of Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?

    I've been looking at this issue in Orange County, and have a parents' meeting at my kids' school next week to try to brainstorm solutions. When schools don't have resources to handle exceptional needs children and children who lack the fundamentals who continue to get passed along because of No Child Left Behind, teachers are burdened, which brings down the quality of education for other students in the class. There is also a huge influx of English as Second Language students into North Carolina who struggle with understanding concepts. You can’t engage those parents if you don't have adequate interpreter services. Again, teachers spend an inordinate amount of time on those kids to the detriment of others. But no child should be left behind (seriously and sincerely; it's not fair that a child should receive an inadequate education because of their skin, heritage, or where they live).

    Parents need to step up, too. I think this is the biggest area for growth. We tend to think that education begins and ends with the school doors and that we don't have a role to play, just because we pay taxes and already "paid" for our kids' education. Get over it. We should be involved monitoring and assisting with what our kids learn, who they spend time with, what they're doing in and outside of the classroom. When parents and schools get into a finger pointing match, the only losers are the kids.

    And I agree with you brother that the kids need to take ownership and accountability. Learning isn't like packing a suitcase that you can cram things into and lock. Kids have to stand up and try to learn, ask questions, and let it be known if something their teacher is trying to explain to them doesn't make sense. Get them to explain it differently until it makes sense. Ask for help from friends. Get tutors. Don't be embarrassed or too cool. Students can't wait until they fail and blame it on the teacher. Our kids also have to understand that it is rare for somebody to have enough game on the mic, the field or the court to be able to get paid well doing those things. The things you can get paid for while letting your pants sag will often get you in jail if you're lucky, and shot if you're not. Again, our parents have to step up and teach their kids to go down the right paths.

    With respect to the desegregation issue, I attended a conference a few years ago on that exact issue. And the truth is that schools are becoming as segregated as they were before the Swann case. I got bussed across town in Charlotte growing up as a result of that case. And truthfully, the schools were better. But why? More money? That was part of it. But the parents cared more. They were involved in what the schools did, and didn't let them get away with half-hearted efforts. The kids were engaged more. They wanted to learn and live up to the expectations placed on them. When you have that synergy between school, parents, and students that says we all want to push for something more, you have a chance. When you don't and schools fail, parents take their students elsewhere leaving a vacuum in the low performing-schools that inevitably drags them down further.

    We need whole community efforts to work at getting our schools on track. This isn't the school or school system's problem; it's all of our problem, whether we have kids or not, because kids who don't learn the right way grow into adults who learn to do it the wrong way. If we don't get it right, these same students who don't learn anything from schools we allow to under perform and don't help to get better, won't have any future. And neither will we.

  2. As someone who has worked in the public school locally for the last 10 years (I currently instruct 16-21 year-olds in taking the GED), I have taken note of the many systemic failures in our public schools and the various reasons for them. Chiefly, it all comes down to a single factor...P-A-R-E-N-T-S!