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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Why Do Some Schools Feel Like Prisons?

By Samina Hadi-Tabassum — January 27, 2015 4 min read
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Watching the protests and listening to the chants of “Hands up, don’t shoot” following last summer’s fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., fueled an argument that I have been making for some time with my graduate students and colleagues.

For almost two decades, I have been coaching and mentoring first-year teachers in Chicago’s public schools; however, in the last few years, I have noticed a cultural shift in those schools with predominantly African-American enrollments. Some are turnaround schools that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office has taken over because of low student test scores, as well as other complex challenges, including weak leadership and ineffective instruction.

BRIC ARCHIVE

When you enter these turnaround schools, there is often an eerie silence. You never hear children’s voices in the hallways. Rather, you see lines of African-American children crossing the school with their hands behind their backs or their fingers pressed against their lips to indicate silence, and their eyes always facing front.

The monochromatic lines of uniformed children mimic prison lines, and the teachers’ efforts seem focused on ensuring that students do not talk to each other and do not walk outside the line.

All day long, an immense amount of time and energy is spent making sure young African-American students are taught to obey.

In one K-12 school, when one of my graduate students had to go to the restroom, I walked her students to the cafeteria. Even in the cafeteria, children were not allowed to talk to each other.

I made the foolish mistake of having a conversation with a table of 1st grade girls when another teacher came over to me and yelled out, “You do not talk during lunch.” At first, I thought the teacher was being sarcastic, but it was disheartening to realize after a few minutes that this young teacher, who was white, had been indoctrinated by her school to think that African-American and Latino children should not be allowed to talk at lunch. When the students were given time to actually act like children on the playground, they were often admonished for “acting like animals” when they returned to their classrooms.

Of course, my first-year teachers do not buy into this ideology of repression. But when I asked them whether their schools would have the same rules if the children were white, the young teachers responded with a unanimous no, coupled with the fear of losing their jobs if they, too, did not obey.

When I asked them whether their schools would have the same rules if the children were white, the young teachers responded with a unanimous no."

Caught between educational theory that advocates for the whole child and a school culture that resembles a prison’s, my first-year teachers have to make strategic decisions daily about what is best for their students and what rules they may need to subvert while avoiding the administration’s gaze.

On this front, one of my graduate students, whom I’ll call Angela, stayed after my class one day, quite upset.

I had taught my first-year teachers a literacy technique in which students come to the board and circle letters and sounds they recognize in a message written by the teacher. Then the students are told to put a square around a word they recognize and a triangle around a piece of punctuation, and to underline sight words from their classroom’s “word wall.” The interactive nature of the technique is what leads to its success.

However, when Angela was implementing this technique one day, a school administrator walked in and informally observed her teaching.

When Angela was finished, the administrator pulled her aside and told her she liked how the students identified the different parts of language, but that they were not allowed to come to the board to do so. Why? Because 1st graders make too much noise while at the board. Angela knew the suggestion was counterintuitive, and she knew that the noise her students made was from the joy of learning—a sound missing in turnaround schools. She came to me torn about what to do next.

Many days, after supervising my first-year teachers, I drive less than five miles to pick up my own children from their schools in Oak Park, Ill.—a middle-class suburb known for its diversity.

In the hallways of my daughter’s elementary school, there is the cacophony of children laughing, running down the hallways, and slamming lockers.

On the floors, winter wear is strewn all over the place along with forgotten worksheets. In the cafeteria, the noise of children eating and talking can at times become overwhelming; so, too, the sight of discarded food on the floor.

Do we find this chaotic behavior tolerable and less threatening because the school is majority white? If these were mostly African-American and Latino children, would many administrators in the Chicago public schools and elsewhere not have tolerated it and perhaps even found it threatening?

Finally, when will turnaround schools take school culture into consideration and produce a school that enriches the whole minority child?

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 2015 edition of Education Week as Too Much Discipline Hurts Majority-Minority Schools

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