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Donna Nevel

Donna Nevel

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Challenging a Segregated and Unequal School System

Posted: 12/ 6/10 07:57 PM ET

That our nation's schools are segregated and unequal has been well-documented. In fact, according to a recent report of the Civil Rights Project, UCLA, "Schools in the United States are more segregated today than they have been in more than four decades." Certainly, all the students and families who live that reality daily know it well.

However, too often, that reality is not acknowledged. As education writer Jonathan Kozol makes clear: "Perhaps most damaging to any serious effort to address racial segregation openly is the refusal of most of the major arbiters of culture in our northern cities to confront or even clearly name an obvious reality they would have castigated with a passionate determination in another section of the nation 50 years before -- and which, moreover, they still castigate today in retrospective writings that assign it to a comfortably distant and allegedly concluded era of the past."

The denial of this obvious reality and the refusal to acknowledge it for what it is would seem surreal if it weren't so real -- and so destructive. In its report "Segregated and Unequal: The Public Elementary Schools of District 3 in New York City," the Center for Immigrant Families (CIF), a community organization of low income women of color and community members (of which I am part), speaks about the importance of breaking "the normalization of segregation, that is, the way that it has become accepted as 'just the way things are'."

The schools in the District where CIF is located in NYC offer an insight into the process of how segregation happens and becomes entrenched. District 3, located in an area that prides itself on its progressive values, is one of the city's most diverse school districts and also one of the most segregated. Students of color comprise more than 75 percent of the public elementary school population; some schools in the District are majority white while others are overwhelmingly children of color. For years, some of District 3's public schools have been quietly turned into quasi-private institutions to which admissions often depended on such factors as how much a family could contribute financially or who you were 'connected' to, as well as your ability to speak English.

After two years of documenting hundreds of parents' stories of exclusion from some of the District's public elementary schools, CIF demonstrated that "public school segregation in District 3 is no accident" and that "the system of segregation that we encounter today is just as pernicious and just as destructive as if it were mandated by law." Through an organizing campaign, parents and community members exposed the patterns of exclusion of low income and families of color, and a policy change was ultimately put in place to begin to provide more equitable access to our public schools.

However, over the next few years, inequitable admissions processes and policies again became the norm through a series of practices (some new and some that had already been in practice) that privilege white and middle/upper income families. Through the use and misuse of zone lines; the courting of, and outreach to certain families over others; the way decisions are made about which new schools get created and where those schools are located; and schools that accept students based on biased and unreliable test scores that have more to do with a family's income level than with what the child is capable of learning, it is made clear: White, wealthy families wanted.

We hear a lot of discussions about wanting to entice more middle/upper income families into the school system (deserving of a column in and of itself); but, like all families, middle/upper income families are a welcome part of the school system if they are truly part of it, not in separate, exclusionary enclaves that privilege some children over others.

A number of years ago, an assistant principal at one of the "elite" public schools in District 3 in which low-income families of color have had difficulty gaining access told me that she and her colleagues knew that, while they wanted diversity, if they had less than a majority of white families, they'd have white flight from the school. That sentiment reveals a lot, of course, about racism, about classism, about privilege, but it also makes clear that schools were determining admissions policies based on how to maintain a largely white, largely middle/upper income student body in a district that is largely children of color.

And what are the consequences of these inequitable processes for those who are not white and wealthy? The result is that a two-tiered education system is in place.

In an eloquent and moving graduation speech at one of NYC's elite high schools (that requires high test scores to enter), Justin Hudson, a then Hunter College High School student, spoke about the consequences of this segregated and unequal system: "Hunter is perpetuating a system in which children, who contain unbridled and untapped intellect and creativity, are discarded like refuse. And we have the audacity to say they deserved it, because we're smarter than them." And Hunter is not exceptional in its practices.

While the mechanisms of exclusion may vary, the continuation of a segregated and unequal system continues. To challenge this system, we must repeatedly ask whether a particular policy or process furthers segregation and inequality, or, rather, promotes equity and fairness and the ability for all children to receive a high quality education. This, to me, is the fundamental lens through which these policy decisions must be made.

Every community has the right to be part of a school system that is able to answer the question "Whose interests are being served?" with the response that all our children's educational needs are being served. If it does not, then its policies should be vehemently opposed and the system enabling that inequity dismantled. Our school system must reflect a commitment to supporting and creating anti-racist, egalitarian, and equitable schools that value all our children's education and that make the word public have real meaning.