Confronting Segregation in Our Country’s Schools

After the unanimous Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 struck down the “separate by equal” doctrine and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, people of color continue to lag far behind whites in access to employment, opportunity, and education. If you recently saw the film Hidden Figures, a must see biographical drama that illuminated the racism and sexism that exists in this country, Brown v. Board did nothing to address the inequalities that existed. The film profiled three African American women from NASA who played a pivotal role in the launching of the first successful space missions and their struggles as black women in the 1960s. Today research shows that blacks and Latinos are still underrepresented in higher education institutions and professional employment, while they are overrepresented in high school dropout and incarceration rates (see Civil Rights Project).
In 2007, the Supreme Court dealt a severe blow to integration efforts that many school districts have adopted across the country. The Court ruled it is unconstitutional to integrate schools based on race, even if it means a racially diverse atmosphere. Justice Kennedy maintains that the school districts must use other means to the classification of students by race as he cast his fifth vote in the 5-4 decision in the case against the Seattle and Louisville school districts (Parents Involved in the Community Schools v. Seattle School District, No. 05-908 & 05-915, 2007).
Gatekeeping, which involves the process of course selection that begins in early years and continues throughout high school limiting access to challenging curriculum, increases the divide between black males and other groups of students. Because school districts have developed systems that determine course placement, this systemic design serves as a gatekeeper. For instance, some schools use a number of predictors such as recommendations, guidance, parents’ choice, test scores and grades received, while others use a rigid tracking system. Gatekeeping can be a result of parent and student choice input, but also persists if there is a lack of prerequisite courses in schools limiting enrollment in advanced courses. Lack of knowledge can also affect gatekeeping, where some students aren’t properly informed of their options or are steered to lower tracking. The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University reports that racial and ethnic makeup can adversely affect gatekeeping because some guidance counselors may encourage people of color to take lower level courses. I can attest to the former.

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When I moved from an urban school district to a suburban district in seventh grade, the school decided that a lower placement was in my best interest. Fortunately, my mother, my report card and my academic ability only landed me in that environment for approximately two weeks. I do remember there was no learning occurring. It was the most fun that I had in school. All my friends were in the class, and I enjoyed their short-lived company. That experience was quite a revelation, for it was clear that the teachers’ expectations had been extremely low. Once, I moved to the appropriate level, learning returned as did increased teacher expectation. Unfortunately that was not my only experience with racism or gatekeeping in education.
Another time would be class registration in the library three years later, when my guidance counselor attempted to place me in a lower level science course for the upcoming year. Because I saw how my mother handled it several years earlier, I was equipped to handle the situation. I simply approached my science teacher to inform him of my guidance counselor’s decision. My science teacher marched over to the table and informed my guidance counselor at once that I was an excellent student and the rest is history.
A similar scenario occurred to a young girl whom I met in a summer program involving the same guidance counselor, ironically. She had been classified with a learning disability, but was denied access to college preparatory classes. One summer in the upward bound program at the local college during the SAT preparation course that I was teaching, she revealed that she would be taking recordkeeping her senior year. I told her to talk to her guidance counselor, still unfamiliar to our shared connection, to take algebra and other college preparation courses. Years later at dinner, she told me that he refused to place her in an algebra class. She then pleaded with her father to speak to her counselor, who like some parents in families of color (due to cultural differences) left such decisions to the school. After being cajoled, he agreed. She ended up taking algebra along with a geometry course. She did well in both courses receiving Bs and better. After high school, she went off to college, graduated with honors, and now is a Special Education English Teacher.
Unfortunately, many students and parents are not self-advocators and are not aware of the grave consequences of tracking. To compound the issues of gatekeeping, in inner city classrooms, black students are placed in classrooms with teachers who have less experience or who may be less prepared to teach in their content area. For instance, in New York City, close to 90% of black students are taught by teachers teaching out of their certification area or with no certification. Statewide, 7% of teachers are teaching out of certification and 5% of core classes are not taught by highly qualified teachers (see New York State School Report Cards). In District 18, 16% of core classes are not taught by highly qualified teachers, which is three times the national average (see Inequality in Teaching and Schooling). Black men being taught by less than qualified teachers in segregated schools is counterproductive to closing the achievement gap. Yes, segregated schools continue to be a real issue in New York City despite the diversity of the city due largely to housing. Negative experiences in school most likely will produce negative attitudes about education, thus leading to increased delinquency and possibly higher dropout rates.  It is time for real changes to be made. Policy makers need to be on placed on notice or not reelected. We have the ability to effect change in solidarity.
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