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.”

Read more.

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Firefighting is a noble and selfless profession. And there’s a shortage of firefighters across the country. It’s also a physically dangerous and psychologically taxing profession. CareerCast, an online portal for job seekers, ranked firefighting the most stressful job of 2015. And firefighters have among the highest rates of injuries and illnesses, according to government data.

So, taken all together, this raises some questions about equity and opportunity when career academies at high schools with higher concentrations of disadvantaged youth of color are preparing their students for firefighting, while career academies serving mainly white students—sometimes in the same school district—are preparing students for engineering and STEM careers.

Can such trends lead to “tracking” and perpetuate age-old inequalities for youth of color? Is this deserving of more scrutiny? My latest piece explores this issue.

[James] Kemple, now the executive director at the Research Alliance for New York City Schools, said his study suggests that career academies can be an “equalizing force,” noting that most of his data was drawn from schools and districts with high concentrations of black and Latino students, and students from low-income families and communities. For the desired effects, he said, three important elements must work in tandem: strong personalized-learning environments, a commitment to helping students complete high school, and opportunities to participate in meaningful work-related learning experiences. The biggest threat is inflating any one component at the expense of another. “An over-emphasis on job-specific skills training could lead to tracking,” Kemple said, referring to the educational practice of dividing students based on perceived abilities. “From this perspective, [firefighting] should provide the same opportunities for integrated learning, career-development skills, and advancement to college as business and finance.”

Louie F. Rodriguez, an associate professor in the college of education at California State University San Bernardino, said he has seen this trend before when you take a traditional school environment and examine the program offerings by race, language, and class. Rodriguez, who co-authored Small Schools and Urban Youthsaid there is “a lot of research to suggest that tracking students by race … perpetuates inequality at the school level.” While considering some of the examples cited, Rodriguez said it is vital to scrutinize the degree to which all career academies offer all students the same opportunity to learn. “If some academies offer more academically rigorous and more selective courses, and there are clear disparities in enrollment patterns by race, language, and class, then there is obviously a need to be concerned,” he said.

Read more.

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In many ways public schools are failing to support, strengthen, and uplift Black children. This is magnified when it comes to LGBTQ youth of color. It’s vital that we understand and address how race intersects with gender – and how some educators marginalize and stigmatize difference – so the story of two boys in Oxnard, California, is never repeated.

The victim was black, living in foster care, questioning his sexuality, and experimenting with cross-dressing. The accused was white; raised in a violent, dysfunctional home; and dabbling in white-supremacist propaganda. The murder gained national attention and garnered magazine covers—a child killing another child is particularly tragic and horrific—as it revealed an undercurrent of race, class, and sexuality. Like pulling a Band-Aid off a festering wound, all of these aspects were crudely exposed in McInerney’s 2011 trial for first-degree murder.

Ken Corbett, a clinical psychologist in New York City who has studied and written on gender identity and boyhood, was immediately drawn to the details of the case and traveled to California to attend the trial; he wanted to examine the many facets of King’s and McInerney’s lives that intersected and led to a gruesome end. His new book, A Murder Over a Girl: Justice, Gender, Junior High, is a story told through the prism of parents, friends, teachers, lawyers, and those like Corbett enveloped by this tragedy. He recently spoke to me about his search for answers.

Read more.

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Today a new website launched, with the mission “to lead an honest, fact-based conversation about how to give America’s 74 million children…the education they deserve.”

So please allow me to offer an “honest, fact-based” look at this new education endeavor. And why it’s decidedly wack. [Look it up if you don’t know the term. Consider it an invitation to grow your vocabulary.]

The majority of students now in public schools aren’t white. Based on demographic trends, the fastest-growing groups in U.S. public schools for many years to come will not be white. The racial and ethnic gap – more like a crater – between students of color and their teachers is a well-worn topic. Many including myself have noted the disparity, and the necessity for more teachers of color is apparent.

Now comes The Seventy Four to remind us that it’s not just the teachers in public education that are blindingly white – so are the voices trying “to lead…conversation” in education. These are the so-called experts who will hold two forums with presidential candidates for both major political parties, taking their temperature on what education in America should look like and how it should perform.

Of the staff at The Seventy Four with “Director”, “Editor” or some indication of management in their title, none are perceptible people of color. Of the Board of Directors, the same percentage applies. For those who might ask “Why does this matter?” you’re the reason why this erasure of voices of color, with a handful of notable exceptions, has been the way of education leadership for so many years. Ideology aside – be it reformers, traditionalists or the newest label du jour – it’s white people doing white things and having white brainstorms about nonwhite children and schools.

Who among us thinks Campbell Brown and her cohort are looking to “overhaul” schools in wealthy white suburbs. Or will The Seventy Four stake their claim speaking for students of color, parents of color, communities of color … racial and ethnic groups they wish to lavish with benevolence, but who are not sufficiently capable of serving on The Seventy Four’s Board or serving in high-ranking positions on its staff.

The Seventy Four is just the latest example of whitewashing in education newsgathering. Coming on the heels of The Grade, offering “praise and criticism” on education journalism through the categorically white lens of five white education journalists who serve as the blog’s advisors. Colorblindness is racism. And colorblind education leadership is an insult and a disgrace. Racial and ethnic representation matters.

As a parent of color, spare me your imperialistic colonialism. People of color in this country have a long, sordid history of white people speaking for us and acting on our behalf. We’re not three-fifths of a human being any longer. We can speak, think and act for ourselves.

Here’s my “honest, fact-based” conclusion: Rather than the new kid on the block, The Seventy Four is looking more like the same old, tired retread.

 

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The concepts contained in words like ‘freedom,’, ‘justice,’ ‘democracy’ are not common concepts; on the contrary, they are rare. People are not born knowing what these are. It takes enormous and, above all, individual effort to arrive at the respect for other people that these words imply.
–James Baldwin, “The Crusade of Indignation

Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence denounced slavery as a “cruel war against human nature.” Mind you this rousing language was written by a man who owned slaves. Anyway, Jefferson’s paragraph on slavery never made it into the final Declaration of Independence because slave-owning delegates from the South and delegates with business ties to the slave trade from the North debated Jefferson’s passage and stripped this language.

Let’s just stipulate for the record that America’s Independence Day – celebrating “freedom” and “democracy” – is rife with hypocrisy and cowardly logic. Frederick Douglass peeped it and called it out in 1852. All of this history is an interesting sidebar to fully grasping what occurred last weekend as a room of about 7,000 educators in Florida tried to reconcile their principles with their practices.

The nation’s largest teachers union on July 3 unanimously approved a measure to combat institutional racism, “taking a historically bold stand against racism and hate.” Channeling the country’s Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, it was a powerful moment of righteousness and justice. But like Baldwin noted, true justice requires “enormous…individual effort” and like the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, the NEA delegates on July 4, 2015 came up short.

First up was an item calling on NEA to “support…efforts to remove the Confederate flag and other symbols of the Confederacy from public schools and public spaces.” The ensuing debate reminded me of a game of Twister. Clutching and grabbing at any excuse not to ban the Confederate flag and racist symbols that glorify slavery and oppression – while looking desperately for a comfortable and steady position to land.

Some of those in attendance, and some watching online, had profound observations. Like Baldwin’s essay, so clear and uncomplicated.

After about a two hour debate “and other symbols of the Confederacy” was stricken from the item. A great public school for every student is the Association’s vision – though if you’re one of the thousands of Black students forced to attend a school honoring racist leaders, it might not be so great. Oh well.

Over the next couple days the assembled educators flirted between flashes of consciousness and backpedaling from / equivocating on actions that would show their institutional racism vote signaled a new way of thinking and doing. Based on the NEA’s elected representatives who gathered in Orlando, the jury is out on whether the union can “move to confront racism” and “demand changes to policies, programs, and practices that condone or ignore unequal treatment,” as cited on NEAToday.org.

What appears obvious is that NEA members have an opportunity to put some teeth to anti-racism work or leave it untouched on the plate. Over a year ago I challenged educators to step up and address racial injustice. It’s still your move.

During a January panel discussion at EduCon on “Connections in Education” I cited three books that are mandatory reading for every teacher and school administrator. I offered these book recommendations for educators to grow in their understanding of race, culture and ethnicity, and in the process strengthen their connections with nonwhite students and parents.

That appearance led to an invitation this spring from MindShift KQED to write on a book that had a profound impact on my life today – a book that I was eager to share with others because of the lessons I learned. I chose “Faces At The Bottom Of The Well: The Permanence Of Racism” by Derrick Bell.

Excerpt:

The conversation sparked by Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well among four Black women sitting in a Northeast D.C. living room is as indelible as the book’s content. In education, one of the foundational principles is that understanding and learning is enriched when students learn with and from each other. But not all learning happens in a classroom, and peer to peer education can take many forms. This book club rebuffed light reading fare. Its members – a PhD in social psychology, an English professor at the University of the District of Columbia, and a graduate student – saw the monthly book club as a seminar in raising racial consciousness and saw themselves as social justice teachers.

Faces at the Bottom of the Well pierced my perception and views about race and racism in America.

Read more on how “Faces at the Bottom of the Well” affected me and continues to influence me as a writer, parent and lifelong learner.