Many public school districts in this country are now “re-segregated.” This dreary fact, among others, was discussed during last week’s education town hall at the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) Convention held at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
The U.S. public schools have been “going backwards” in school integration for at least five decades, Nikole Hannah-Jones told Black journalists and others at the August 8 town hall that was open to the public. Hannah-Jones, 2015 NABJ Journalist of the Year, has written on “the continuing segregation of America’s schools” for ProPublica.
Panelists included Hannah-Jones, Seed Academy and Harvest Prep Founder-Director Eric Mahmoud, St. Paul Public Schools Accountability Officer Michelle Walker, United Negro College Fund Research Director Brian Bridges, and former Minneapolis School Board member Chris Stewart, now with the Education Post, a nonprofit public education “communications organization.”
Now with the New York Times Magazine, Hannah-Jones pointed out, “Black students now are in schools more segregated than any time since the 1970s. The majority of Black students are in heavily Black, very poor schools. It’s different than what we had in post-Brown [vs. Board of Education]. They were racially segregated but economically integrated.”
Mahmoud said low achievement by Black students “is directly linked” to economic and societal factors. “My real concern is the direct link to healthcare issues, social issues, and crime and justice issues as the result of the achievement gap. I would define the achievement gap as a national security issue.”
“I don’t like the term ‘achievement gap,’ said Hannah-Jones. “If we can educate our White students at the highest levels, then why can’t we do so with our Black students?”
Public education presently isn’t designed to educate all students, explained Walker, who added that St. Paul’s student population is three-fourths students of color.
“We still have an educational system that operates in a racial hierarchy,” continued Hannah-Jones. “You can look at the data and see what it is all about. My job as a journalist is to [write] what [it] actually shows.”
“The best thing that public education does is fail,” stated Stewart. He added that he doesn’t subscribe to the notion that putting more Whites in predominately Black schools will help improve things. “You can’t get White kids to go with Black students in Black schools,” he pointed out.
“Black people are coming in last in every [educational] measurement you take,” noted Bridges, who briefly cited a recent study that found at least 80 percent of Black students who say they want to go to college but aren’t college ready. “We need to work on [the] gaps between their aspirations and reality.
“There is a major crisis going on” in education, Bridges said. “Why don’t people outside of education talk about this more [as] a major national issue?”
Walker said more federal resources should be directed to schools, especially for early childhood education. She noted that “special interests” including teacher unions too often get involved “in competing ways,” which makes it hard “to address the problem of children, particularly children that look like me,” she said.
“We know what we need to do in order to increase educational outcomes for African American students, kids of color and poor kids,” added Bridges. “We as community have to start putting pressure on our legislators, our elected officials, and put pressure on local school boards and the state governments in order to make sure they do the things our kids need to do in order to be more successful.”
“An educational reset” is needed, said Stewart.
Walker said the Black community must be involved in any educational reform. “The conversations need to be broader than just those in decision-making roles.”
“There has to be true integration,” surmised Hannah-Jones. “The achievement gap is narrowed when [all students] are getting the same instruction from the same teachers. It is never about Black kids learning or not, but how are those kids getting the same resources.
“You see that in Black communities all over,” Hannah-Jones continued. “The impact in poverty schools is devastating on their ability. We are giving them fewer resources and expecting them to catch up.”
Walker urged journalists to explore local school districts, such as teacher certifications, curriculum, and how districts distribute their funds, which would help them tell stories on educational disparities. “These are very easy stories,” she said.
Hannah-Jones told the MSR afterwards, “I am coming from a position that I am not advocating anything except for the data. It was a little awkward — I think it is a little challenging being the only journalist on a panel of educators.”
Mahmoud admits nothing would be solved in a 90-minute panel discussion. “We could have been here another 100 days talking about the topic because it is so vast and so important, and everybody is passionate about it.”
The issue is “urgent… a crisis” stated Walker. “If we don’t pay attention to this now, the gaps will get larger.
“I am not just a public school administrator, I am a Black parent. I am a product of public schools and I am responsible for delivering public education. These issues are not just professional to me, they’re personal.
“People need to acknowledge that public education is a system,” she concluded. “It’s built on an institutionally racist foundation. That doesn’t mean that teachers are racist or the superintendent and the school board are, but that it…wasn’t designed to educate the masses. We have to question why things are the way it is.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos by Chris Juhn.