Editor’s Note: Dorothea Williams-Arnold is a senior fellow at The PuLSE Institute, where she focuses on the academic needs of students in poor communities. She teaches English and Language Arts at Cass Technical High School in Detroit, and is a 14-year veteran of public education. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“School, it is not widely understood, is an institution that is not socially neutral but tends to be strangely supportive of the system and its mainstream ideas and those who profit most from these– Jean Anyon
By Dorothea Williams-Arnold
Since the 1954 landmark ruling Brown vs the Board of Education rendered separate but equal schools inherently unconstitutional, America continues to be plagued with segregated schools and persisting unequal educational outcomes for many of its youngest, most vulnerable citizens. Although we are no longer bound by laws that explicitly sort students into schools and districts by race, according to a Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, “new evidence shows that while racial segregation within a district is a very strong predictor of achievement gaps, school poverty-not racial composition of schools-accounts for this effect.”
This research does not suggest that race is not a significant factor in unequal educational outcomes. It does, however, reinforce the fact that our poor kids are not inherently inferior, rather, it is the concentrated poverty they live in and the burdensome stigma associated with it that contributes to less than ideal outcomes. Moreover, prevailing negative attitudes about poverty-stricken school districts, especially those composed of black and brown faces, have resulted in further isolation of our nation’s most vulnerable citizens. What will it take to remedy this?
The elusive governing ethos of the American Dream takes on the qualities of an endless nightmare to poor young people stuck in our worst schools and segregated communities. And though a quality education should be a right given to all children, it is not the case for those in many of our underfunded school districts. In fact, public schools situated in the isolated rural corners and segregated urban centers of this country are no better off than they were before the federal government stepped in to compel state school districts to provide more equal access to a quality education for all citizens.
In his stark criticism of America’s urban public schools, Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities is as relevant and urgent a call to action today as it was when it was written over 30 years ago: “The nation, for all practice and intent, has turned its back upon the moral implications, if not yet the legal ramifications, of the Brown decision.” Education in this country does not guarantee a better lot if you are poor, especially if you are an indigent person of color. Kozol argues that “there is no honest meritocracy in America today. It is still a hereditary meritocracy, an incomplete democracy; its theologically abhorrent, ethically intolerable.”
Not all schools in poor districts are as bleak as the ones Kozol focuses on in his work. In many of these districts, there are a few high performing schools that provide more challenge, community support and better chances of success for children with supportive parents and good test scores.But even with the additional support and resources afforded at high–performing schools, povertyrelated life emergencies often leave children abandoned, left to their own ill-equipped resources.
Tateyana White, behavioral specialist, who works with autistic children could have been another casualty of poverty. This bright, affable, former student of mine, whose expansive smile and confident disposition betrayed the immense struggles she endured as a homeless person when she graduated from Cass Technical High School in 2015. If it were not for her commitment and determination,if it were not for the relative safety and stability of her school located in a gentrified section of Midtown, she may have slipped through the cracks—but she fought. Most young people would have given up. When asked what needs to be done to better help students in her predicament she said, “The system could have helped me with transportation, food, clothes, maybe even temporary housing, better access to counseling.” She went on to recount the difficulties she experienced: “My family was living in a warming center at the time and it was one the worst experience in my life. I had to catch 2 buses in the dark. It was terrifying. I’m not sure what schools could do because it’s a very big deal. I wouldn’t be shocked if it was half of the student population. That’s a lot of students to provide for.”
This overwhelming need for more funding to address poverty related interruptions in a child’s ability to access education casts a shadow even on the best schools in underfunded districts. In a 2017 study for the American Academy of Political and Social Science, John R. Logan and Julia Burdick-Will, in “School Segregation and Disparities in Urban, Suburban, and Rural Areas,” confirm the crippling effects of poverty and isolation on academic outcomes. Their study also found that of all represented groups (Black, Asian, White, Native American) Black, Hispanic and Native American children fared worse than their White and Asian counterparts in segregated rural and urban settings. Concentrated poverty and racially motivated segregation are disastrous to young people’s success.
According to The Education Trust, a non-partisan educational policy, research and advocacy organization, Michigan is one of only 16 states in the country providing less funding for its highest poverty districts than its lowest poverty districts. Compounding the problem is that there is not enough push for change coming from the communities where these schools are situated. People immersed in poverty are so busy trying to survive that exercising the will to fight elusive, non-transparent funding systems seems insurmountable. More importantly, and what is at the heart of the problem here is that there is little desire for change from those outside these communities benefitting from unequal distribution of school funds and wealth.
There needs to be a social movement with education at the center, according to Jean Anyon, the author of Radical Possibilities. In order to motivate policy makers to properly address these issues and right the wrongs being done to our most vulnerable children, a countervailing social movement that calls for economic justice must be organized and aggressively pursued, not only by those who are affected but also by those who are unaffected. If people on all sides are willing join the movement to end police brutality, they certainly can do the same to end the brutality of segregation and isolation in our public schools.