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The Equity Challenge: 'Kids are going through utter chaos while you guys are trying to figure it out. Why is that OK?
The Equity Challenge

The Equity Challenge: 'Kids are going through utter chaos while you guys are trying to figure it out. Why is that OK?

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With the state of Iowa taking over the Davenport Community School District for failing to meet goals on education and disciplinary equity, nothing could have been more relevant than Day 14 of the Equity Challenge.

The focus was on education — why there is such a gap between Black and white achievement and what can be done about it.

Prominent in the discussion was a podcast featuring Nikole Hannah-Jones, a long-time education reporter for The New York Times, who has concluded that the one thing that really boosts achievement — the one thing that really works but that no one will talk about — is forced integration of schools.

Perhaps you, like me, think we have integrated schools. Wasn't that what the 1954 Brown vs. Topeka Supreme Court case was all about?

Yes, it was. And, for a time, there was forced busing to achieve racial balance.

Busing peaked nationally in 1988, Hannah-Jones, states, but since then there has been backsliding. It never was adopted in Davenport. Schools today are more segregated than ever, with schools of predominantly Black students having poorer teachers, resources and outcomes, she said.

We see this in the Quad-Cities. According to statistics provided by United Way, 84% of white children enter school ready to learn compared to 71% of Black children.

By third grade, only 43% of Black kids (that's less than half) are reading at grade level, compared with 73% for white.

As evidence that integration works to correct this, Hannah-Jones points to a narrowing of the achievement gap that occurred between 1971 when integration got underway on a big scale and 1988, when integration peaked.

In 1971, Black students were scoring 39 points worse than their white counterparts but by 1988, that gap was reduced to 18 points worse.

"The overall score in this country was halved in 15 years," Hannah-Jones said. "If we had kept going, I don't know that it would have eliminated it (the achievement gap), but it would have been close."

Why does integration work? Because Black kids get access to the same quality teachers, instruction and facilities as white kids, she said.

Also, if a Black child comes to school behind in learning or stressed because of his or her home life and is surrounded by kids equally behind and stressed, they will tend to stay that way.

But, if they get mixed in with kids who are learning at or above grade level and who are not stressed, they will tend to rise with them.

In 1999, the Missouri desegregation order ended and just voluntary desegregation remains, Hannah-Jones said. Sometimes people said schools failed because Black kids came in. The other way of looking at that is that schools failed because white kids left.

"We gave up really fast," she said. "Integration did work, but we decided it wasn't worth the trouble."

Michael Brown's school

Central to her presentation was the powerful story of the Normandy school district in Missouri — a failing district by any measure and the one from which Michael Brown graduated eight days before he was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. 

But some students got out of Normandy.

In 2013, the district lost its accreditation which triggered a little known "transfer law" that required districts losing accreditation to pay for students to transfer to another, accredited school, Hannah-Jones explained.

Normandy chose as its transfer school an 85% white school 30 miles away. She maintains the district chose the faraway school with the idea that "one way to keep students from leaving is to make it hard."

But, to the district's surprise, 1,000 students, or about one-fourth of its enrollment, opted to transfer even though that meant getting up at 5 a.m.

Parents at the white school were up in arms and had a meeting in their gym, expressing concern about how the influx of the Black students would drag down their own school's test scores, and that their school would no longer be safe.

Race was not mentioned "except to say that this was not a race issue."

I got a chuckle out of that.

In her podcast, Hannah-Jones follows the life of one Black girl who went to the white school and thrived — got good grades, made friends, got involved in extracurriculars. 

But not everyone got the chance; the majority stayed at Normandy and well-meaning educators are trying their best to help their students. 

But Hannah-Jones — herself was a product of bused integration in Waterloo, Iowa — grills the new superintendent about the steps he is taking to make improvements. He cites several strategies such as teacher educators, or people who will help teachers become better teachers.

It's interesting to note that Davenport, under its conditional accreditation, also has brought in expert led professional development and state-appointed mentors.

And then Hannah-Jones asks the superintendent a question that strikes at the heart of the matter.

"Kids are going through utter chaos while you guys are trying to figure it out," she said. "Why is that OK?" 

Are there parallels here to Davenport? 

In summing up, Hannah-Jones said that the Normandy district is doing everything it can to keep its students in Normandy. It "is avoiding the one thing that works."

Again, to her, that is integration, with equal access to good teaching and resources.

As one Boston teacher said, "When you neglect a child long enough, you no longer have the right to be surprised when things don't turn out well. ... If we believe education can be the 'great equalizer,' then it should be equal."

FOUR OTHER TAKE-AWAYS:

• This was heart-breaking: a news story by a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter who followed an honors Black student around for a day in his school.

In first period AP (Advanced Placement) English, the teacher gave the two students in the class a worksheet that the reporter judged to be on a middle school level. The students finished it in 5 minutes and spent the remaining 40 minutes unoccupied.

Second period was jazz band, but the teacher did not show up.

Third period was physics, taught by a permanent sub.

And so on.

• I've often heard it said that parents in low-income schools aren't involved in their child's education and don't show up for parent-teacher conferences.

A mom who was interviewed said can happen, but not because she doesn't care about her child or love her child, but that "I'm not going there to make a fool of myself.

"They want to talk about school, and I don't know anything about school."

• Why do some kids seem to have such a massive 'attitude' or a smart mouth?

One of the women interviewed and who had made it out of poverty said she developed an attitude and smart mouth because she didn't feel the people she was dealing with had any idea of the kind of world she came from.

This was a world in which she watched people she loved go hungry, where people lost their teeth because they did not have access to dental care, where it is impossible to save money because one doesn't make enough to pay the rent and where she doesn't know the meaning of the words used by people in power because she's never heard them before.

"Did I have an attitude? Hell, yeah. Did I have a smart mouth? You damn right."

• Lack of child care and early learning puts kids behind. 

Even parents with money know how difficult it is to find quality child care and how expensive it is. This is even more difficult if you're poor.

The upshot is that children who most need quality early learning are least likely to get it.

Still, it isn't only Blacks or children in poverty who are missing out in terms of early childhood education and quality day care.

"Our country lacks systems of support for parents across the income spectrum to raise their children," according to a 2017 article in U.S. News & World Report.

"Inequitable access to educational opportunity is a serious problem in our country today — and one that starts far sooner than we often realize. If we're serious about extending opportunity and increasing social mobility for all children, we need to start sooner."

Saturday: Red-lining and why so many Black people are poor.

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