Race, Class and School Choice

About 15 years ago, Fort Greene parents Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson enrolled their son Idris, along with his friend Seun, at Dalton. More importantly, they recorded the experience, turning it into the film American Promise. The documentary aired on PBS a few weeks back and renewed an important debate about schools, race, and success.

Joe and Michèle address many issues. But at the core is a question of whether our dominant educational model is sufficiently sensitive to serve black boys well. High-achieving middle class professionals, they've sent their kids to one of the best schools in the country. "So why aren't we happier," they seem to ask?  "Would this be different if we were white?"

Most of us realize that despite Barack Obama being elected twice, we're not in a 'post-racial' society yet. At the end of a story this week, about campus life and affirmative action at UMichigan, Nikia Smith, a black freshman, said tensions could be woven into the fabric of daily life — for example, if a white student did not hold a door open for a black student who was about to walk through it. Maybe the student was just in a rush, Ms. Smith, 19, said. But “in my mind, I could be thinking, ‘Oh, it’s because I’m black.’ ”

At the cast party for my daughter's school play, I spoke with a Caribbean-born mom of a 5th grader from Flatbush. Speaking of her son, she echoed this concern. "When he runs in the hall it can generate a very different response than if a white boy does it."  Again, her perception? Reality? Does it really matter?

I volunteered to help the stage manager, trying to keep 40 exuberant kids quiet back stage. I did a lot of shushing. Her comments made me reflect: Did I shush her son more than other kids?  Did he perceive I was being tougher on him than others?  I think the answer is no, but does it matter what I think?

Other parents have shared that economics, more than skin color, is what divides us. Speaking of a regular gathering of Bed-Stuy babies, one parent told me last year, "The moms are all like me [college educated, professional careers]. We have jobs that allow us the time off, or to hire someone to care for our kids.  But we'd never see a mom who works as a home health aide. They can't afford [the time off]." Trying to reach across economic divides might be even harder.

Shiner or Outside the Principal's Office, May 23,1953As the founder of a school that is decidedly trying to be diverse, my Trustees and I think about these issues a lot. It governs our approach to discipline. It  informs our professional development, which must empower teachers to help all their students succeed, not just send them to the social worker or the principal's office for misbehavior. It guides our community outreach, and the ways we think about building shared cultural beliefs in our school.

And it worries us. Because frankly, if it was easy to run a diverse school, lots more people would be doing it by now. As the film makes clear, it's not like Dalton doesn't know how hard it is for their students of color to succeed.

But as the prophet Hillel said, "It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it."

Idris and Seun and their families face universal issues too. One is academic pressure, especially in late elementary and middle school. As boys often do, they seem to lack organizational skills. Their parents grow frustrated, even desperate. With 11 and 14 year old kids, I found some of the film hard to watch; too close to home.

At one point in the film, the parents of black 6th graders get together over brunch. One Dad explains, "The white parents have shared with me that they're complaining about the same things, 'He lost his book twice'; 'I don't know what's wrong with him'; 'I can't get him to focus;' 'he comes home and he won't do his homework'; 'he forgets things, and he tells me at the last minute'... the same exact thing that we're all going through."

But, he observes, this experience cannot be separated from their identity, which he calls "this extra burden, in this country." A critical point for us to keep in mind as we build the ICS community.

I encourage you to watch the film. My three take-aways:

  • Idris's and Seun's experiences have a lot to teach all of us, as parents, teachers and community members,
  • Setting good habits and patterns can never start too early; good schools partner with parents to do this, and
  • There's no such thing as the 'best' school; it's about finding the right school for your child. Which is why having choices is so important.

What do you think?  Let me know.