The School Segregation/Integration Debate is Really About Black & Latino Students Having a Quality Education, not white Classmates.

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As you read this summary of: The Civil Rights Project Study on School Segregation; resist the urge of your brain wanting to replace: “New York” with words like “Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana”.

“New York has the most segregated schools in the country. In 2009, Black and Latino students in the state had the highest concentration in intensely segregated public schools (less than 10% white enrollment), the lowest exposure to white students and the most uneven distribution with white students across schools. Heavily impacting these state rankings is New York City, home to the largest and one of the most segregated public school systems in the nation.” (https://www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/research/k-12-education/integration-and-diversity/ny-norflet-report-placeholder)

One important lesson I learned as a superintendent: some good-hearted white Americans will fight to integrate a water fountain, share a lunch counter, ensure your right to take a seat anywhere on a public bus, but when it comes to sharing the fruits of a quality education, that line between liberal and conservative can sometimes get blurred!

There is a clear and conscious understanding on the part of some “educationally woke” US citizens, that if you don’t get the “K-12 education piece” right, then nothing else matters, because you won’t get your future right.

It is also the “problem” of what is our nation to do if we seriously educate all children? College admissions, job and career competition would dramatically intensify and the “criminal-prison-social pathology fixing” economic system could collapse. Public education itself is dependent upon huge amounts of funding that is designed to address student academic underperformance and failure.

School segregation contributes to the huge “learning opportunity gaps” (in finance and the school leadership and instructional quality of the learning space) that exists between white students and students of color; learning opportunity gaps lead to academic achievement gaps, which is why any academic achievement gap that exists is designed by societal-school system structural conditions and is definitely not due to Black and Latino students’ level of intellectual inquisitiveness, learning capacity or brain aptitude.

But a 1966 Brooklyn Caribbean-American woman named Pauline Johnson was not in any way confused by the school segregation/integration debate. She was not a political activist, not a member of the NAACP, and never took a college sociology or political science course. All she knew, by way of her “mother wit” and her job as a domestic worker, was that “white people were not playing when it came to the education of their children!” And so her explanatory-charged speech to a then-very reluctant participant of a high school integration busing program was: “All I know is in that school they care about the students, and so when they teach them they will also be forced to teach you, and all I need you to do is to behave and work hard!” Coming from a Gifted and Talented middle school program and having spent my entire school life as a good student in integrated classrooms, she did not associate academic ability with race. She held no illusion that by just sitting next to a white child I would suddenly become smart; I was already smart.

And yet, the shameful truth of our nation is that here we are in 2018 and parents of color are being forced to make the same 1966 “integration choice:” to get their children a shot at a quality education. My education dream is that one day every child can attend their neighborhood K-12 schools, receive a high quality of school leadership and instruction, benefit from high efficacy and expectations, encounter a learning environment that discovers and enhances their natural gifts and talents. But until that day, I can’t be upset with parents wanting to get their children into a school building that might actually do something interesting like—educate them!

I can be sad but not mad at parents of color fighting for school integration because then I need to also be mad at my mother and myself for I know how I benefited from a NYC K-12 integrated education. My materially and resourced-rich classrooms. The conducive to learning school climates. Places where I was free as a Black male to be smart. The high level of liberal arts exposure. The “no excuses” quality efficacious teaching. And the important high expectations of student capabilities. I was intellectually empowered and inspired by my K-12 public school experience; and so being wrong is one thing, but being a hypocrite is quite another.

A school’s teaching-learning expectations and environment matters, not its racial demographics. I can still hear my 12th grade, “college-bound” English teacher’s shockingly powerful first day of class speech: “We don’t fail the English Regents exam in this class, and the Lord help any of you who spoil my perfect record!” I remember being so scared that I decided that moment to both accept the Lord’s help and work hard to pass that exam. My mother, serious about her religion and education, would have smiled knowing that.

Michael A. Johnson has served as a public schoolteacher, Science Skills Center director, principal and a school district superintendent. He also served as an adjunct professor of Science Education in the School of Education at St. John’s University. He recently completed a book on school leadership: “Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership…” http://reporttotheprincipalsoffice.net/