Education Opinion

Averting ‘A Lifetime of Segregation’

By Donald O. Leake — November 28, 1990 8 min read

Schools in urban areas have been criticized, stigmatized, scrutinized, and politicized. And in each case, the group that has borne the disproportionate burden of the schools’ dysfunction is African-American males.

What once might had been forgiven as the unintentional oversights of a buoyant educational system have widened systematically into the institutionalized failure of an entire segment of our population. We tend to respond not only to the objective features of this problem, but also--and at times primarily--to the challenge it poses to society.

The Commentary by Leonard Stevens regarding the African-American Immersion Schools in Milwaukee (“‘Separate But Equal’ Has No Place,” Oct. 31, 1990) clearly illustrates the type of help that hurts.

Mr. Stevens’s awkward attempt to infer that the task force that recommended such schools perceived “desegregation as the culprit” is untenable, since the issue of desegregation was never raised, either as a cause or a solution. As a member of the task force, I can unequivocally state that the issue at hand was the failure of African-American males, not the racial composition of the setting in which the underachievement occurred.

The “help” Mr. Stevens proposes is implied in his attempt to defend not the merits of integration, but merely the possibilities of desegregation.

The plan proposed by the Milwaukee task force clearly will work to promote the universality of human beings. Integration tends to occur when the differences between peers are minimal; therefore, the bane of segregation is the academically competent and self-confident individual. The African-American Immersion Schools should work to lessen the personal feelings of inadequacy and impotence that tend to result in academic alienation.

I agree with Mr. Stevens that “segregation has never served minorities well.” But what he fails to realize is that we are currently segregating students in two conceptually different but phenomenologically interactive ways. First, we segregate them by the educational equivalent of apartheid, more commonly referred to as “tracking.” One need only look to the disproportionate percentage of minorities in the slower-track classes, or the absence of minorities in the gifted and talented programs, to understand this.

Second, I would argue that we subject students to a lifetime of segregation when we ask unprepared, untrained, and marginally literate students to compete in a technologically advanced society.

I find it somewhat contradictory that Mr. Stevens can see “an instructional basis for the grouping” of Hispanics or Cambodians (language differences), but is unable (or unwilling) to acknowledge the benefits to be gained by blacks in a setting that integrates into the existing curriculum nontrivial information about African people. He is a product of a system that was biased toward European culture and its derivatives. It is extremely difficult for those who have never been excluded to know the impact of being left out.

I am more than willing to acknowledge that a language barrier can be problematic, but it is equally devastating to be trapped in the language of “exclusion.” The issue should be how to develop a pluralistic educational system, not whether a curriculum influenced by white cultural hegemony is more appropriate for black students than an Afrocentric one.

In the absence of a systemwide effort toward multiculturalism, any attempts to pilot-test a more inclusive curriculum should be supported. Especially since the thrust of the project is clearly in concert with a pluralistic curricular approach.

I also concur with Mr. Stevens that “black parents have a right to expect schools to succeed with their children.” He and I differ only on the timeline. To me, it is morally reprehensible to continue to ask parents to invest in a system in which 81 percent of the African-American males have a grade-point average below 2.00.

Mr. Stevens, apparently, feels that parents of African-American children should be more patient and wait for the “desegregation-management” process to work. I wonder how patient he would be, if asked to send his son to a school on the promise that maybe one day his son might receive an adequate education.

Last January, the board of directors of the Milwaukee Public Schools initiated a response to the underachievement of the system’s African- American male students. A task force was formed to examine that group of students and to offer recommendations. Although the charge was to examine the plight of young men, the task force readily acknowledged comparable problems for African-American females, and consciously examined issues with both groups in mind.

The task force included public-school administrators, teachers, and students; university professors and administrators; and representatives from other sectors of the community. Three-fourths of its members were African-American males.

In spite of the commonly held belief that black males were being disproportionately underserved by the school system, the group’s initial goal was to document the status of black male students in Milwaukee. Academicians shared summaries of current research, efforts of other school systems were reviewed, local school records were examined, and both public and private groups testified during fact-finding sessions.

The testimony of participants and the unprecedented offers of assistance tended to underscore the gravity of the problem, not merely prove its existence. Two critical points emerged from this fact-finding process:

  • The pervasiveness of the problem would require a proportionately encompassing solution. At the least, this would include new levels of both teacher and student accountability, at the most far-reaching it would involve total restructuring of schools in urban areas.
  • The interconnected nature of the problem would require a response from all levels of the school community. That is, a community-based effort would be needed, to work with and support the school staff in an unprecedented manner.
  • The grouping of students is fundamental to the educational process. Traditionally students have been grouped according to such diverse characteristics as chronological age, grade level, and various facets intelligence. It is critical to note that in any grouping philosophy there are inherent strengths and weaknesses. Nonetheless, the educational process still requires systematic method of sorting students.

    With reference to grouping, the task force asked the following question: “What type of program would attract and hold the greatest promise for African-American male students?” The consensus was that one best model does not exist and that several strategies should be employed. One of the strategies included the development of two African-American Immersion Schools.

    The group recommended selecting sites with a 90 percent or greater concentration of African-American students. There are currently 19 such schools in the Milwaukee district that were exempted from a desegregation agreement. Interested students who do not reside in these attendance areas will be permitted to transfer to the sites. Although the schools will adhere to the district’s nondiscriminatory admission policy, an emphasis will be placed on attracting African-American students.

    The task force also addressed the cherished tradition of coeducational class groupings and concluded that interest patterns of the pre- and early- adolescent suggest that same-sex arrangements should be incorporated into the plan. The literature on the middle-school-age child provides a exhaustive empirical database on sexual differences and their educational implications. The task force proposed the development of “Gender Socialization Courses.” Their focus would be on helping students establish their sense of gender in “safe” environments.

    Grouping these courses by sex was recommended. Potential topics covered in them could include: rites of passage; sex-role messages males and/or females receive; transactional language to facilitate socialization; appropriate notions of femininity or masculinity. Naturally, there would be numerous areas of the curriculum, such as mathematics or English classes, where both sexes would profitably interact.

    If current national trends persist, more than 90 percent of the teaching force will be white, serving a student population that is one-third nonwhite. 1n some urban areas, the proportion of the student population that is non-white may be as high as 75 percent. How many minority teachers there are is important, not because white teachers are inherently less effective, but due to the urgent need for providing role models for non-white students.

    In fact, all students need exposure to successful teachers of other races. But the Milwaukee task force believes that providing African-American students with role models like themselves will improve those students’ self-image. The selection of teachers will be based more on experience and teaching talent, however, than on race or gender.

    Regardless of how well the organizational structure conforms to the characteristics of a school’s students, however, educational progress will depend, finally, on the experience and competence of the school’s staff. The task force recognized this, and recommended that, beginning with the principal, the entire staff of the immersion schools should consist of professionals who had specifically requested placement in that setting.

    Since the best leadership is leadership by example, particular attention must be given to recruiting African-American male professionals and paraprofessionals, and we are encouraging the development of strategies to assist such candidates in obtaining a teaching certificate.

    Three key points that critics of our proposal tend to overlook or ignore are:

    • That it will not promote segregation, since it is presently designed to be implemented in two schools that are already all-black.
  • That young African-American females will be an important part of the project; and
  • That the schools will be promoted as a special-programming alternative, similar to other existing Milwaukee specialty schools.
  • The Milwaukee Public Schools’ innovative attempt to address the issue of underachievement among African-American students is a turning point in the community’s commitment to change—a commitment that will be measured by how effectively it has dealt with both white and minority students, and how consistently it has refused to deny to any a quality education.

    A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 1990 edition of Education Week as Averting ‘A Lifetime of Segregation’