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Not in My Neighborhood

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I'm catching up on Delaware's euphemistically-titled Neighborhood Schools Act, which apparently goes into full effect this fall. Wilmington's News Journal is wholly correct that the districts are resegregating by income; they're also resegregating by race, of course, and I can't quite tell why that article wants so desperately to downplay this.

What none of the coverage -- be it in the News Journal or Time magazine -- seems to hit upon is the most important fact of the matter: integration didn't and couldn't "fail" in Delaware, because Delaware's schools, at least in my experience as a student in the Red Clay district from grades 2 through 8, were never truly integrated.

Oh, we had busing. Students in Red Clay were bused into oblivion. The usual pattern meant suburban kids had three years of busing into the city elementary shools, and most city kids then spent nine years being bused out to the suburban junior high and high schools (average ride time: well over an hour each way).

But to complain about busing, to associate its inconveniences with the failure of integration in Delaware schools and its end with the solution of a huge problem is sort of like associating the wreck of the Titanic with cold water. It misses the giant iceberg staring us all in the face, which is that classes were often segregated.

I don't think this is uncommon in public schools elsewhere at all -- but I never hear it mentioned. I don't understand how even teachers discussing integration and diversity so often fail to note that desegregation means bupkis unless it takes place at the classroom level . (PE and lunch -- small portions of the day fraught with their own unique problems -- do not count.)

Sure, each and every home-room was a stunning picture of diversity, wonderfully displayed in class pictures year after year. The problem is that home-room says nothing but where you say the Pledge of Allegiance from fourth grade on. By 3rd grade, subjects are divided and TAG (talented-and-gifted -- yes, as a TAG alum, I agree that this is possibly the most odious name you could give to any particular subsection of a population of children) has started. By 4th grade, subjects were further separated by level. I'd say that with a little bit of wiggle room for later struggles or unprecedented achievement, where you were in 5th grade in any given subject was where you stayed at least until high school. Guess who was in the advanced and honors sections? Guess who was in TAG? Guess who wasn't.

I don't have my middle school yearbooks out right now to jog my memory, but if my recall serves, to say that there were three African-American kids in any given honors class of 32 would have been a really generous estimation. To say that there were any Hispanic kids in any given honors class of 32 would directly contradict my recollections.

Why is this important? Honors and regular sections were usually the same, bloated size, and were taught by the same teachers, in the same classrooms, and given access to the same resources. The problem is that, in part because of unequal distributions inherent in the way section divisions were set up and in part because irrelevant criteria are being used to judge the "success" of busing simply because said criteria are quantifiable, huge numbers of students will now be taught by different teachers, in different schools, with different access to resources -- and many students in both city and suburb have never really been given a chance to try integration in the first place.

Wayne Smith, a state legislature member who is one of the driving forces behind the Neighborhood School Act, illustrates nicely how much of the act's support is based on not only deliberate ignorance of what actually goes on in schools but also on what I consider a wrong, racist idea of what desegregation is and what it should accomplish:

"The promise of forced busing was that you put a black kid next to a white kid, and the black kid's grades are going to go up -- which is a very racist notion to begin with -- and it hasn't been validated here." ( Time , May 10)

That's not the promise of busing. It's not why I think strict level-based division of classes in public schools is the wrong way to go. Kids aren't responsible for each other's grades and test scores, and they shouldn't be expected to passively participate in some bizarre sort of intellectual osmosis. That idea is racist, on any number of levels -- but equally racist is pretending that it's the promise of busing.

The promise of busing is that it can lead to integrated classrooms. The promise of integrated classrooms should, at a fundamental level, have nothing to do with grades, test scores, or student performance. It has nothing to do with what administrators can "get out of" kids, it's about what can be given to them. It is this: you put an African-American kid next to a white kid, a Hispanic kid next to an Asian kid, a poor kid next to a middle-class kid -- and they talk. Why do you do this in school? Because it's a kind of learning, even if you can't test it. Because housing distribution is incredibly unfair and the people who can fix it aren't willing to. Because, hopefully, it will help make them better people. Because they'll get used to working together. Because some of them are being fed hateful crap at home, and this is the best way to combat it. Because, crazily enough, it's the right thing to do.

I got a lot out of my education in Delaware public schools, out of their painfully white honors classes. I had wonderful teachers who loved what they did and worked hard and made a positive difference in their students' lives. (And a couple who were evil, but any occupation which involves wielding incredible amounts of power over essentially helpless creatures will inevitably attract a few members of that sort.) But looking back, I wish some things could have been very different. I do wish busing had started after age eight or nine, when kids aren't so easily exhausted by spending two-plus hours a day riding around, and that routes were better planned, with more buses carrying slightly fewer stops to shorten the trips.

Mostly, I wish Delaware wasn't writing off something it doesn't seem to have tried. Would classes representing a broader spread of "achievement" levels -- and, by extension, a more diverse student group in other ways as well -- have "slowed down" some students? I would hope so; I would hope it would have slowed them down enough to give them a chance to get to know someone who didn't live in their development or on their block.

By Janine at Very Unnecessary -- Posted June 20, 2004


Not in My Neighborhood

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Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. Cite/attribute Resource . factcouraud. (2007, May 22). Not in My Neighborhood. Retrieved January 08, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License