Parents, Educators Ponder Burdens On Black Students in White Schools
Newton, Mass--"Most people assume that when black families move to the suburbs, they have it made," but many of the problems of the black middle class have simply been "camouflaged" and are only now being acknowledged, according to Charles F. Smith Jr, associate professor of education at Boston College.
Mr. Smith expressed that view in an address to black parents and educators from suburban Boston who met here recently to discuss the social and educational problems of black students in predominantly white schools. He was one of a group of speakers who offered varying perspectives on those problems during the day-long meeting, which was sponsored jointly by the Black Citizens of Newton (bcon) and the Black Faculty and Administrators Association of Boston College.
Although a wealth of information has been compiled on the problems of black students in the nation's urban schools, few studies have examined the problems of blacks in white suburban schools, speakers agreed.
And although urban areas still have a higher percentage of blacks than do the suburbs, the Census Bureau reports that increasing numbers of blacks have moved outward to suburban areas--and often, therefore, to predominantly white schools.
According to 1978 data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics, about 40 percent of the nation's public schools are predominantly white.
The community of Newton illustrates the situation that prompted the bcon conference, according to Samuel A. Turner, president of the organization. He said there are about 2,000 blacks in the community of about 85,000 persons.
At Newton North High School, there are about 135 black students in a student population of 2,100. Scott Guild, a housemaster at the high school, said that 77 of the 135 black students are bused to the school from Boston under the metco program, a one-way student transfer plan funded by the state to promote racial balance in the schools.
"We live in little pockets here," Mr. Smith explained. "We're strewn thoughout the whole community so that when confronted with problems there's no one to turn to."
When "The Jeffersons," the black middle-class family depicted on the popular television series, "moved up to the East Side," all of their children's problems were not solved, Mr. Smith said, adding that the same holds true for most of the nation's black middle-class families.
"The schools assume that because these families are middle class they know what to do [to help their children adjust]," Mr. Smith said.
The problems confronting most black pupils, Mr. Smith and others agreed, are mainly problems of adjustment. Several speakers noted the difficulties black students have "fitting in," both because they are so few in number and because they come from different cultures.
Speakers cited as problems the lack of adequate "support systems" and poor communication between black students and white teachers, which often results in "unncessary conflicts." The consequence, they said, is that black students frequently feel a sense of "loneliness and isolation."
A Matter of Understanding
But Pauline Black, a social worker for the Lexington schools, maintained that conflicts between black and white students are not always racially motivated. "Very often, the problems are not racial, but a matter of understanding how to accept things," she said.
To illustrate her point, Ms. Black told of a teacher who asked her students "to draw the flag of the country which their ancestors came from." That assignment, she said, was impossible and a source of frustration because most black children do not know where their ancestors came from.
Similarly, she said, black students who attend predominantly white schools--especially younger pupils--are often vulnerable because they have little knowledge of the use of busing to achieve desegregation in the schools and how that has affected them. "Sometimes children don't understand why they're getting an education, that the process is important, and that they are not there just to waste time," she said.
Black students, moreover, need to have good verbal skills, she said, because when they run into trouble they have to speak up for themselves and "many of them are not used to that."
"They need to learn the power of words," she said. "Those who don't have it feel the difference."
Recalling a former student who never talked in school, Robert Freeman--a faculty member at Noble and Greenough School--said her silence reflected feelings of isolation and loneliness that other black students express in different ways.
Both Mr. Freeman and Ms. Black said it is important for black students to have adequate support systems. "The isolation and loneliness can be helped by having black faculty and [by] including black history in the curricula," Mr. Freeman said, adding that accomplishing those tasks may require some pressure from black parents.
"As families move upward," Ms. Black noted, "both parents must work, and the time available to their children goes down." She said that leaves the children "with no one to relate to at home."
Despite the hectic schedule of working parents, Ms. Black contended that they should still try to maintain close contact with their children's school. "Once parents get their children into a good school, they feel they don't have to be as involved," she said. But, she added, ''good schools" are the result of parental involvement, and black parents should be as active as possible.