‘Frontline’ Looks at an Issue of Race and Education

By Mark Walsh — July 14, 2014 3 min read
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This week’s “Frontline” on PBS is devoted to education, with two distinct stories dividing up the hourlong show.

The first half is titled “Separate and Unequal,” and is billed by press materials as a look at “the resurgence of school segregation in America.” That would be a big topic, and worth well more than 25 minutes. But TV publicists have been known to stretch a description.

Thankfully, the segment is about a very specific story, and one that could result in resegregation in a Southern school system. A group of residents of an unincorporated area of suburban Baton Rouge, La., is collecting signatures to establish a separate municipality that would be named St. George.

The separation, if it goes through, would evidently also divide the East Baton Rouge Parish school district, though the segment sidesteps explaining some of the legal technicalities. (The city of Baton Rouge and the parish (county) of East Baton Rouge have had a joint government since the late 1940’s, but it’s a bit confusing because there is the city and two other municipalities in the parish, as well as the unincorporated area.)

Norman Browning, the leader of the St. George petition drive, says, “Our children are not getting the education they deserve. ... It’s about bringing community back. It’s about bringing schools back to their community.”

Browning denies in the segment that the race of students or of the larger citizenry is behind the effort.

We hear from Gary Orfield, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, who specifies that he does not know the motivations of the St. George organizers but that when people say that efforts such as this are not about race, they are often really about race.

Louisiana State University economists who have studied the proposal say that St. George would carve out about one quarter of the population of East Baton Rouge Parish. St. George would be about 70 percent white and 23 percent black, compared with a 40 percent white and 55 percent black population in the current full parish.

State Rep. Patricia Smith, a Democrat from Baton Rouge, says in the segment that that majority of students who would be removed from schools in the new St. George community would be black students who are bused there.

In the segment, we visit one of those schools, Woodlawn High School, which is currently 60 percent African-American. YouTube videos of fights in the hallways have been turned into a campaign ad in favor of the St. George campaign.

Organizers need 18,000 signatures, and they had half that number as of the end of 2013. Though this is not in the “Frontline” segment, the Baton Rouge Advocate reported last week that the organizers have until July 23 to meet their goal to be on the November ballot. The paper speculated that the effort may be faltering.

As for the larger context, the familiar voice of “Frontline” narrator Will Lyman informs us that separation efforts similar to the one in East Baton Rouge Parish have been attempted around the country, including in Dallas and Shelby County, Tenn.

“The result is often schools that are less economically and racially diverse,” Lyman says.

Although 25 minutes is relatively lengthy for a TV report on education, the “Frontline” segment seems to reach its end in no time. (Though I’m not sure the show could have filled a full hour with the St. George story alone.)

* * * *

The second half of Tuesday’s show is “Omarina’s Story,” an update of the education of a New York City student that “Frontline” first featured in 2012 in another segment.

Omarina Cabrera, who lives in the Bronx, was part of “Middle School Moment,” a report that examined the research of Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University about the need for educators to take advantage of a make-or-break moment in middle school to keep troubled students from eventually dropping out of high school.

In the new “Frontline” segment, we follow Omarina out of the Bronx to the private Brooks School in Andover, Mass. Just as she is starting to adapt to this challenging new environment, she faces a family crisis that will bring her back to New York City, if only temporarily.

Again, the 25 minutes for this segment goes by quickly. One hopes that “Frontline” will keep following Omarina’s educational progress, and that the next education segment that the show does gets a full hour’s attention.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.