Klein -Huff Post Black Voices
There has been no shortage of topics to discuss since Missouri’s Maplewood Richmond Heights High School principal Kevin Grawer started a Student Group on Race Relations (SGORR) last year. First there was the killing of Michael Brown, a local black teen whose death took place not far away from the high school’s district. Then this year, just a few hours away, protests broke out at the University of Missouri after a series of racially charged incidents. Teenage students who partake in SGORR — a voluntary club — unpack it all through discussions at their weekly meetings.
Club discussions “make me think twice about how I view different things or situations that are happening, in terms of who does this affect, and how is this going to affect the rest of us?” ninth-grader Tamar Crump said.
Tamar is part of a small but dedicated group of students who regularly attend SGORR meetings, which are typically student-led. At Maplewood Richmond Heights school, which has a diverse student population — about half white, 40 percent black and 10 percent Asian and Latino — the club allows students to dissect issues that are impacting people in the world around them, as well as in their own classrooms.
Grawer started the club last year, after visiting Shaker Heights High School in Cleveland, Ohio, and watching a similar club in action. The killing of Michael Brown, which set off a wave of local protests and civil unrest, increased the urgency to start a constructive initiative in Maplewood.
Grawer believes the club is having a positive impact on school culture, and he has evidence to boot. For years Grawer has distributed a school culture survey to students, and asked them if they see their school as respecting individual diversity. This year, the number of students who answered “yes” jumped.
“The numbers were ridiculously high — it was something like 95 percent,” Grawer said. “And for any question you ask high schoolers, to get 95 percent is really rare. To get that kind of response, I think, was a reflection of our group and the fact that the kids know it’s there. It’s always an option for them.”
The topics discussed in SGORR have ranged from this Cheerios ad featuring a mixed race family, to the protests at Mizzou, to the various stereotypes that persist about different racial groups, to the school-to-prison pipeline.
For tenth-grader Lilyan Whitfield, the club has helped her unpack her identity as a biracial student.
“I am on the border of white and black … I felt like if I talked about [my identity] from one point of view, then I would be scolded,” Lilyan said. “I wasn’t really comfortable about it.
“I used to just identify as black because that’s the race that most people at my old school used to be and it wasn’t as accepting,” she continued. “Now being at Maplewood I feel like I can open up about being biracial and people won’t judge me for it.”
Research supports the idea that educators should foster and have their own tough conversations about race. A January paper from the Discipline Disparities Research to Practice Collaborative looked at the discipline gap, where black kids are punished more harshly than white kids for the same behavior, and encouraged teachers to examine and discuss their own potential racial biases in order to help eliminate this disparity.
“For schools to begin to look at their own data [on who they suspend] is really important,” Russell Skiba, professor in the school psychology program at Indiana University, told HuffPost at the time.“If we just present that data cold, it’s very difficult for folks to have those conversations. Folks will say, ‘When I see these disparities, I feel like I’m being called a racist.’ That’s not the point at all. The point is to say, what is creating these issues?
“The second step is having some general conversations,” he added. “Who is disadvantaged? Where did these stereotypes come from? … Then we can talk about specific instances like, ‘This happened when I was dealing with Josh in my classroom.'”
For Grawer, the idea to start a forum where students can discuss race just seemed like “probably an obvious thing to do.”
“It doesn’t seem like we’re doing anything groundbreaking whatsoever,” Grawer said. “It makes perfect sense for our time and place in history.”
hen Connecticut high school senior Akbar Maliki looks back on his high school experience, he can think of only one negative: his school has made him so open to and accepting of diversity, he says, that he worries about his ability to make friends with people from too-similar backgrounds.
“I’m always going to be looking for the next diverse group. It’s hard for me to be surrounded by the same types of people,” Maliki, who moved to the United States from Indonesia as a child, told The Huffington Post.
Unlike so many around the country, Maliki’s school is deliberately diverse. Its student body is slightly over half black, about a quarter white, 16 percent Hispanic. Nearly half of its students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch. When Maliki looks around his lunchroom, he sees “every race,” he said. “It’s not like, just the white kids sitting at one table or black kids at one table.”
Maliki is set to graduate from Metropolitan Learning Center in Bloomfield this spring. Metropolitan is one of Connecticut’s 84 magnet schools designed to bring together students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. These magnet schools make Connecticut a rare exception in a region that increasingly accepts racially isolated schools as inevitable.
“It is the only state in the Northeast that is going in a positive direction and it has created voluntary processes that have clearly reduced severe segregation in a time devoid of national leadership,” an April report from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project found. “This is a solid accomplishment that the state should be proud of and other states should look at as an example.”
Sunday marks the 61st anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, the case that declared intentionally segregated schools unconstitutional and set off a wave of efforts to increase school diversity. For years following the case, court-ordered interventions boosted school integration. However, since a string of court decisions allowed states to relax these efforts, the number of students in intensely segregated schools has risen since the late ’80s and ’90s.
Connecticut stands as a unique deviation from this trend. In 1996, a decision in the state’s Supreme Court in a case called Sheff v. O’Neill ruled that “racial and ethnic segregation has a pervasive and invidious impact on schools,” and ordered the governor and state legislature to find a solution. In 2003 the legislature created a system to fund regional magnet schools and a voluntary interdistrict transfer system.
The transfer system allows a small number of urban students to attend suburban schools and vice versa — something atypical in traditional public schools, where students usually live close to the school they attend. The magnet schools draw from students in both urban and suburban districts through a lottery.
About 40,000 Connecticut students currently attend a regional magnet school, according to the UCLA report. In 1987, about 16.4 percent of black students in the state attended schools that were nearly 100 percent minority. Now, about 4.2 percent of black students do.
Maliki attends one of 19 magnets schools managed by Connecticut’s Capitol Region Education Council. Overall, CREC schools serve a population that is 32 percent white, 28 percent black and 27 percent Hispanic. Some 48 percent of CREC students are eligible for free and reduced price lunch.
Connecticut still has some of the country’s largest achievement gaps between socioeconomic and racial groups of students. While CREC’s white students still outperform black and Hispanic students on statewide tests, achievement gaps in the 19 magnet schools it manages are much smaller than they are in the state overall. In at least one case, the gap reversed.
“For our children in the fifth grade last year, Hispanic children outperformed all other children,” said Bruce Douglas, executive director of CREC. “There’s another achievement gap now, between Hispanics and whites.”
“No white student is forced to do anything, no white family is; they all get additional choices which are good educational choices,” Orfield told HuffPost. “It’s a win-win situation.”
“The fact that its all voluntary makes it much easier,” he said. “Also much more incomplete.”
But not everyone is convinced that these expensive new schools are worth the investment. Connecticut’s legislature in 2009 imposed a moratorium on building new magnets in the state, except in Hartford, due to budget constraints. Some legislators say there isn’t enough evidence to prove that these schools are improving academic achievement. Others say the complicated funding system for magnet schools takes money away from traditional public schools, although Douglas disputes this.
“The state is not well served by building expensive new schools,” state Rep. Andy Fleischmann, who chairs the legislature’s education committee, told The Connecticut Mirror in January. Flesichmann did not respond to a request for comment.
Connecticut has invested more than $2 billion over the last two decades in these types of schools.
“That’s an enormous amount of money, and there have been very little indicators it’s working to improve student achievement,” Casey Cobb, a professor of educational leadership at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, told The Mirror. “They haven’t invested one iota on research, which is stunning since the’ve invested so much on programming.”
Among families, demand for these schools is high.
“This coming year there’s about 2,000 seats available in our magnet schools,” said Douglas. “We have 20,000 applications. That should send somebody a message about demand.”
Connecticut has proven this model can work, said Orfield. States shouldn’t merely accept the idea that segregation is unavoidable.
“It’s pathetic that only one little state is showing any leadership … all this data from No Child Left Behind consistently identifies schools segregated by race and poverty. Those are the dropout factory schools,” Orfield said. “It shouldn’t be so radical to think it might be better to have more diverse schools.”
While many of the major gains in the South since the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education have been reversed in recent years, a new report says that, at the very least, things are not as bad as they were before the court ruled to desegregate U.S. schools.
“Contrary to many claims, the South has not gone back to the level of segregation before Brown. It has lost all of the additional progress made after l967 but is still the least segregated region for black students,” says the report, released Thursday by researchers at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project.
Published just days before the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling, the report, titled “Brown at 60: Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future,” takes a look at schools’ demographics since the days when the National Guard had to be brought in to ensure that black and white students could learn together safely. While the report says that Brown -– and subsequent court decisions on desegregation — were initially successful, especially in the South, schools have become increasingly re-segregated since the 1990s.
The report examines the current state of school diversity by geographic region. In the Northeast, schools are more intensely segregated for black students -– meaning that in some cases they comprise 90 to 100 percent of a school’s population — than they were before 1968. In the South, West, Midwest and Border states, however, schools are significantly less segregated than they were in the 1960s, but more segregated than they were in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
The graph below breaks down by region the percentage of black students in intensely segregated schools.
A subsequent graph breaks down how things look in the South, the region that had the longest way to go in terms of desegregation immediately following the 1954 Brown decision. According to the report, “claims that black students in the South are no better off than they were before Brown, in terms of segregation, are obviously wrong. They are ten times as likely to be in majority-white schools as they were when the l964 Civil Rights Act was passed.”
As America’s demographics have changed since 1954, the percentage of Latino students has increased, and so has their segregation. Although, according to the UCLA report, very little mind was given to Latino segregation at the time of Brown, rates of Latino school segregation have increased dramatically. A greater percentage Latino students than black students have ended up attending intensely segregated schools in the South and West, notes the report. But Latino students are not segregated from blacks, and the two groups tend to share the same schools — separate from whites.
While the report maintains that “many of the changes accomplished in the civil rights era have had some enduring impact,” it expresses grave concerns about a recent retreat back to former patterns. The researchers implore President Barack Obama and his administration to take action on this issue, writing that the administration thus far has produced “no major encouragement nor incentives for working on integration.”