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When Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson Missouri, I was struck by the fact that he could have been any one of the young men I taught in my 30 years in an urban middle school. This got me to thinking about how low performing schools and stereotypes of poor children and children of color causes our society to lose so many young people who should be going on to lead productive lives.
Urban education has been under attack for more than a decade. Schools in general and urban schools in particular are being asked to do more with less money. This money shortage is causing essential supplies and programs to be cut. Extra-curricular activities such as sports and clubs have been eliminated. The constant focus on testing causes districts to eliminate music, art and physical education. These cuts would normally give students a break from the constant focus on academic performance. The stress of teaching in an urban setting is causing many teachers to leave the profession before they finish their fifth year of teaching. This turnover causes instability for students who find the only stability in their lives in school.
More recently the attack on urban schools has come from for profit companies that open charter schools in the worst districts. These schools drain tax payer money from the neediest schools while paying high salaries to their CEOs as well as dividends to investors. Let me be clear, I am not against charter schools that are started by coalitions of parents, teachers and neighborhood councils. These represent the original concept of charter schools and are set up as non-profits. They are also subject to oversight by the state and/or district in which they are chartered.
Stereotypes can be another problem in urban schools. Not all stereotypes have to do with race. Often there is economic stereotyping as well. Most teachers who remain in urban education learn how to help their students overcome obstacles. We do what we can to encourage them to study and stay in school. We also make every effort to prepare our students for the real world. While this lessons the issue of stereotypes while they are with us but it does not help them when they are out in society.
I have seen numerous examples of stereotyping both in school and on enrichment trips. Principals who do not understand that an 8th grader is often late because he has to walk his little sister to the elementary school two blocks away because his parents leave for work at 6 a.m. I have heard teachers refer to their students as animals. Fortunately those teachers are either disciplined or choose to leave an urban setting quickly. I’ve seen security guards on class trips follow or keep a watchful eye on my students because they are African-American. I’ve seen teachers from private schools move their students in the lunchroom of a museum so that their children wouldn’t have to sit near “those” kids. I could go on, but I’m sure you understand my point. The problem with this stereotyping is that it often affects society’s reaction to the funding of education. Because so many districts rely on real estate taxes for funding you may hear homeowners who have their children in private school object to paying the school portion of the tax because they are not “getting anything” from what they pay towards education. The point that is missed here is that public education supports our society by providing us with an educated workforce.
To bring this back to Michael Brown, let me share with you the situation in his school district. In January, 2013 the Normandy School District (the name of the district that Ferguson students attend) lost its accreditation due to poor test scores and a low graduation rate. Missouri law allows parents to transfer their students from a low functioning district to one that was much more successful. The closest district with the required rating was a suburb with a population that was mostly white and affluent. A meeting was held between the parents of both districts and the discussion was quite heated. The Normandy parents wanted the best education for their children. The parents in the receiving districts had concerns about the Normandy students lowering the academic performance of their school. Some of the white parents were concerned about weapons and violence coming to their schools. The transfers began. The problem was that each child who went to the new district took thousands of dollars from Normandy. This left the Normandy district struggling to stay open. The state decided to solve this new problem by returning all of the students to Normandy and took over the system. Because Normandy was now under state control its accreditation loss was wiped out and it was once again accredited. Michael Brown was in his senior year of high school as much of this upheaval occurred. I have to wonder if Michael attended a better district would he have successfully graduated with his class rather than going to summer school and graduating in August.
If we learn nothing else from what happened to Michael Brown, I think we owe it to all of our children to provide them with the best possible education no matter where they live.
Baheejah Hasan says
Great article, your true passion was revealed. I enjoyed reading your passage of truth.