Thursday, January 3, 2008

School Integration 2007; A Difficult Proposition

As the black men of Ossining High School,
We will be positive.
We will strive to succeed.
We will help one another.
We will not allow anyone to interfere with us achieving our goals.

The previous verse is an affirmation spoken daily. What makes this something of note is that it is being said by young black men at a high school. These young black men are part of a group called Project Earthquake that is in place at a high school in the Ossining, NY School District. Ossining, NY is located in Westchester County on the Hudson River. What makes Ossining unusual is that for decades the town has embraced the concept of school integration and has made it a priority. The district has developed and tried a number of innovations to create an environment to help all of its students to succeed. The problem has been that despite all of their efforts, there is still an achievement gap for its minority students, especially the black males. The graduation rate for Ossining is 93% for white students and 48% for black students.

The fact that Project Earthquake needs to exist -- that a district as diverse as Ossining still struggles to guide African American boys toward graduation -- is a reminder that integrated school buildings aren't enough to improve the academic achievement of poor, minority kids. Indeed, the persistence of the achievement gap in Ossining echoes the national data available on race, class, and academic success in integrated schools. A study of about 1,200 children from poor families who relocated to subsidized housing in mixed-income areas during the late 1990s showed that the academic achievement of those children did not improve with the move. The findings were most discouraging for boys, who in some cases did even worse in integrated schools.

But there's a problem with that argument: Research shows that students who attended racially and socioeconomically integrated schools have better life outcomes than their nonintegrated peers of similar socioeconomic status. Integrated kids of all classes and races grow up into more tolerant adults. And although integrated schools don't always do a better job of sending poor, nonwhite kids to college, studies have shown that black students are more likely to be successful in the workforce if they've attended integrated schools.[1]

Based on the numbers and the current data it appears that for many young minority men traditional methods of education are failing them. As I have discussed previously, the number of young black men that drop out of high school each year in America is a national catastrophe. As we move to more standards based education I believe the number of drop-outs among young black men will increase beyond the catastrophic numbers we see today. We can continue to ignore these children who are dropping out by continuing to use educational methods that are obviously not working or we can be willing to use more non-traditional methods in an effort to try and salvage some of these young lives. The school board in Ossining has decided to do something about it, incorporating new methods.

Education is such a complex issue and involves so many different variables that it is frustrating to see this drive to create a standardized system that will apply to all schools and students. As if educating young people could be reduced to a score on some certification test. While I acknowledge we need to have a system of accountability, one size in education definitely does not fit all. The obstacles confronting many of our minority children cannot be overcome with a focus on writ memorization of obscure facts. Much of education is support and reinforcement, the two areas that so many of our young black men are finding nonexistent. For too many of our students there is a culture of “playing dumb”, instead of striving to excel they seek to fail. The causes of this phenomenon are many times institutionalized racism at the schools; they are expected to do less, the culture of “acting white”; for many excelling at academics is perceived by fellow students as acting white, and a lack of educational reinforcement at home; many of their parents are themselves in fact high school dropouts.

I believe that we are basing our educational decisions on the wrong criteria, as if all things are equal in the home, employment, and income areas. They are not equal and our goals should reflect that inequality. Right now, I would be glad if we could raise the number of black high school graduates. There is no sense in continuing to debate that there are more young black men in jail than in college if we are only graduating less than half from high school in most of our major cities. I believe that if we increase the numbers graduating from high school the college numbers will also increase. We must enlarge the pool of young black men eligible for college to begin to impact the lack of representation of young black men on our nation’s campuses.

I have always been an advocate of separating sexes during early education and the current data has given me no reason to change that thinking. Our current educational system is not reaching our black boys and if we don’t begin to address this issue, we will have lost many of them forever. The time has come to adopt new systems and methods. We need to begin to incorporate a holistic approach to their education; combining not only the basics of education, but also to include structure and support. The military has a long and successful history of instilling discipline and pride in our young men; we should begin to incorporate techniques that have been proven successful, even if they may seem unconventional. The cost of doing nothing is too great to continue down the current path.


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