Segregation now

Fifty years after landmark Coleman report, does diversity in schools still matter?

PHOTO: Special Collections at the Nashville Public Library
Grace McKinley escorts her daughter Linda Gail and a friend to Fehr Elementary School in Nashville in September 1957 amid Nashvillians protesting desegregation of the city's schools.

In 1966, America got a wake-up call about educational inequality with the release of a 700-page report commissioned by the federal government.

The underlying conclusion of the document, called the Coleman report after its principal investigator, was that inequalities outside of schools resulted in unequal educational outcomes. The report remains hugely influential, in part because it informed a policy shift in the 1970s to large-scale school desegregation.

School districts have long since abandoned the desegregation plans of the 1970s. But diversity in schools still matters, perhaps more than ever, says a panel of experts exploring education equity 50 years after Coleman.

“We’ve slid back,” said Claire Smrekar, a professor at Peabody College of Education at Vanderbilt University, which hosted the panel discussion on Thursday in Nashville.

Smrekar, who also serves as a consultant with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, listed policy changes that have resulted in schools reverting to their pre-desegregation racial makeups: Busing has long since ended and was far from perfect while it lasted, burdening black families more than white families, she said. Courts have forbidden districts from adopting assignment plans that specifically address race. Magnet schools, also known as optional schools in some districts, were championed as a tool for integration in the 1990s but have largely had the opposite effect.

The panelists argued that, despite challenges and setbacks, school diversity is crucial both to raising academic achievement and building trust among people of different races, ethnicities, and backgrounds.

Rucker Johnson, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, pointed to recent unrest in Charlotte, N.C., following the police killing of a black man.

Charlotte once was an exemplar of school desegregation but, like districts in Tennessee, the city quickly re-segregated its schools across the 1990s and 2000s. Now it has one of the lowest upward mobility rates for low-income children in the country, because of both school and housing segregation. “That’s not a coincidence,” Johnson said.

Panelists said school choice — the use of charter schools, magnet schools and other programs allowing parents to send their children to a school outside of their neighborhood — might be one of the best tools to boost education equity.

But that takes thoughtful planning, said Carol Johnson, a former school superintendent in Boston, Minneapolis and Memphis, when charter schools first opened in Tennessee. Her husband taught at one.

“Choice is something we value as parents, but we have to be careful, because there are unintended consequences,” said Johnson, who headed Memphis schools from 2003 to 2007. “It’s not the what, it’s the how.”

Johnson said many black parents have expressed to her through the years that they value diversity because it prepares their children for life after school. “We have to get better at educating a more diverse population so we can compete internationally,” she said.

Richard Dinkins, who represented the plaintiffs in Nashville’s desegregation case and is now a judge on the Tennessee Court of Appeals, said neither lawsuits or research are enough to ensure that desegregation actually happens.

“We need to have a coordinated community effort on how we are going to educate our children,” he said. “The lawsuit can’t do it. The research by itself can’t do it. We all have to do it.”

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Eagle Academy For Young Men in Queens. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk

Consolation prize

Crosstown High wins $2.5 million to help reinvent high school in Memphis

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Newly named leaders Chandra Sledge Mathias and Chris Terrill are working to launch Crosstown High School, a charter school that will open in the fall of 2018 in midtown Memphis.

A charter school opening next year in midtown Memphis has been awarded a $2.5 million grant through a national contest aimed at reinventing America’s high schools.

Leaders of Crosstown High announced Wednesday that it’s receiving the money over five years from the XQ Super School Challenge, an initiative backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs.

The upcoming school garnered national attention last year as a finalist for one of five $10 million XQ awards. Although Crosstown didn’t win, its leaders say the new award will help keep the school on the map of America’s “schools of the future.” (Crosstown is among 18 schools being featured on a live national broadcast on network television on Sept. 8.)

“This hasn’t been attempted in Memphis,” said Chris Terrill, executive director of Crosstown High, about creating a high school of tomorrow from scratch. “There’s energy nationwide for education reform, and we get to be a part of that.”

The new Memphis school will look different from a traditional high school. No classrooms arranged with rows of desks. No high-stakes tests. No failing grades. It will join a growing group of other U.S. schools grounded in mastery-based learning, which emphasizes student-led projects over teacher lectures.

Authorized last year by Shelby County Schools, Crosstown High will open in 2018 with 125 ninth-grade students, eventually growing to 500 across four grades. The students will be chosen through a random lottery that opens in September.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Crosstown Concourse has room for more than just the 500-student high school.

The school will be housed on several floors at Crosstown Concourse, a redeveloped high-rise building that once was a Sears warehouse. The building opened this spring as an urban village and already is home to several nonprofit organizations, community health initiatives and creative arts groups, with whom the school is seeking to leverage partnerships.

“Inside the concourse, there are thousands of different job titles,” said Terrill, whose family has moved into an apartment in the complex. “We’ll be able to listen to what students are interested in and then pair them with places that match those interests.”

Terrill arrived at Crosstown this summer from Mooresville, N.C., where he was head of a charter school. He’s being joined by another charter leader from Warrenton, N.C., Chandra Sledge Mathias, who will serve as Crosstown’s first principal.

Much of the $2.5 million award will go toward professional development, says Sledge Mathias.

“We have lofty ideas, but making it happen in real life is what we need to make happen,” she said. “That starts with teachers who understand what we’re trying to do here, which is going to be very different than the classrooms they’re coming from.”

The school invites the community to stop by Crosstown Concourse on Thursday for a block party celebration featuring the XQ Super School Bus, which visited Memphis last summer as part of the national competition. The event will be an opportunity for Memphians to weigh in on what they want to see at Crosstown High, said Ginger Spickler, the school’s director of strategic partnerships and projects.

“Being a super school means questioning everything,” Spickler said. “We have a mandate to try to do things differently. We want community input as we continue to figure out what different looks like.”