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Law & Courts

Mixed Messages

By Catherine Gewertz — April 14, 2004 14 min read
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Overview of Brown Series
Racial isolation in Summerton, S.C.
Racial imbalance
Overcrowding in Chicago schools
Challenges of diversity in Arlington, Va.'s public schools
Parental Choice

It’s 10 minutes into lunch at Wakefield High School, and the cafeteria is crowded and smelling of french fries. At a long, narrow table in the middle of the room, four girls set down their trays. Chatting in Spanish about classes and boyfriends, they lean close to one another to hear over the din.

Over near the big window, a white boy and a black boy laugh and poke each other, knocking their crumpled brown lunch bags to the floor. An Asian girl and a Latino boy wait silently in the lunch line together, her head on his shoulder, his arm around her waist.

This scene would have been impossible here 50 years ago, as the U.S. Supreme Court prepared to hand down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, outlawing systems of racially segregated public schools. Back then, every student in this cafeteria was white, a truly bizarre notion to these teenagers so accustomed to racial and ethnic diversity.

But as colorblind as these young people claim to be, as comfortable as many are with a rich cross-racial and cross-ethnic mixture, the truth about race in this close-in Virginia suburb of Washington, a half- century after Brown, is double-edged. In some ways, it doesn’t matter at all. And in many others, it matters. A lot.

It shows up in the way students map out the social terrain of the cafeteria.

“Lots of times, kids hang with their own race ’cause it’s more comfortable,” Calvin Height, 17, an African-American student sporting a closely trimmed goatee, says as he surveys the vast room. “But it can also be what you’re into, you know, like those guys over there"—he points to two tables of students, all black—"they’re into rap music.”

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Alfred Simkin, a lanky, white 17-year-old, says some kids sit together because they’re obsessed with a certain popular card game, and others because they love to skateboard. The friends at his table—all white—share a love of rock music. “Over there, that’s the Asian table, and those tables over there,” Simkin says, gesturing toward the center of the room, “usually have a lot of the kids who talk Spanish.”

These students, who have no idea that opponents of school integration once burned crosses in this community, are quick to say that race and ethnic origin have little meaning in their lives at Wakefield High.

But almost immediately, they proceed to spin out stories showing that their ancestry runs like theme music through their days, sounding notes of pride, guilt, confusion, and anger; playing at some moments almost inaudibly, and at others, painfully loudly.

Beyond the walls of Wakefield High School, race and ethnicity have carved clear patterns throughout the 19,000-student Arlington school district. The busing that sought to even the distribution of black and white children in the schools here ended more than a decade ago, allowing housing patterns—wealthier, white families in north Arlington, lower- income black and Hispanic families in the south, Asian families scattered more evenly throughout—to be replicated in the schools.

At Wakefield, the southernmost of Arlington’s three high schools, the enrollment is 46 percent Hispanic, 27 percent African-American, 16 percent white, and 11 percent Asian or Pacific Islander. Nearly half the students qualify for subsidized school meals. Yorktown, the northernmost high school, is 66 percent white, 17 percent Hispanic, 11 percent Asian, and 7 percent black. Only 16 percent of its students qualify for reduced-price meals.

Wakefield trails the other two high schools on state and college-entrance tests, and enrolls fewer students in advanced coursework. Districtwide, racial and ethnic achievement gaps persist, as white and Asian students outpace their black and Latino peers.

Those patterns have led Arlington administrators to focus unusually sharply on enabling black and Latino students to flourish. To accomplish that, they see pressure on two levers as key: preparing students for challenging work, and preparing teachers to engage them in it effectively. Neither lever will work, district leaders contend, unless teachers know how to build caring relationships with students.

“The focus is on the quality of the experiences kids get in the classroom,” says Robert G. Smith, the sandy- haired, bespectacled superintendent who has made closing the skills gaps between racial and ethnic groups a top priority in his six years in Arlington. “It goes beyond saying, ‘All kids can learn.’ It’s the expectations we set for them, the access to opportunities that we give them. It’s the messages teachers convey in class through their interactions, that they can do this.”

“That relationship piece is make-or-break,” says Cheryl Robinson, the district’s minority-achievement coordinator. “If you can’t connect with the kids, all the other stuff is moot.”

Arlington’s approach seems to be yielding results. Since 1999, students in all racial and ethnic groups have been scoring better on statewide tests, and the gaps between groups are narrowing.

The persistence of disparities means that much remains to be done, however. District leaders know those differences arise from a tangle of many threads, from adults’ low expectations and poor teaching to socioeconomic pressure, the influence of pop culture, and complex family, peer, and cultural dynamics.

But in a district that is financially fortunate, unified by a clear mission, and small enough to get the message out, closing the gap is seen as a manageable goal.

“If anyone could close the achievement gap, it would be a district like us,” says Kathleen F. Grove, the assistant superintendent for instruction. “I believe there are answers, and we can figure out what to do. I’m not frustrated …" she says, pausing for a smile, " … yet. If we stop making progress, then I’ll be concerned.”

Samantha Ho, 17, whose parents are Chinese and Vietnamese, is sick of the misplaced beliefs she has to combat in her fellow Wakefield High students every week. “There’s always this assumption that you can’t speak English,” she says with a frustrated eye roll. “People are like, ‘Can you understand me?’ and I’m like, ‘Uhhh, yeahhh, I was born here.’ It hurts.”

“Yeah, I’m from the Philippines, and this Indian girl asks me if I’m Chinese,” says Domicyl Cadag, 16. “People are always asking us if we are Chinese.”

Many students at Wakefield say their peers pressure them to socialize only with teenagers of their own racial or ethnic group.

These girls and other members of Wakefield’s Asian students’ club, meeting in a classroom after school one day last month, begin reeling off the assumptions that other students often make about them: Good at math. Smart. Quiet. Disciplined. Not good at sports. The teenagers laugh uncomfortably.

“I kind of feel offended that they know so little about us,” says Mary Jane Riguera, 15, who is Filipino-American.

They are not alone in the slights they experience at the hands of their classmates. Stories abound of insensitive comments, often laden with stereotypes.

“If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me if I play basketball,” Nahid Koohkanrizi, 17, a tall African-American student who is the treasurer of Wakefield’s student government association, says during a break in a recent meeting of the group.

Many students experience pressure to socialize only with teenagers of their own racial or ethnic group.

“I hang out with mostly Asian kids, and [African- American] kids have come up to me and said, ‘It’s wrong for you to hang out with them instead of with us,” says Destynie DuMar, 16, who is multiracial.

Wakefield’s many immigrant students grapple not only with their peers’ stereotypes and ignorance of their cultures, but also with language difficulties that can make them shy in the classroom and family pressures that can complicate school life. Many of their parents, unfamiliar with the American education system, don’t understand how they can be advocates for their children.

Dina Ascencio, 18, who arrived from El Salvador five years ago, says she can’t be involved in many after-school activities because her father, worried by the many stories he has heard about freewheeling American teenagers, fears she could get into trouble. He refused to let his daughter go on an overnight trip to college campuses, organized by school counselors, until one of Wakefield’s bilingual resource assistants called and explained how valuable the trip could be for his daughter.

Claudia Torres feels the dual pressure of succeeding both as an American and a Peruvian. “I have to speak as clear English as they do, and show everyone I can do it, and I have to be the perfect Peruvian, too,” says the petite 17-year-old. “You have to be like a bridge, teaching your parents about American culture, and teaching your friends about Peruvian culture.

“It gets tiring. Can’t I just be normal?”

Down a long hallway and around the corner on another afternoon, members of a journalism class share widely varying analyses of the role race plays in their lives.

“We’ve been brought up in a melting pot with so many cultures here, so diversity is second nature to us,” says Alex LaPiana, 17, a white student who is the editor of the student newspaper. Veronica Rios, 17, says she thinks everybody gets along at Wakefield, and as a Latina, sees herself with extra opportunitysuch as college scholarshipsrather than as a member of a disadvantaged group.

Some of their classmates see it differently.

“They way I talk, black kids are always telling me, ‘Oh, she talks so proper, she must think she’s white,’ ” says Hadiatu Sumah, 16, whose parents are West African. “Hispanic and white kids accept me more than black kids do.”

John Stephens, 16, says that he and other African-American males sense that others “expect us to have this gangster image goin’ on. I’ve seen some really smart people act dumber than they are because that’s what’s expected.”

Expectations tainted by cultural ignorance and bias too often seep into adults and the children they teach, and influence classroom learning, say experts in the field. Dynamics like those are on the demolition schedule at the Friday pizza lunches of a Wakefield High group called “the cohort.”

Formed four years ago to combat the virtual absence of black and Latino males in Advanced Placement classes, the group tackles head-on the academic, social, and emotional issues that can hinder high achievement.

With their adult advisers, the young men bond and problem-solve on an outdoor ropes course. They expand their horizons on overnight trips to college campuses and share the trials of applying. They learn to advocate for themselves in high-level classes, and to manage frustration when the going gets rough.

‘We've been brought up in a melting pot with so many cultures here, so diversity is second nature to us.’

And over weekly pizza, they talk about everything from the responsibilities of manhood to the need for support in staying on a productive path.

“I’d be kind of lost without the cohort,” says Sergio Padilla, a soft-spoken 16-year- old from Bolivia. “Some of my friends, they don’t set goals. They don’t care about going to college. I want to go, but it seemed scary to figure it out. In the cohort, I found out a lot about college and financial aid.”

Chris Ward, 17, who is African-American, says the cohort helps him withstand the pressure from friends to goof off.

“Here, you keep your eyes focused on the prize,” he says. “When you do good, these people are not going to laugh at you. They’re going to give you a pat on the back. And when you’re not doing well, they’re going to tell you to step it up.”

The cohort has grown from 15 juniors and seniors in 2000 to 77 in all four grades this year. It has more than tripled the number of black and Latino males in AP classes over the past three years. Wakefield is expanding the program next year, so that any student who wants to take an AP class may do so, with support groups that impart skills such as how to take good notes, set up a study group, or tackle college- level texts.

Alan Beitler, a school social worker who is one of three advisers to the cohort, says its success is based on helping young men overcome self-doubt fueled by the stereotypes and low expectations around them. Instead, they learn that they have great potential and adults rooting for them.

“We look past the grades, past the behavior, past the dress. That isn’t the essential part of them,” says Beitler, a bearded former minister in jeans and a leather jacket. “I want to teach them that I believe in them, and that they can, also.”

In a basement room one winter day after school, 11 Wakefield teachers are examining their own practices to uncover biases and weaknesses, particularly in their interactions with low-achieving students. Led by Robinson, the district’s minority-achievement coordinator, they learn how to better ask students probing questions, listen carefully to answers, and make emotional connections, using touch or eye contact.

Teachers in this training allow their colleagues to observe them in the classroom, marking down on clipboards any differences in how they manage low-achieving and high- achieving students. Later, they receive feedback. Do they ask struggling students questions that demand higher-order thinking, or mostly simple yes-or- no questions? Do they “connect” better with the high-achieving students? Are they quicker to become angry with low achievers?

In the classrooms along Wakefield’s long hallways, teachers—most of whom are non-Hispanic and white— vary in their awareness of those dynamics, and their openness to considering them.

Doug Burns, a slightly built English teacher with an intense blue- eyed gaze, says that the curriculum is full of cultural bias. He needs to serve as a bridge to make it relevant for his students, who come with a myriad of cultural and religious beliefs and experiences, he says. He’ll do “whatever it takes” to reach them, and show them that “you and I are a team, and it’s time for us to get to work.”

Many teachers embrace the students’ diversity as an enriching facet of Wakefield life, and students at the school almost universally say their teachers have high expectations for them. A few teachers, though, express doubts that all students are able or properly prepared to navigate the high-level courses.

“Sometimes a particular goal might not suit a particular student,” says one teacher, who asked not to be named for fear of appearing uncooperative with the school’s priorities.

Some teachers struggle with the challenge of tuning in to each student’s needs, and say that the pressure to prepare them to perform well on statewide tests makes doing that even tougher. Some are not at ease with the idea that they should try to “read” students, so they might understand, for instance, that a student who seems tuned out might just be in need of encouragement.

Physics teacher Jim Chalker, who at 49 describes himself as a “curmudgeon,” acknowledges that he “should be better” about varying his teaching techniques to suit students’ needs.

“I tend to engage the ones who are having trouble but trying, and not as much the ones who aren’t interested,” he says. “I know I’ve dropped the ball with some students, but I have enough things in my head that I can’t stop and say about each kid, ‘What does he need?’ ”

Shortly before leaving Wakefield High to move to the Midwest recently, Chalker, who is white, reflected on his experiences with his array of students. Black students, he says, have been “louder” in his classes. And it’s mostly the black students, he says, who turn their backs and walk away from him when he tries to talk to them about their hallway behavior.

“I admit I may have some prejudices,” he says. “They’ve probably affected my teaching. I’d like to think they haven’t.”

Teachers’ attitudes have left a trail of stories to tell for Tiffany Ratliff, André Baker, and Brandon Day. Leaders of black students’ groups at Wakefield, all three recall being screened for special education classes at least once earlier in their school careers. In all cases, their parents intervened, ensuring their placement in regular or high-level classes.

Adults are largely to blame for making race an issue, many teenagers charge. What they want, they say, is to be themselves.

“They label you at a young age,” says Ratliff, 17, a tall, restless girl with dozens of tiny braids.

“Yeah, people see you’re a black kid and figure they ought to be prepared for the worst,” says Baker, a round-faced, talkative 17-year-old.

He recalled one time a few years ago, while he was attending another school, when he argued heatedly with something his white teacher said. She sent him to the principal’s office, saying she was afraid he was going to hit her.

“I’m all loud, and I’m in baggy clothes, and I do like this,” Baker says, gesturing broadly with his arms, “and they say I’m ‘ghetto,’ and that’s it for me.”

These teenagers, and many others, say adults are largely to blame for making race an issue. College applications ask them their race. Guest speakers at school deliberately provoke debate about race. Adults at home tease that they should never date someone of another race. All they want, many students say, is just to be allowed to be themselves.

“People keep talking and talking about race this, and race that,” says Ratliff, “and I just keep thinking, why should it matter?”

Coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision is underwritten by grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations.

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