Free Speeches | School segregation a step back in time

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School segregation a step back in time

White, Latino or Black – our neighbourhood schools are becoming more segregated than ever. We live in a multi-cultural society, yet the divisions amongst us are being drawn along lines of class, race and socio-economic backgrounds. Our schools, the very foundations of our learning and education, are denying us a chance to fully integrate. Through integration we begin to learn from each other. Through integration we are able to grow without hate or suspicion. Through integration we come to understand and live fully in our diverse and vibrant community.

Segregation is wrong. In 1954 the US Supreme Court famously upheld the right of very person in this country, regardless of race or colour, to be educated together. That decision maintained that segregated schools were no longer acceptable in our society. It stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”. That decision was made nearly fifty years ago! Recently a Harvard Civil Rights Project, declared that schools in our big city districts today are more racially segregated than a decade ago. It is as if we are turning back the clock to a time when misunderstanding and fear were the dominant factors in our lives. The fact is that if we do not try to change this scenario we will do nothing but encourage bigotry, mistrust and with that more social problems than ever before.

From Detroit to Santa Barbara, our city schools reflect this growing trend towards re-segregation. Many students in these and other cities, attend schools where 90% of the students are exclusively Black, Latino or White. There is one major difference now to the segregation of fifty years ago. This re-segregation is made through choice. It is, though, the choice of despair and fear. Its effect is to further divide and ostracise our children and their cultures. The cost to our society and us is one of continuing inequality and social division. If there is one sure lesson that we should have learnt from our vibrant and diverse history, it is that we all benefit from integration.

That lesson applies to every single one of us, whatever our colour or ethnic background. Misunderstanding and mistrust still account for many of the problems in this world of ours. It is possible to say that the success of the US throughout the years had been built on the variety and promise brought to it through its immigrant populations. How sad it is then that we still sit in fear of each other rather than learning these lessons.

The case for integration in schools is overwhelming. The sad fact that we are choosing segregation out of fear means that it is no real choice at all. The fact is that our fear means we are ensuring the problems we are now having will go on happening. By choosing to send our kids to re-segregated schools, we are ensuring that some schools get better funding, better courses and better results. It is a fact that racially isolated schools for all groups except whites are schools with high concentrations of poverty. In fact segregated Black or Latino schools are eleven times more likely to experience this poverty.

The levels of poverty that result from re-segregation are directly linked to educational inequalities and lower educational achievement. This means, lower school test scores, fewer advanced courses, fewer teachers with good credentials and fewer graduates going onto college. Segregation perpetuates all these things and so the damaging cycle continues.

Contrary to popular belief re-segregation is not good for white students either. Segregated white students are vastly ill prepared to handle the pressure of social integration. In a multi-ethnic America this is nothing short of a disaster. Still the trend continues with more white families opting to send their children out of town, or even move themselves into the more affluent suburbs. Here they can be assured of sending their children to white re-segregated schools. In many cases it is Apartheid American style.

The strange fact is that the majority of us believe and understand that segregation is wrong and divisive. All things being equal we say, of course I’d like my kids to enjoy and benefit from our multi-cultural society. The question is are all things equal? It is we who decide that they are not. We are keeping the barriers up, by ensuring that the differences between us are kept rigid. Those same differences are manifested as fears. Yet those differences are the very things that make us interesting. We all know that inequality is wrong, yet we allow it to perpetuate and flourish.

The fact is that if we were assured that our neighbourhood schools offered the best chances, the best education and the best opportunities we would not hesitate to send our children there. In the inner city schools that have been able to turn this situation around, the results have been astounding. Real evidence shows that desegregated schools both improve test scores and positively change the lives of their students. We have both the desire to end this inequality and the results to show that it pays us back. So what then should we do?

While the system of Vouchers might well help to address the inequality among income groups, it is clear that we need to do far more in the case of race make-up. Breaking up urban districts is another solution sometimes proposed. Experience is showing us that worried parents often circumvent such measures. The fact is that the only way we will get true integration is to act on our failing public schools. This means asking hard questions. It means upgrading texts and facilities. It means placing the highest calibre teachers, counsellors and administrators in these schools. It means opening up schools to make them accountable for the performance of their students. It means burying the myth once and for all that Black and Latino students will not or cannot learn.

Above all it means bringing in parents to do their part in the education process. It is the parents after all who hold the key. It is families and not schools that determine how children turn out. Parents will make their decisions on whatever they think will advance the education of their children. They will choose desegregation wherever it is a viable option. Making that choice, getting involved, and being convinced will not only encourage white children to remain in urban public schools. It will help to make those schools fairer and more reflective of our society. It may even make our society a better place for all of us.

Running away from a problem never solved anything. Forcing our children into segregated schools, means hurting their chances in a multi-cultural world. It means reinforcing stereotypes and continuing the disparity between resources and education. Backing integration takes vision, honesty, leadership, courage and commitment. Any school that offered these qualities would have students of every race and creed banging on the doors to get in. As one parent has put it, “create excellence and they will come”. Surely that excellence is what we owe our children, our education system and our country’ We must have the courage to do what is right for all of us.

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