Equity & Diversity Opinion

Separate Is Still Not Equal: Desegregation Is Education Reform

By John T. McCrann — September 08, 2015 3 min read
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Have you listened to This American Life Episode 562: The Problem We All Live With? The unnamed problem in the title is segregation. The reporters in the two-part series present a compelling case that integration is the least talked about yet most effective reform when it comes to closing the achievement gap.

The story got me thinking about my own relationship with segregated schools.

Students at my publicly managed* school, Harvest Collegiate High School, report for their first day of class this Wednesday. They attend school in a state and city that are both facing a segregation crisis. Only six percent of schools in the New York Metro area were considered diverse in 2010. In the largest district in this county, a district that serves well over 1 million students, ninety four percent of schools are either racially or economically isolated institutions—many are so called “apartheid schools.”

I graduated from high school in Wake County, N.C., a district that served for many years as a national model for school desegregation (sadly, as the article details, they have since backtracked from their commitment). It is impossible for me to overstate the impact that this high quality education in diverse public schools has had on my current life and worldview.

Despite the positive experiences I had in integrated public schools as a student, I chose to begin my career working in “apartheid schools.” For seven years, at schools in Durham, N.C., and the Bronx I was lucky to work with incredible students, almost every one of whom was from a low income family and either African-American or Latino. I am proud of the work that my colleagues, students, and I did in these seven years and I do not regret for second my choice to work in this environment.

But I do not want to work in an apartheid school again.

My experience has confirmed what Thurgood Marshall helped to prove in 1954 when he argued Brown v. Board of Education. Separate is inherently unequal. The existence of segregated schools in the year 2015 is immoral and unconstitutional.

Every morning across New York City people wake up: some in multi-million dollar homes and others in homeless shelters. They get dressed: some in expensive suits or fashionable jeans and others in ill-fitting or dirty clothes. They say goodbye to their families: some in English, others in Spanish others in Mandarin and others in Mongolian. I am proud to say that on Wednesday, some of these New Yorkers, some of each type that I have described, will head to Harvest Collegiate High School.

At Harvest we are a diverse community in a diverse city. A diverse group of teachers preparing a diverse group of students for an ever-more diverse world. Events of the last fourteen months have highlighted the big, messy, systemic problems regarding racial disparities. I do not claim to know how to solve them, but I do know that separating communities from one another is a sure-fire way to make them worse. We should all be fighting to create more schools where people from different backgrounds can learn with and from one another.

Most of the future entries in this blog—like most writing about education reform—will be about possible reforms other than desgregation. I’ll discuss curriculum, assessments, fair labor practices, and other policies that can help us improve the education of students in all types of schools. I do believe they can help. I do not believe they can make separate schools equal.

*I’m using this phrase to be explicit about my school as it relates to other models of schools, especially charters. I’ll write more about my perspective on this in later posts. For now, it is important to me that you know that our school is both funded by and managed by a public entity as opposed to charter schools in our city which are funded by the public, but managed by private firms.

Image 1: “101st Airborne at Little Rock Central High” by US Army - US Army. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:101st_Airborne_at_Little_Rock_Central_High.jpg#/media/File:101st_Airborne_at_Little_Rock_Central_High.jpg

Image 2: These Harvest students wrote “I’m White, I’m Black, We Don’t Care” on their arms at lunch. It prompted a discussion of what it means to “not care” about race in my advisory that day. This discussion would not have taken place in an apartheid school. (John McCrann)

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