Should schools mix rich and poor kids for the greater good? (Part 1)
True/Slant writer Michael Salmonowicz and I share a deep interest in issues of race, class, and urban life, so the two of us decided to bring our perspectives together on the issue of income diversity and school segregation. You can read a portion of our conversation each day this week. If you’re interested in reading more of Michael’s work, check out his page here. Here’s my initial message to Michael:
So the Wake County (Raleigh, NC) school board recently voted to end its “income diversity” policy. Since the Supreme Court limited the ability of schools to assign students based on race, Raleigh has been assigning children based on socio-economic status in the hope of creating less segregated schools.
But no more, as you probably read. A new crew of Republicans took over the school board and scrapped the policy because parents didn’t like it. Instead of going to the school down the street, they were bussed 45-minutes away to a different school.
I swear—anyone in this country hears the word “bussed” or “busing” and it’s like we all break out into simultaneous rage, as if nothing could be worse than a long bus ride. Personally, I rode the bus for an hour to school and back, and it never hurt me any. It wasn’t because of any diversity policy—we just lived in a rural school district where a lot of people lived out in the boonies.
But for poor kids living in Raleigh, this policy may have been their best hope at getting an education in a school that’s not chock full of problems. Do you teach or have you ever? I do. I teach dance in the Chicago Public Schools. It’s not the same as being a regular school teacher, of course, but it does give you a taste of what they deal with.
One of my schools is in a working-class North side neighborhood. Not a bad neighborhood, but it’s not Lincoln Park or anything either. That neighborhood, like my own, is about 50 percent white, 45 percent Hispanic and about 5 percent black. But my two classes of fifth graders are about 90 percent Hispanic, 5 percent white and 5 percent black. Where are all those white kids that live in the neighborhood? Private schools because their parents can afford to send them.
And that means what’s left is poorer students. Many are just fine, but others are not. I have one kid who’s 10 and lives in a foster care group home. Ten years old and the kid lives on his own without parents. This kid takes up a lot of my time, and frankly, a lot of my patience. He can’t help it. He has a really rough life.
In many poorer schools, it’s not just a few kids out of seventy that have that kind of life baggage. I just read a book that said that in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods, 25 percent of kids have abuse and neglect in their files, and that’s just the ones they know about. A quarter of a teacher’s kids are dealing with emotional and physical wounds that really interfere with their ability to concentrate and learn.
What the hell is a teacher supposed to do in that situation? You can be the best teacher on earth, but that’s an extremely challenging job. And yet, if we want public education to succeed, we must believe that every kid can learn, right?
It just makes sense to me to try to spread those kids out. It’s more fair to them–they get more attention and more access to services, and better for all those other kids who aren’t dealing with deep emotional wounds, but might not have a parent who’s home to read to them every night.
I got thinking about this when I read an article on San Francisco’s assignment system. It quoted some research that says poverty levels over 40 percent in a school population are bad news for its students. One of the stats that it quoted was about a public housing kid. Say you send a public housing kid to a middle class school with 20 percent poverty, compared with their neighborhood school with about 80 percent in poverty, their individual test scores go up 13 percentile points. Even more dramatic, if you send that kid to a school where kids score in the 80th percentile on their tests, you can expect a 32 percent improvement in their test scores.
So why aren’t we doing this? We throw millions at schools and public education. It’s clearly one of the best solutions, and yet we throw it away because it pisses people off.
And that pisses me off.
I guess that’s all for today. I await your intelligent reply.
Tomorrow, look out for Part 2, which will appear here. Check back all week to see our conclusions and share your responses and ideas.