Tag Archives: Racial disparities in education

“America to me,” and you

The Parent Imperfect had many excuses not to do it, but, last Thursday night I went to the Boston Public Library for a showing of Episode 4 of the America to me series now showing on Starz. The series is a kind of cinema verité documentary about racial dynamics in a high school in Oak Park, IL. Calling it “Reality TV” would cheapen it way too much, but the series takes a deep dive into the reality of this particular school. Why would over 250 people (including a good number of people whom I recognized as busy parents) show up at the library on a Thursday night to see a TV show? Because this is not just another TV show, and somebody did a great job of putting the event together and promoting it, that’s why. The event was part of a nationwide tour to promote the use of the film in communities. The key partner here in Boston was The Boston School Finder (BSF), a new web tool that describes itself as a tool to help Boston parents find a good school for their children. If you’re wondering why the producers of this tour chose an app as a Boston partner, welcome to 2018. When the tour director explained to the audience how it all happened, she recounted that her primary contact in Boston told her that she needed to speak to BSF’s Executive Director, Latoya Gayle. The rest is history. It also seemed like City Year was somehow in the mix, as they had a table at the entrance and dozens of fresh City Year recruits were in attendance. The organizers of the national tour clearly provided some resources and professional help to make this event happen, but Ms. Gayle and her BSF team also deserve a lot of credit for pulling off an impressive event. There was a reception beforehand at the Lenox Hotel, with free food and soft drinks (for the alcohol, you paid), which I’m sure didn’t hurt the turnout. Somehow I don’t think that the Lenox threw that party for free. The Rabb Lecture Hall at BPL is a great place to see a film. After taking some time to get the capacity crowd into their seats, Ms. Gayle introduced the show by emphasizing the importance of all children getting a quality education, and suggesting that we need to evaluate our political leaders based on whether or not they are serious about delivering on that equity promise. That was a great message and a good intro to the film. America to me follows several students and their families through a year in the life of Oak Park and River Forest High School (OPRF). All the publicity says that the school is in Chicago, but it is actually in Oak Park, IL, a relatively prosperous, close-in suburb of Chicago. Oak Park is known as a diverse, politically progressive community. It seemed more like Cambridge than any part of Boston, and the women sitting in front of me (who were from Cambridge) agreed. The school resembled what I know of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, the public high school in that city. If Episode 4 is any indication, Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams and many other films, and his crew did a great job on this series. After struggling with the school administration to get access to OPRF, they managed to find some very compelling young people to give life to this story. The parents of those students also play important roles. In essence, the message is, “Even in this very progressive, well-resourced public school, young people of color and their families face some very daunting challenges. Those challenges are rooted in both the culture of the school, and in the implicit and explicit biases of members of the school community, even those who consider themselves to be very aware of racial issues.” Most of the hundreds of hours of filming was done in the school or at the home of students, but the cameras do follow one young man trick-or-treating with his little brother on Halloween and another as he accompanies the school marching band on a long-awaited trip to a Disney facility (much to the dismay of his wrestling coach). The young people emerge as complicated characters, rather than the cardboard figures that we get in some documentaries. The viewer sees their pain and frustration, as well as many moments of joy and happiness. One student can’t perform in an important improv competition because he received a three-day out-of-school suspension for, in his words, “walking while black.” Another young woman who seems particularly affected by the academic pressures at the school is not chosen for a poetry slam team that seems like the most important thing in the world to her. A male student who does make the slam team recites a poem on camera that bares his intensely felt emotions about his missing father. That poem left both the student audience at the school and the BPL audience in stunned silence. This is the same youth who was bantering with a barber ten minutes earlier about how he wanted his hair cut. In a particularly excruciating scene, a white teacher who fashions himself as highly aware when it comes to racial issues, sits down with two students of color (one of them the aforementioned poet) to ask how he, the teacher, is doing in class. The resulting conversation summarizes the message of the film in a way that no narration ever could. I’d love to know how the man experiences seeing himself in this film. After the lights went on, there was a panel discussion moderated by Meghan Irons of the Boston Globe. She’s done some great writing on education and many other issues in Boston, and was a perfect moderator. The panel featured the director of Episode 4 and Boston education leaders, but the highlight was the presence of one of the young men from Oak Park who appears in this episode (the wrestler who opted to go on the Disney trip with the band). It was great to hear his perspective on the issues addressed in the film. America to me is not the definitive film on racism in the U.S. today, nor does it capture the challenges facing public education in urban areas without the resources of an Oak Park, IL. Episode 4 was, however, a very engaging telling of the an important story happening at one quite unusual high school in one equally unusual community. It offers a special invitation to people who think they have overcome their/our racism to take a moment to question that assumption. The show must have had an effect on me, as I signed up to have showings of future episodes at my house. The producers are organizing these “watch groups” to generate discussion around the series. I won’t be able to screen them all, but I will do a couple of showings. If you’re in Boston and interested in joining a group to check out an episode, comment here or contact me some other way, and I’ll let you know when I’ll be doing showings. If you get Starz, or are up for the On Demand fee, you can also watch America to me, in the comfort of your own home. I recommend it.
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The land of disparities

City yearYesterday, the Parent Imperfect joined a standing-room-only crowd of over 200 people at City Year, that temple of youth development in Boston’s South End. I saw lots of Boston Public Schools parents there, including one of the authors of the report, whose middle-school daughter was sitting in the corner of the auditorium, reading a book for the whole time. The daughter was amazingly patient (can I purchase a couple of bottles of this patience?) and Mom was very aware of her daughter, even as she tried to wield the stage hook against long-winded speakers.

The occasion these little dramas was the launch of a report about how Black and Latino male students fare in the Boston Public Schools. This report was a little different than many such efforts in that the BPS commissioned the work, participated in the study design and signed off on its findings. The Center for Collaborative Education and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform did the research. Speakers mentioned the Barr Foundation about 20 times, so I assume the foundation provided much of the dough for what must have been (and continues to be) a very expensive piece of work.

Privilege and prejudiceFor over an hour, slide after slide drove home the point that everyone in the room came in taking for granted: Structural barriers to achievement lead to very different outcomes in the BPS for Black and Latino males, on the one hand, and Caucasian and Asian boys, on the other. I would call these barriers, “institutional racism,” but, given the prominence of big institutions in the process, the study was politic enough not to use such incendiary terms. “Structural barriers to achievement” seems so much more neutral and, therefore, appropriate for polite company. I guess it’s OK to allow the reader to draw his/her own conclusions about such terms.

Overly polite or not, this study makes its point with more detail and more nuance than I have ever seen it made, at least in Boston. Rather than just talking about this statistic for “Black” kids and that one for “Latino” kids, the study uncovers the diversity behind such words by exploring, for example, at the differences in achievement between African-American males, born in the U.S., and Afro-Latinos from the Caribbean.  “Whites” and “Asians” weren’t described with this same sensitivity to diversity, but I can live with that, given the point of this study.

All of this made for a more interesting (and lengthy) presentation, but the bottom line is still the bottom line. Girls do better than boys in the system, across all groups. Within the boys, Black and Latino boys face particular barriers to achievement. Among Black and Latino males, Students with Special Needs and English Language Learners face double or triple barriers.

The lack of economic analysis in the study disappointed me. The authors clearly wanted to keep the focus on the impact of race and ethnicity, but even a couple of slides acknowledging that children living in poverty make up a large part of the student body of the BPS and that social class also influences educational outcomes would have helped. I’m not sure we can understand how race impacts outcomes in the BPS without at least a nod to the way race is tangled up with social class in U.S. cities, but that’s a much longer thing.

METCOI also wonder if we can understand outcomes in the BPS without also including analysis of trends in enrollment and outcomes in charter schools, the METCO program and the region’s private schools. I don’t have data, but I am aware that significant numbers of high-achieving students, including more than a few Latino and Black males students that I know, have departed the BPS for these alternatives (and no small percentage of them come tumbling back into the district later). The growth of these alternative forms of educating our children is gradually changing the composition of the BPS student body and, the nature of the challenges faced by the district. But not even the Barr Foundation could pay for that sort of analysis. These things are on my mind, but they don’t take away from what is a really important piece of research by these people.

The best part of the study is that it takes the bold extra step of naming some of the causes of the problem, and then suggesting ways that we, as a community, might change this situation. It’s here that the tracking that is so central to the BPS experience gets a hard time. For these analysts, something about the way BPS has constructed and implemented Advanced Work Classes and the famous Boston exam schools make those two programs, as currently configured, an important part of the problem. Few of the study’s recommendations deal with AWC and the exam schools (two recommendations, I think), but those are two of the recommendations that are going to get the most attention. The “Village,” the community list-serve at the nation’s oldest public school immediately lit up with both indignation that anyone would dare question the current paths of access to the school, and indignation at that indignation.
Come togetherThe Annenberg Institute at Brown University can tell us just how bad the racial and ethnic disparities are in our schools. The Institute might even be able to tell us what we need to do to narrow those disparities, but it can’t tell us how we can come together to make it all happen. This coming together behind a different vision has always been the challenge and the glossy report handed out yesterday (pea-green and purple, for some reason) isn’t going to help us do that. Political leadership could help make that happen. We’ll see. For the most part, how to come together is something for those us–students, parents, teachers, school administrators alongside political and other community  leaders–who live and learn in the land of disparities to figure out.

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Filed under Boston Public Schools