As the the one year anniversary of Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO, This American Life has completed a very thought provoking two part series on the state of school desegregation both in the St. Louis area specifically and the United States as a whole. If you haven’t caught these segments yet, I’d strongly encourage you to take a listen. They are both highly entertaining and incredibly informative whether you are the parent of a child on one side of a racially divided school or just a citizen interested in better understanding the challenges our educators face today. I’ve embedded them both here, or you can have a listen at the This American Life website/podcast feed.
I listened to this series with great interest, having taught 3 years in a high school that would be classified as integrated (similar percentages of black and white) and 10 years as a high school that would be classified as segregated (majority middle-class white) by the definition of segregation used by TAL reporters (at least 25% minority, at least 25% majority). Neither of these schools fits neatly into boxes.
The segregated school certainly offered advantages to its students as a majority white, middle class district. It felt safe and a place where learning was valued by most families. And yet, the building, more than 60 years old, wasn’t exactly state of the art. Buckets had to be put out in the halls every time it rained. Mold grew in many rooms. Students were encouraged to wear coats to take standardized tests because the only place large enough to accommodate them was the unheated gym. And while in theory they had every opportunity that the more affluent students had, the students who received free or reduced lunches (one measure of poverty, roughly 10% of the student body at this school) were disproportionately represented in remedial classes, classes that would not leave them prepared for a four year school. I don’t want to make the place to be worse than it was because by any objective measure (test scores, graduation rate, college placements, etc), the school was achieving at a high level. However, I think it’s worth pointing out that only that even many schools that are deemed “successful” still struggle with some pretty basic challenges in terms of facilities, budgets, and the very real problem that the children they attempt to educate bring years of personal struggles with them through the school doors.
The desegregated school was situated in a city that faced much greater challenges in terms of poverty and unemployment, despite a proud history of its own. It’s true that black and white students took classes side by side, and I could see individual cases where that benefited students, but as a whole, the school’s achievement levels were mediocre if measured with the typical measuring sticks. That less than spectacular performance came despite very committed teachers, some truly excellent administrators, and some innovative programs that were implemented during my time there. It was a district I could take pride in being part of, despite it having a reputation of being “rough” to outsiders in nearby school districts. All of the efforts by staff and administration certainly helped some individual students, but they didn’t bring about a sweeping change that brought the school’s test scores or graduation rates to those of a rich, suburban school. I came away from my time there feeling fulfilled by the work I had done, but with a painful realization of how difficult it is to bring about systemic change in such a situation.
A couple of additional thoughts on the This American Life episodes:
- The audio from the meeting with the parents in the Francis Howell schools was painful to listen to. I don’t know if there were other, more supportive comments that the producers of TAL didn’t play, but you’d like to think there was at least one parent that offered some statement of support, welcoming the students that would be joining Francis Howell from Normandy, MO.
- One of the most profound quotes in The Problem We All Live With came from United States Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan: “There are many places where there are huge inequities in resources. Federal money can’t begin to make up for the fact that so much of public schools is locally funded by property taxes which is inherently, in many places, unfair and unequal, and I would say, un-American.” Having lived my whole life in Illinois, the state that funds its schools with the highest proportion of property taxes, I wholeheartedly agree that it feels incredibly unfair and un-American for kids to be placed in poorly (or richly) funded schools based on where they are born. The disparities among suburban, urban, and rural schools, and even within one of these categories of school, can be shocking.