Latin School site, School St., Boston, MA Freedom Trail

What should feel like a major accomplishment—getting accepted into an elite public high school—can quickly go downhill if, as a student, you’re subjected to racial slurs, racial hostilities, and racist attitudes and behaviors. That is the reality for some Black and Latino students in the country’s most selective public high schools. And as the push to diversify these schools takes precedence, inadequate attention is given to creating school cultures that nurture and support students from all ethnic and racial backgrounds.

I looked at how racial conflict is affecting students at America’s most prestigious and sought-after public high schools—and what school leaders and staff can do to address this issue.

Balancing the underrepresentation of his culture inside school with cultural pride outside school is something that Matthew Mata, a Latino senior at Chicago’s Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, navigates daily. Throughout his high-school years he says he’s witnessed the equivalent of what was reported at Boston Latin. “The fact that only a few Latinos get the opportunity to receive a fully resourced education [which means] extracting me from my culture … and people who I can easily identify with” only accelerates racial tensions, said Mata, who travels from an “artistic Mexican neighborhood” to attend one of the most selective schools in the city.

To better meet the needs of its students of color, Payton hired a director of student engagement and formed a club—Payton People of Color—as a place to talk through racial and social issues affecting students. Mata sees it as an attempt to be more inclusive, but believes a club can only reap limited benefits: “There shouldn’t need to be a club so students feel safe [but instead] classroom environments where they feel safe.” He added that what elite schools like his need are opportunities for school staff to grow in their racial and cultural consciousness, through student testimonials and mandatory teach-ins on racism. “I believe that in order to confront an oppressive system, you must at times confront [administrators and teachers] with uncomfortable conversations to hopefully get your message across.”

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School_Lunch_Programs

The Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) allows a school or district to provide free lunch and breakfast to all students when 40 percent or more of its student body is found to be food insecure: they live in homes that receive food stamps, live in foster care, are homeless, or other criteria that identifies them as food vulnerable. The CEP is widely praised by educators and others for lowering administrative costs and feeding more hungry kids.

Yet the House subcommittee that oversees school nutrition programs has introduced a bill that would raise the threshold for schools and districts to qualify for the program. An analysis shows that some 7,000 high-poverty schools would be affected–forcing these schools to shift limited resources to managing paperwork and disrupting access to breakfast and lunch for low-income students.

Yes, hunger impairs school performance. Yes, school breakfast and school lunch can stave off hunger for impoverished children. And we never talk about why affluent children need to eat. It’s a given. Perhaps because eating is a basic human function. This week in The Atlantic I look at the political gamesmanship over something as basic as feeding hungry children.

Some of the most vocal opponents of the proposed bill are educators who live in Indiana, the home state of the bill’s author. The Republican Congressman Todd Rokita, who chairs the subcommittee that introduced the bill, represents an area in Indiana where nearly 34,000 children were rated “food insecure”—living in a household with limited or uncertain access to adequate food—according to the latest data from Feeding America.

The disconnect between politics and policy seems most glaring in the one aspect of school meals that is hardest to measure: the widespread stigma that students and families often attach to free meals at school. Morris C. Leis, the superintendent of Coffee County Schools in south central Georgia, said that community eligibility allows the district to serve free breakfast and lunch to over 6,400 kids—84 percent of the entire student population—but with the proposed change, six schools would be unable to participate, affecting some 3,800 children. A racially and ethnically diverse district, 28 percent of his community lives at or below the federal poverty level. “Coffee County has many [families] living paycheck to paycheck,” he said. “For some students, the meals they eat at school may be the only meals they get during the day or even on the weekend.”

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