I'm sitting here watching the Oprah Winfrey Show and the great dialogue they are having about public education. I fully agree with everything they are saying about the state of public education. Oprah is right, what is happening to our children is immoral. And Secretary Duncan is correct; education is the civil rights issue of our time. Yes, Geoffrey Canada, I agree, we can't allow "certain" children to fail. Indeed, children deserve more and if all of our children are going to succeed we need change and reform.
But when they mentioned the improvement with D.C. public schools and the recent loss by Mayor Fenty in the D.C. primary election to Vincent Gray, they failed to address the critical reason why that happened. Most D.C. residents agree that Mayor Fenty's administration brought about positive change but they were still willing to vote against him.
Although parents and communities saw the change that Chancellor Rhee was bringing to public schools they also saw something else that was of greater concern. They saw their communities changing. Residents in poor communities saw their neighborhood changing right before their eyes. In many of the communities where there is a desire to improve the public schools, the culture and color of the community is changing right along with the schools. In traditional African-American communities new condos are being built, restaurants, fitness centers, along with them a newfound desire to improve the public schools.
The questions that some residents in these communities have are "who are you fixing the schools for? These aren't new failing schools, why all of a sudden is there a desire to fix these schools? Some see the desire to fix schools in their neighborhood as yet another sign of gentrification. I attended a great meeting at the White House on Monday with leaders from across the country working to improve public schools. It was encouraging to hear about the successful initiatives implemented across the country by unions, charter schools and others.
During one of the break out sessions we discussed creative ways to work with community partners and the challenges that exist. I shared with the group that in some communities people fear these changes to their schools not because they don't want their children to succeed but because they don't want to be pushed out of their neighborhood once the schools start showing progress. Half jokingly I told the group that there was a time when you saw a Starbucks move into the neighborhood that you knew the community was changing, then it was when the Pilates studio popped up. Today when people hear about changes to the schools in their neighborhood they also hear it as gentrification.
There are communities across the country where this is happening. D.C. is one of them. The Shaw community and U Street corridor was once a Black community. As change and progress entered the area many of the Black owned business have been pushed out. And what else came with that change, the desire to improve the public schools. In San Francisco the same thing is happening in my family's old neighborhood, Hunters Point. A neighborhood once plagued by drugs and crime is seeing the projects boarded up to be condemned, new condos, improved public transportation and yes, new and improved public schools.
Or take Harlem, NY for example. Geoffrey Canada and the Harlem School Zone are doing amazing work but no one I know would really consider Harlem the Africa- American community it used to be. Real estate in Harlem is expensive to say the least. Yes there are still African-Americans in Harlem but it is the new Harlem and Harlem that has brought in new residents with higher incomes who don't look like the people that have lived there for generations. Everyone knows one of the greatest factors for higher income families with children looking for a home is the quality of the schools. In D.C., like some of these other cities, some residents feel like elected officials only want to fix these schools so that the communities appeal to new higher income future residents.
Oprah was right, the state of our public schools is a call to consciousness. It's also a call to consciousness to not only fix the schools in poor communities so that "certain" children aren't allowed to fail, but a call to consciousness so that poor communities are not allowed to fail and the people in them pushed out once others begin to see it as a more appealing neighborhood.
I agree with Ms. Winfrey, "When other kids in your country don't do okay, your country doesn't do okay." The same is true for our poor neighborhoods. The lower income communities in our country don't do okay; our entire country doesn't do okay. During the Oprah Winfrey show, someone commented that children are calling to our consciousness. I agree, but when we answer the call, let's make sure that when superman shows up he's not showing up with a hidden agenda now. We can't improve the lives of children by just improving the schools, we must also help their parents provide a better quality of life in the communities where these children live. We must improve education in our country so that every child receives a high quality education and we must also make sure that the people in those communities are respected by the leaders who want to bring this change, include residents in the development of the vision for their community and don't allow the same people we are claiming to help to now be pushed out.