Walk the integration walk, New York
This article, written by AACTE Director of Government Relations K. Ward Cummings, originally appeared in the Daily News Opinion section and is reprinted with permission.
The civil rights leader Malcolm X once famously said that the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. If he were alive today, he might also include those weekday hours between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. when our children are in school.
This past May was the 65th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education. The occasion inspired numerous panel discussions, seminars and reports about how much or how little the state of education has changed in the last half-century. Sadly, considerable attention also was paid to the subject of how segregated American schools remain 65 years later.
Readers of a certain age might be surprised to learn that the most segregated schools in America are not in the South, but in the North. Segregation persists nationwide despite persuasive arguments against it and clear evidence that the benefits of a racially and culturally diverse student body flow in both directions.
It has been proven that students of color attending integrated schools have higher average test scores and are less likely to drop out. In the 1970s and 1980s, when school integration was at its zenith, dropout rates decreased significantly for minority students. The decline was greatest in the most integrated districts.
Students of color are not the only winners when our school populations are diverse. Statistics show that white students also benefit substantially from attending integrated schools as diverse classrooms promote increased critical thinking and problem solving among students who work alongside students with differing perspectives and backgrounds than their own. Despite these advantages, racial segregation persists.
Research by Amy Stuart Wells of the American Education Research Association may help to explain the dissonance. According to her analysis, affluent, well-educated white parents from the New York metropolitan area were more likely to say they wanted more ethnically diverse schools, but less likely to choose such schools. Her work suggests that not all parents are willing to live their principles when the cards are on the table. Recognizing the need for leadership on this vital and controversial issue, state legislators are offering some creative solutions to the problem.
One bill introduced in New Jersey during the last year focused on promoting greater racial integration among the young through recreation, by encouraging state and municipal swim programs to facilitate the increased participation of African-American youths.
A bill was introduced in Delaware this year with the intent of uncomplicating the administrative and structural barriers for disadvantaged students wanting to transfer to the school of their choice.
In Mississippi, the state Senate considered a bill to provide scholarships to low and mid-income students in persistently low-achieving schools, enabling them to attend a school outside of their residential district.
These reform attempts notwithstanding, what is striking when researching legislation on this subject is how few bills have been introduced. The reason for this could be as simple as the lack of a large and vocal constituency on the issue.
In 2017, famed New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones was interviewed for an Atlantic Magazine piece on school integration in which she talked about how some liberal-leaning white Americans have difficulty “walking the walk” when it comes to their kids. “If you could just get white liberals to live their values, you could have a significant amount of integration,” she said.
Around the country, there are pockets of liberal white American parents and teachers living their values. Or, as Gandhi said, being the change they want to see.
In places like Manhattan and Brooklyn, parents and teachers joined forces because they were frustrated that city leaders would not act to integrate their schools. They met in April of this year to shape their own diversity plans focused on changing enrollment rules and altering the academic screens used to sort students. In Texas, integration is being driven by the innovative efforts of visionary educators such as Mohammed Choudhury, who is focused on the socio-economic and racial integration in the San Antonio independent school district.
If the polls are true and Americans do indeed support more school integration, more of us will have to be the agent of the change we want to see. And we will need to live our values every day, not just on Sunday.
K. Ward Cummings is the director of government relations at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education (AACTE).