Sunday, September 25, 2005

Education: Fix It in the Mix [LONG]

[Cross-posted on AmbivaBlog]

The infamous standardized-test score gap between white and minority students has narrowed dramatically in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the reason is -- an aggressive campaign of economic integration.

Since 2000, school officials have used income as a prime factor in assigning students to schools, with the goal of limiting the proportion of low-income students in any school to no more than 40 percent.

The effort is the most ambitious in the country to create economically diverse public schools, and it is the most successful, according to several independent experts. La Crosse, Wis.; St. Lucie County, Fla.; San Francisco; Cambridge, Mass.; and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., have adopted economic integration plans.

In Wake County, only 40 percent of black students in grades three through eight scored at grade level on state tests a decade ago. Last spring, 80 percent did. Hispanic students have made similar strides. Overall, 91 percent of students in those grades scored at grade level in the spring, up from 79 percent 10 years ago. . . .

Some experts said the academic results in Wake County were particularly significant because they bolstered research that showed low-income students did best when they attended middle-class schools.

"Low-income students who have an opportunity to go to middle-class schools are surrounded by peers who have bigger dreams and who are more academically engaged," said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation who has written about economic integration in schools. "They are surrounded by parents who are more likely to be active in the school. And they are taught by teachers who more likely are highly qualified than the teachers in low-income schools."

To achieve a balance of low- and middle-income children in every school, the Wake County school district encourages and sometimes requires students to attend schools far from home. Suburban students are drawn to magnet schools in the city. Low-income children from the city are bused to middle-class schools in the suburbs.

Some parents chafe at the length of their children's bus rides or at what they see as social engineering. But the test results are hard to dispute . . .

I note this because economic integration of housing, communities and schools is the cause to which two generations of men in my family have professionally dedicated themselves. In the early 1970s, my dad left his job as a mortgage banker in the for-profit real-estate business and took a lower-paying one with Chicago's nonprofit Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities. From their website:

Where you live determines your ability to access meaningful life opportunities for yourself and your family, including educational and employment opportunities, but also access to quality health care, transportation, and safe neighborhoods. In much of our region, opportunities vary widely based on race and economics, with access to housing opportunity the primary factor in determining where a person can live. The effect of gross disparities in access to housing leave some able to access a multitude of opportunities and others with much more limited options. (See The Segregation of Opportunities, a Leadership Council report released May 9, 2005.

The Leadership Council works to ensure that every person has the opportunity to make meaningful choices about where to live and to have the chance to live in communities that are rich in opportunities. We do this by promoting fair housing and equitable community development and by providing one-on-one counseling for people seeking homes.

My brother Alan is a foundation officer and edits the newsletter of The Piton Foundation, a private Denver foundation focusing on public education whose "mission is to provide opportunities for children and their families to move from poverty and dependence to self-reliance." Ally devoted two issues of the newsletter, The Term Paper, May and November 2002 [.pdf files], to "Denver's growing interest in school improvement through creating a better economic mix in schools." UPDATE: Ally puts this in the comments, which I hope will encourage you to read his newsletters:

Thanks for plugging today's Times article. I have long been a fan of the Raleigh schools. The newsletter you mention includes a long article about Raleigh. I have led delegations from Denver to Raleigh over the past few years to show off the wonderful job Raleigh has done with economic integration. I have an enormous amount of respect for the people there. It's a homegrown bunch that has kept its collective shoulder to the wheel for a long, long time. Raleigh is proof that you don't have to import hotshots from elsewhere if you create the right mix locally.

My brother David is the cofounder and executive director of Full Circle Communities, a nonprofit that acquires, improves, and manages affordable housing properties and provides an innovative array of services for their residents:

Full Circle Communities, Inc.'s mission is to become a leading provider and manager of decent, safe affordable housing and an array of supportive services. Our goal is to enable low- and moderate-income individuals and families who live at our properties to move themselves and help others move toward increasing health, independence and success. . . .

Full Circle has preserved a desperately needed supply of affordable senior housing in Naples, the largest and wealthiest community in one of the wealthiest counties in the nation. . . .

Through nutritional counseling, a local Senior Companions program, exercise and safety classes, social events, and improvements to the property to improve access, Full Circle hopes to demonstrate that affordable housing can and should provide a high-quality living experience.

A third generation now seems to be entering this "family business," or crusade. It was my nephew Matt, a second-grade teacher in a virtually all-Hispanic school in Chicago, who alerted us all to the story about Raleigh, and whose post on New Orleans reveals him to share his grandfather's and uncles' quiet obsession with American apartheid -- one that seemed anachronistic in the Age of Bush until Hurricane Katrina resurrected its relevance. New Orleans gave ironic new urgency to the Leadership Council's statement, "Where you live determines your ability to access meaningful life opportunities for yourself and your family" -- meaningful life opportunities like, not drowning.


I should add that I was a beneficiary, and I hope a reciprocal benefactor, of economically-integrated schooling in Chicago in the 1950s. Of course, it didn't have a fancy name then. It was just the reality of going to public school in one very unique neighborhood.

We grew up in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, sandwiched between the upscale, liberal Hyde Park neighborhood that surrounded the University of Chicago just to our south and "the single largest black neighborhood in America," the "black belt," just to our north. We lived on 50th Street. 47th Street was the "nerve center" of the ghetto, and originally one of the great arteries of blues music in the North. Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Black Muslims, lived a few blocks away in a Kenwood mansion under heavy guard.

Kenwood probably would eventually have become part of the ghetto, in a typical pattern of black entry, slumlord opportunism, and white flight, except that a multiracial group of its residents banded together to resist. They opposed the neighborhood's becoming homogeneous either racially or economically. This fascinating history of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference tells how they organized to do it:

Members of all minority groups should be welcomed, not primarily as such, but as persons in their own right, with their own living interests, relationships, responsibilities, and distinctive abilities in the fields of common life and welfare. This Community Conference has included them as full participating members from its first beginning, and shall continue to be open to them on an equal basis with all community residents of all races and creeds.

The result was that Kenwood became a solidly middle-class, racially and ethnically mixed neighborhood -- one of the first in the country -- that overlapped at its edges with poorer (but then still working-class) black and Hispanic neighborhoods, full of immigrants (some of them illegal) from the South, Puerto Rico, and Mexico. This was the neighborhood that shaped my family, and the vision that perhaps continues to propel my father, brothers, and nephew.

From K-8 I attended Kenwood Public School, a hideous yellow-brick building with brown linoleum halls that looked like a Dickens orphanage and was staffed by a Dickensian cast of teachers. From the very beginning my classmates were Japanese, Chinese, black, Puerto Rican, Mexican, Irish Catholic, Protestant, and middle-class Jewish like me. Diversity got under our skins before we were old enough to have any real concept of class and ethnic differences; we just subsumed them into individual differences. Kids were who they were, and any family other than our own seemed exotic and weird, regardless of its circumstances. Only around the 6th grade did we begin to be aware of the economic gulf that separated those of us who were privileged and secure from those who weren't, and as soon as we noticed that gulf we began deliberately crossing it.

Some of the teachers, in retrospect, were extremely racist, and they were in a hostile standoff with some of the minority and poor kids, especially boys, whom they made little effort to reach and who, in turn, made little effort to conform or achieve. The result was that by the 7th and 8th grades, the middle-class kids were 12 and 13, while there were some big 15-year-old boys sitting sullenly among us and towering over us who'd been held back year after year. (No such thing as social promotion then.) Most of them were black, Puerto Rican and Mexican, though there was the odd white hillbilly in the mix.

This was in 1958-59, before the "consciousness-raising" of the '60s, and these kids did not yet treat their privileged peers with resentment or aggression. Several years later on, my sisters and brothers would get robbed of their lunch money at knifepoint and get moved by our parents to private school. But in my day, those older boys just kept quietly to themselves -- until one of my friends reached out to them.

Her name was Paula and her mother was a liberal social worker, and maybe her initial interest in the "big boys" had some of that do-gooderism in it, or maybe it was a rebellion. But she was a leader of our little gang of five or six midde-class Jewish girls, and so when she began making friends with them, we all did. I will never forget the "big boys" -- James Fair, John Leiva, Radames Martinez -- because in response to our friendly overtures, they were kind and protective and gallant to us. Most of the boys our own age were still pudgy and larval. The "big boys" were post-pubescent, tall and strong, and they sometimes fought among themselves, but to us they were chivalrous. They made us feel good, and I think we made them feel good.

Paula had a kind of innocent romance with Radames, whose nickname was Chato. This fascinated me, a still childlike late bloomer and tag-along, and I shyly became friends, real friends, with Chato. He came from a family of six kids who lived in an apartment building on 51st Street; I remember that one of his sisters had Down's syndrome. My diary from those years records that we sometimes talked on the phone for an hour. Once a group of us talked him out of having a fight with another boy who'd jostled him on the stairs. He agreed to forego the fight for our sake, and we felt like we'd accomplished something serious and real.

We went to different high schools, but I kept in touch with Chato till I went away to college. The last time I saw him, if I recall right, he was considering becoming a priest. The sullen and silent "big boy" whose name the shrivelled-up witch Mrs. Brown had scornfully mispronounced "Raddamy" had "come out" as the intense, thoughtful, compassionate man he was. Then -- nothing, for almost four decades. In the '80s, my mother tells me she heard he was a youth worker and was shot and killed somewhere in a gang-ridden neighborhood of Chicago. For some reason, I refuse to accept this. I see Paula, now living on a farm in northern California, and ask her if she knows anything about him. She doesn't. I have to wait until the Internet is invented to send a postcard to all twelve Radames Martinezes listed by Yahoo! People Search, even though most of them are pretty obviously Miami Cubans.

I get an answer, from Oregon. Chato -- Rad, now -- has a master's in social work and is married to a hospital administrator. His daughter is in the Merchant Marine. He has worked with troubled teens, substance abusers and mental patients, and is about to retire to piece of land he owns near the coast. When I ask him about the rumor that he was shot and killed, he says laconically, "When I was a cop in San Diego, somebody shot at me, but they missed."

One of the first things he says to me is, "We were wetbacks, you know."

When Jacques and I fly to Portland for Jacques to speak about his book in a Springfield middle school, Rad and his wife meet us in the airport. We continue to correspond occasionally, and he is sending me, one by one, the painful, funny short stories he is slowly writing about his childhood -- so much that I could not see or imagine at the time.

This long story started out to have a point, which was: how much of who we both are was fatefully changed by the fact that we attended a -- harrumph -- "economically integrated school"?


At 4:34 PM, Blogger David Schraub said...

A wonderful post. You might want to read Charles R. Lawrence III, Forbidden Conversations: On Race, Privacy, and Community (A Continuing Conversation with John Ely on Racism and Democracy), 114 YALE L.J. 1353 (2005). It covers a lot of these issues and raises some provocative questions (the privacy/community issue is specifically centered around integrated schools in DC)

At 5:58 AM, Blogger T.L. Stanley said...

This is a good blog. As a moderate, I can understand the importance of being provided opportunities. You make some excellent points.

Even though I was raised poor in a farming community with very few chances at a professional life, I was able to overcome. Military service, two graduate degrees, and a long career in management with a large company was not easy. But, in America we are fortunate to have the opportunity to overcome.

I will argue that social engineering may be needed in some cases. However, many of these programs are extreme.

For example, in my samll hometown, minority students were bused from the minority community to the majority community until the majority community was gone. When the majority student community was less than 10%, the busing was called successful.

Today, my small hometown graduates less than 5% majority students. The small town of 35,000 is now a minority town.

I suggest we revisit social engineering. Because, people want to live where they feel comfortable.

This may seem too simple for the academics. But, sometimes the answer is indeed simple.

I will bookmark your blog. Take care.

At 8:16 AM, Blogger amba said...

Thank you. The example of the Hyde Park-Kenwood Community Conference I linked to in the post (from the 1950s!) show that where both majority and minority citizens are committed to working together to preserve or create a diverse community -- seeing the value of it for both -- it can be done. There has to be a will. The "blockbusters," slumlords who came in and bought up apartment blocks, further driving down property values in a time of white flight, directly menaced Kenwood with becoming an all-minority community. The local residents stopped it. They directly address the fact that rumors and fears -- some of them deliberately planted -- play a large part in destroying a diverse neighborhood.

Note that one of the tenets of economically integrated schooling is that no more than 40% of the students are low income, so they are in the minority in a positive sense for once. But busing is not the real solution -- economically integrated communities is.

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