Equity & Diversity Opinion

Brown at 60: A Tale of Two Cities

By Val Brown — May 21, 2014 3 min read
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Val Brown

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. ... We had everything before us, we had nothing before us.” —Charles Dickens

I grew up in Miami Gardens, Fla., a city that, according to the 2010 census, is approximately 76 percent black, 22 percent Hispanic, and 18 percent white. Most of the people I knew growing up were lower to middle class. I lived my daily life within the confines of the city limits, where everyone I interacted with looked just like me.

To be honest, I never thought too much about it. It was my reality, and I just assumed that every city in America was set up along similar racial lines.

My school, of course, shared the demographics of my city. Students had a shared identity and pride for their school and community. It really was the best of times, and we had everything before us—except perspective.

I finished high in my graduating class and enrolled in a large, prestigious state university. However, I quickly realized that, in many ways, my high school was also the worst of times—and that my peers and I had had nothing before us.

When I arrived at college, I felt grossly underprepared for the rigorous university coursework, especially in math and science. Socially, I felt cheated by my limited school-based experiences. Culturally, I felt isolated and had to learn how to navigate many different domains.

To think about and reflect on the inequities of my experience literally hurts. My friends, who were also in the top 10 percent of our high school graduating class, finished college with the help of others. But many of my classmates barely finished high school.

As we reflect on the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, we need to take a good, long look in the mirror at what we are doing to minority students and their futures. We cannot continue to believe that students who attend racially-isolated schools have an experience that is equal to their peers who attend diverse schools.

This phenomenon is hardly limited to schools in the south. And, it’s not just problem that affects minority students. Diverse experiences benefit all students.

While educators can’t change school demographics, there are some things we can do to help students of color close the achievement gap:

  • Teachers: Regardless of your race or the race of your students, have high expectations. And keep them high. Attending a poor, segregated school doesn’t mean students can’t learn.
  • Education leaders: Develop bridge programs. Thankfully, a group of black educators at my university had the foresight to create a bridge program to support minority students until we overcame our areas of educational deficiency.
  • Everyone else: Settle for nothing less than the best education for every student. As a country, we all benefit from an educated population.

In the Brown decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that separating black children “from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone.”

I graduated from high school in 1998. How can it be that segregated schools were a reality 15 years ago—and remain a reality 60 years after the Brown decision?

We must think about how these experiences impact minority students and do everything possible to ensure that every single child has the tools they need to have a brilliant future—in the best or worst of times.

Val Brown is a 10-year educator who supports elementary school teachers as a teacher on assignment in the Seminole County school district in Florida. She is a member of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory.

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