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Most of the time, I read a news story about something in education, and I think about it for about five minutes before letting it go, chalking it up to just another new smudge on the complicated stained glass window that is public education. The other day, though, I read the article “In N.C., a new battle on school integration," and I thought of little else during my “processing” time, with the exception of lesson modifications and other "teachery" things like that.
During my mental processing, several things occurred to me, and I spent a decent amount of time re-reading the article, as well as checking out other related sources. I felt it incumbent on me, as a teacher in a high-poverty school, to give voice to my thoughts, observations, and lingering questions to those who are willing to listen.
Several other articles exist regarding the topic, but I’m basing my response on the reading of the article mentioned above, with the help, at times, of other references. I’ll include links to the articles I read, just like a good researcher.
For background: the article on which I focus discusses the fact that Wake County School District is, to borrow a word from Stephen Colbert, "disintegrating" their schools, moving students back to regular neighborhood schools rather than keeping racial/economic enrollment balanced in all schools.
Some of its [the district's] best, most diverse schools are in the poorest sections of this capital city. And its suburban schools, rather than being exclusive enclaves, include children whose parents cannot afford a house in the neighborhood.
Here is a problem I've referenced before, even connecting it to my own life regarding our search for a home to actually own, but finding it difficult because the "good" schools are in places where we can't afford to purchase a house, and the houses we can afford have less than stellar schools.
The way I see it, as a teacher, this is how schools should be balanced. My rationale for that is the students who attend the school where I teach are, as a result of their low-performing status, tested more than they are taught. Currently, my school, an under-performing school, offers no electives in the Language Arts Department. Two comparable high schools in a nearby town offer Creative Writing, Discussion and Debate, World Literature, Public Speaking, Mythology, Video and Film, Film Literature, and Semantics as their electives. Point being, which group of kiddos gets the better education? The opportunity for a more enriched educational experience is obviously there for the kids who attend school in the more affluent district. So, even if the parents can't afford a house in the district, the students have the opportunity to experience an education that might actually make the difference in their future. The other option, for students such as mine, is an education that caters to the lowest common denominator, because we're tying to meet state and federal expectations.
But over the past year, a new majority-Republican school board backed by national tea party conservatives has set the district on a strikingly different course. Pledging to "say no to the social engineers!" it has abolished the policy behind one of the nation's most celebrated integration efforts.
A celebrated integration effort that, as recently as 11 years ago, included "economic integration...adopting a goal that no school should have more than 40 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, the proxy for poverty."
Yet, some board members are actually
"embracing the provocative idea that concentrating poor children, who are usually minorities, in a few schools could have merits."
Merits like what? Concentrating a viable educational opportunity with beneficial resources into, yet again, the rich areas, thus creating a two-tier educational system, where the poor kids get the sub-par education and the rich kids get to broaden their perspectives with the opportunity to take such classes as World Literature? The separation of rich and poor kids into different schools is, in essence, fueling the fires of the current issues in public education, but nobody ever wants to talk about that. Well, except for Colbert, who went so far as to satirize the situation by saying, “What good is living in a gated community if my kids go to school, and get poor all over them?”
Parents in Wake County worried about their kids getting “poor” all over them is remarkably comparable to white parents of the Civil Rights era worried about their kids getting “Black” all over them. In our current society, which is growing more global literally by the second, there is simply no place for such an openly bigoted point of view. However, some in Wake County (i.e. Tea Partier Tedesco) are arguing for a new sort of segregation – a new racism, where rich people express a sometimes thinly veiled bigotry toward poor people. In this new movement in Wake County, members of the Tea Party are basically saying, “We don’t want our privileged kids from our suburban white enclave to be sullied by people who speak more than one language.” Here we have xenophobia and subversive hatred at its best, or really, its worst.
Yes, I know that Tedesco insisted “My life is integrated...We need new paradigms.” But to what new paradigms is he referring? Re-segregating the schools? If that happens, though, here’s the problem, stated over again:
Without a diversity policy in place, they [critics of the current trend] say, the county will inevitably slip into the pattern that defines most districts across the country, where schools in well-off neighborhoods are decent and those in poor, usually minority neighborhoods struggle.
So, according to this logic, if one applies it to the rest of the nation's schools, it’s a truism that our schools are, if not racially, then economically, segregated. Not only that, but the current attempts to fix the problems inherent in the very poor, minority neighborhoods where the neighborhoods exist are not focused on the problem of socioeconomic inequality and all of the concomitant issues, but on the idea that the teachers are ineffective.
If Tedesco’s model is followed, and “the result is a handful of high-poverty schools, he said, perhaps that will better serve the most challenged students,” what is his theory on how those students will be “better” served? Aside from the fact that it would make their overall educational experience less enriching, putting already challenged students into a challenging situation does nothing but set them up for failure. Schools in high-poverty areas not only lack in funding, but the students in those schools are also subject to an array of other issues, including the fact that “Crime, drugs, and violence plague their neighborhoods, and there are fewer adults with professional careers to act as role models.” Then, what we have, at least in the case of the school in which I teach, more gang involvement, more dropouts; in short, a less than ideal environment for education.
Tedesco goes on to say,
"If we had a school that was, like, 80 percent high-poverty, the public would see the challenges, the need to make it successful," he said. "Right now, we have diluted the problem, so we can ignore it."
Colbert already poked fun, but I'll analyze the situation with more pathos than satire: How exactly are we trying to make those poor schools successful? I admit that when you dilute the problem, it’s not as big of a problem. But wouldn’t it be a good thing if there weren’t such a big problem with public education? The high-poverty kids who attend schools that have funding actually experience what a real education is - without the strictures imposed by impending federal government takeover. Access to a higher-quality education might actually make the deciding difference for those kids that would normally be “stuck” in a high-poverty, low-achieving school.
Interestingly, a newly-appointed Wake County Superintendent, Anthony J. Tata, a retired general who “names conservative commentator Glenn Beck and the Tea Party Patriots among his ‘likes’ on his Facebook page, cited the District as an example of a place where neighborhood schools are ‘working.’” Yes, they’re working because they are INTEGRATED - poor kids and rich kids are going to school TOGETHER. If you “disintegrate” the schools that are integrated both racially and economically, won’t they stop working?
Why would we want that?
Herein lies the basis of my whole problem with the new direction of the Wake County School District, as well as my belief that their current integration methodology is what we should be doing. Every child should, irrespective of race or economic situation, have access to the same education.
"We knew that over time, high-poverty schools tend to lose high-quality teachers, leadership, key students - you see an erosion," said Bill McNeal, a former superintendent who instituted the goal as part of a broad academic plan. "But we never expected economic diversity to solve all our problems."
So then what is the problem, if the current policy “solve[d]” all the problems already?