REVISITING THE INVISBLE GHOST OF SCHOOL INTERGRATION

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe; nor am I one of those Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination–indeed, everything and anything except me.”–from the novel: Invisible Man

“There’s something you don’t see every day.” – Ghostbusters 1

A recent NPR program (“This American Life”), and in a related article in the NY Times; there was a revisiting of the idea of school integration as a path to raising Black student academic achievement. Full disclosure: I was a 1960’s product of high school busing for the purposes of integration. And for sure that experience had a profound influence on the quality of my education as a student, and my later thinking as an adult professional educator. There were some very good things that took place back then, I did not understand, or fully appreciate as a teenager. There existed at my high school: a calm and quiet learning environment; access to interesting and thoughtful electives, the high expectations of teachers and administrators; exposure to a standards (NYS-Regents) based instructional program; and (what I later learned) competent teachers and administrators (2 AP’s from my H.S. went on to be principals (much harder to get those positions back then) and one became my deputy superintendent when I became a principal; my former principal was a thoughtful and intellectual educator who wrote a the Regents review book on the US history Regents exam, and later became a superintendent.

School (student) busing for the purposes of integration was a sensible albeit limited option, due to the historical period in which it emerged. It was a very logical response to the mean reluctance on the part of White political and Education leaders to remove the horrible materials, (facilities) structural and equipment inequalities between the two Black and White school systems. For White America the prevailing idea was to practice a system of educational apartheid; which meant two separate systems that were by design and purpose both physically separate and materially and educationally unequal. And in a not-so-strange way; in terms of resources, standards and expectations, the two separate systems still exist, but with many modern and confusing features that serve to confuse Black parents and the Black community (But that’s a topic for another post!).

The problem (not really addressed by the radio program or the NYT) of our present social reality is that we still remain a very racially segregated nation, that looks a lot like my 1950’s-60’ student days; and so the question of solving the logistical problems of school integration was, and still remains as a huge obstacle to achieving its “physical” objectives. And some might even say it is further complicated today by the growing drop in the percentage of White students attending public schools. And although some of us Black students definitely benefited from attending schools in an integrated setting (that high expectations stuff is priceless educationally!); that reality was not possible for the majority of school age Black children of that era, or the present one. The bottom line is that school integration (then and now) as a strategy for the large-scale raising of Black student academic achievement, is a questionable good educational method at best, and at worse, perhaps a political, logistical and mathematical impossibility. Re-reaching back for “school integration” as a Black achievement raising strategy is the typical standard desperate bad education decision move, often made by non-educators. It does not help that this “rushing without thinking” approach to making educational policy, is part of the chronic cultural profile of public education (see the recent national amateur movement to turn standardized assessments into a tool to punish school personnel, schools, and worst of all students). It also does not always help when we confuse and commingle a (perhaps very worthy) societal objective— social integration; with an educational objective—raising academic achievement; they do not in every case connect. Further, in the education profession we are inclined to forever revisit policies that we imagined (a form of historical hope) produced some wonderful outcomes. For us, there is always a past “golden age” of education; a past that in fact never really existed, outside of our inventive memories. The truth is that for as long as I can remember, both as a student and as an educator, we have managed (a decision based on politics) to effectively fail to educate large numbers of children (of the politically disenfranchised) in public education. And changing that accepted reality, is the one real fundamental calculated transformation that would represent real and meaningful change.

In the 1960’s, there was indeed a lot of noise and drama around school integration, but there is very little evidence that it significantly change the under achievement trajectory of the majority of Black public school students, as the majority of Black students in the 1960’s went through their entire public education schooling in segregated schools, and therefore were untouched by this social-political movement.
One might even argue that the loss of Black teachers and administrators due to integration, ultimately did more harm to Black students (nationally), as these students began to be exposed to lowered expectations, as inspired by the undercurrent of prevailing dismissive racial views, expressed as a racial animus, deeply embedded in the collective sub-consciousness of our nation. Further, integration caused a shifting of financial resources and “high performing” Black students to majority White schools. For example, as we moved to White NYC schools the per-pupil expenditure allocated for our education was also shifted to those schools; at my high school they were able to hire more teachers; but none of them were Black. It seems that the Black neighborhood schools were cynically and strategically undermined by the “smart insistence” on the part of the White political-educational leadership establishment, to bus a large majority of Black students from gifted and talented middle school programs (like my own), or students on grade level, to those White schools. It was clear to me later, that the parents of the “SPED kids” they confined to the basement of my middle school; were not asked to come in and sign the “permission to bus” documents. The result was an artificial raising of the achievement level of those White schools. Meanwhile, the Black neighborhood schools saw a drop in their resources and achievement levels (they were left with the most academically struggling and challenging students), which created an academic achievement downward spiral (further accelerated by the introduction of “ed-optional” schools) that continues to this day.

We must be painfully honest with parents, and ourselves. For the majority of Black children who in 2015 are presently sitting in an all-Black 1st grade class, we can reasonably assume that those children will experience an all-Black (with in some places perhaps Latino) schooling experience for the next 11 years. This is quite honestly a matter of geography and mathematics, and the historical/ongoing patterns of housing segregation in our nation. And unless a Republican controlled Senate and Congress falls off of its horse (and are struck by the lightning bolt of justice and compassion) on the way to denying Black Americans their voting rights; and passes a major housing and school busing integration bill (and you would definitely need to integrate housing for the school integration part to work), that reality will not change. The Democratically controlled “liberal-Northeast” is no different; as we see with the annual well-meaning, but time-energy wasting NYC “show” of the movement to make Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, Bronx Science, etc. look more like the demographics of the city. This “political-performance” serves no other purpose other than that of an unnecessary distraction from what really could and must be done. The truth is that because of the politics of the city (the real “haves and have nots”), the Black and Latino integration of specialized high schools is not something that is going to happen any time soon. The real and serious work is for NYC to invest seriously and strategically to strengthen the academic landscapes for Black and Latino students in the K-8 world. Institute a “Princeton Review” type test-prep program afterschool and weekends in the 6th-8th grades. And specifically for the Arts Specialized high school, they must expand and enrich the K-8 music and art programs (We did all of the above in CSD 29-Queens, NYC with great results). This would not only raise the numbers of students eligible for admission to the specialized high schools (and every student who is eligible should not necessarily go, for very sound educational reasons); but this effort would also greatly improve the academic profiles of those students who don’t attend those schools for whatever reasons. Our Black and Latino elected officials should insist on concrete middle school student academic improvement efforts, instead of engaging Black and Brown New Yorkers in an annual false game of political theater that will never make it to the real main stage of improved academic outcomes.

The children (and their parents) can’t go to school every day wishing and hoping for the Integration Fairy to appear, wave a magic wand that will somehow make the child appear in a seat next to a White child in a high performing school. They need smart, strategic, brave, bold and dramatic action; and they need it now. And those actions (demanded by their parents, community, and hopefully their political leaders) should be for the immediate integration of:

A high quality and highly professionally developed school leadership team.

• An adult staff who combine high expectations for students, with high expectations of efficacy for themselves.

• The institution of high academic standards, throughout the school.

• A “Readers to Leaders” like initiative (Albany School District-CSD 29 Queens, NY)

• (Prepare) Get more 8th graders into a course in algebra. (A big STEM “gatekeeper”)

• Safe and productive learning environments. (Increased quality learning time)

• School district-local school staff and leadership stability.

• An instructional staff of experienced, effective, expert and efficacious teachers.

• The investment and expansion of comprehensive social-counseling and health services.

• Equity in educational material-equipment resources.

• Rich art, music, dance, STEM, library programs.

• School sponsored-directed informal educational (out of the school building) experiences.

• The access to modern technology.

• And finally to radically change how those schools operate. To release these majority-minority school from many of the restrictive, and resisting to learning provisions in various labor contracts (and then financially compensate the teachers in those schools), and the removal of non-productive state-school district regulations. Change the “normal” and “standard” way of doing things, which has clearly not worked for so many years. The “normal” school day, week and year, will condemn most of the minority school population to a permanent state of academic under achievement. And so we need to integrate high performing schools practices. Change all the rules and regulations that good schools and effective principals ignore (and superintendents know what I am talking about!), bypass, neutralize or negate in order to function as a good school. This integration of opportunity, I believe could yield a much faster, and a much more significant outcome then the tremendous political lift of an unrealistic national school integration program? Can we keep it real for a moment? Most of the Republicans in both the House and the Senate, don’t even hide the fact that they neither respect nor recognize the Black POTUS as their president; I can’t imagine (or that he would even propose it) that they would support a massive effort and expenditures to integrate the nation’s public schools.

The parents and the communities from which the children receiving a second-class education emerge, must insist on having their children exposed to positive and productive learning environments. One major problem they face is that there is a Black leadership theoretical deficiency when it comes to educational policy. The truth is there is a rich history of majority Black schools doing a really effective job with students before and after the civil rights era. The problem (and here is the Black political leadership deficiency) is that many of those high academically achieving Black schools, march backwards in terms of positive school climate and student academic achievement. In essence, over the years, we have not been able to maintain the high performance status of these Black schools. Schools like Bronx science, Stuyvesant and Thomas Jefferson (VA), will essentially be the same high performing schools, regardless of the number of changes in principals and teachers. Our first big (good faith) effort, before turning back to integration, could be to ensure that high performing Black schools not be downgraded, and that they continue to function as high performing schools. We could then build similar schools based on that effective Black school model. Therefore our next task is to make the (segregated) schools where Black children presently sit, to perform at a higher performance level; that again would require the political will on the part of parents and communities to take direct, definitive and drastic actions of non-compliance and non-cooperation with the present system; they must in essence create a movement to save their children’s minds and lives. In other words they should integrate and incorporate the attitudes and actions of those parents whose children presently receive a quality public school education; and make a quality Black education matter.