School segregation, income distribution, and the success of our school systems

December 30, 2017

It started with a little Mexican-American girl in California whose family refused to allow their child to be segregated into a non-white public school. They sued in the 1940s, won the case, and Mexican children were subsequently allowed into white schools. That lead to the “Little Rock Nine” – children who were part of a bigger segregation movement in Arkansas. They succeeded in desegrating one school for a short time. But, the hatred was so high, and went all the way up to the governor’s mansion, that the Governor actually went so far as to close all the public schools in Little Rock for an entire school year! That led to private and homeschool education for white children, and no schooling at all for black children. Nowadays, we can’t imagine attending a school without a mix of children in it….but have we really come as far as we might think we have? 

Teach Us All is a documentary that details a sobering look at the status of education in the U.S. today, 60 years after the Little Rock Nine bravely tried to integrate schools. The sad truth is that schools are more segregated than ever before. Sometimes, it’s a simple truth of where people “choose” to live (isn’t that racism in and of itself?) and sometimes it’s because of “parent choice” whereby families choose to pull their children out of predominantly black and hispanic schools and into white schools. 

The film takes a deep look at schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, New York City, New York, and Los Angeles, CA. The view is depressing and it is very similar across the nation. Children living in poverty are exponentially more susceptible to failing in school, have higher dropout rates than their higher-income peers, and they are oftentimes more likely to be African-American or Latino. Many schools don’t have the resources they need, and they certainly don’t all have the same resources. 

I am an elementary school teacher, so I watched this film with a slant towards protecting my colleagues. I confess to completely bristling when the film detailed a lawsuit (which was ultimately unsuccessful) in Los Angeles brought about by students and parents who were fighting tenure-laws and trying to oust ineffective teachers. I am sure that ineffective teachers do exist, but after working as a substitute teacher in 4 different school districts throughout California, I have seen nothing but commitment to the profession and students, a die-hard work ethic, and absolute love and passion for each and every child from every single teacher I have ever worked with. And, now that I have my own classroom, I can speak to my own passion and commitment to every single child in my classroom, often to the detriment of my own health, so that each and every child can succeed. The film also talked about empowering teachers, providing them with professional development, and supporting them within the community and from the administration. That’s what we need, each and every single day. Tearing teachers down will not help the problem – we need to work together as a community. 

That’s what was inspiring, ultimately, about this film. At the end of the film, they detailed some of the community building that students are working on in different communities to build for themselves better schools. It does take all of us working together – parents, students, administrators, and teachers all together. And, yes, funding is not evenly distributed and it is not fair to students living in poverty. 

I’ll give you an example. I have worked at quite a few “Title I” (poverty) schools in one district in California. Many of the schools were so poverty-stricken that the entire school received free breakfast and free lunch every day. (I’ve never seen that in any other district. Yes, there are always some students who receive free or reduced lunches in basically every school I’ve been in. But, every single student? That’s true poverty.) Anyway, the students had what they “needed” – books, teachers, a library, etc. Flash forward to my working in a very upper-income district about 20 miles away. The PTA paid for all the little extras. So, they had an art teacher, a music teacher, extra after-school activities, a school garden, and field trips. We didn’t have any of that in the poor schools, because the parents couldn’t afford to pay for it. Is that fair to all students? Of course not. Did it make a difference in achievement? You bet it did. Achievement scores in the rich public school were through the roof, and the school received a “10” score on the schools list in the area. 8 out of 10 of the schools I worked in in the poverty-stricken area received ratings of “2” or “3.” And, sadly, the other 2 schools? They received scores of 4-5. 

I have no idea what to do about it, generally speaking. Currently, I work in a middle-income school, with a sprinkling of children receiving free or reduced lunches. The only issue we really have to combat against, and it really is a big one, is that about 40% of our school population is learning English. However, in the long-run (and they discussed this in the film) – that is an absolute benefit. Each and every child in my district will ultimately be bilingual and more culturally aware than any child in an all-white, all English-speaking school. And, it’s a beautiul and amazing thing to watch. I am so blessed to be part of a community that has a mix of many different skin colors, cultures, and bsckgrounds. I only wish that the “all-white” schools who seem hell-bent on refusing to change could see what they are missing out on – they are missing a very real blessing. 

I am blessed every single day to be a part of the teaching profession. I hope that my colleagues feel that blessing every day too.

Proverbs 18:15 (NRSV): An intelligent mind acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.

Serve all with love.

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