I’m still reflecting on the powerful words Nikole Hannah-Jones left with us at her Oct. 26 lecture:
“Whose children should be sacrificed?”
Hannah-Jones, an investigative journalist for The New York Time Magazine, writes often on civil rights issues, notably on the changing shape of school segregation in America. She’s working on a book dealing with the history of school segregation.
Great Schools invited her to Rochester, not to tell us what a swell job we’re doing, but to challenge our community to do the right thing for all our children.
Hannah-Jones does not sugarcoat her message. She sees school integration as a longshot at best. “We as a country have never shown any interest in making things better when it comes to race,” she told Democrat and Chronicle reporter Justin Murphy. “It doesn’t mean people shouldn’t try, but that’s just my pragmatic view of the matter.”
Several people I spoke with thought she was too pessimistic. I disagree. She was just reporting the ugly facts of our history. She never said nothing can change. When she took to the pulpit at Third Presbyterian that night, she took a photo of the 500-plus people who filled the sanctuary and tweeted out with the words, “This many people can change a city, if y’all choose.”
But will we as a community make that choice? Surely we can. I hope we will. But we never have.
In Rochester, as in many other cities, we have accepted segregation as necessary, or at least as inevitable. We do this with a system of school districts that lets the more affluent choose their own “public” schools—schools that are not “public” for the poor, for African American or Hispanic children who live on the other side of the boundary lines. This is what segregation looks like in the North in the 21st Century. And our schools in New York are the most segregated in the country.
Every single year our community sacrifices thousands of city children—children who drift out of schools that have never been good places for them, or who “graduate” unprepared for either work or college.
As our own GS4A survey data shows, most parents in Monroe County strongly support diverse schools, and see them as the best way to prepare their children for life in a diverse world. But the system hasn’t moved one inch toward that goal.
We know there are suburban superintendents who likewise believe diverse schools best serve all children—rich and poor. But without public pressure for change, it’s very easy to settle for what is, rather than insist on what could be.
What we need now in our community is pressure to do the right thing. To treat all children as our children, not somebody’s else’s. We do not have to sacrifice some children so that others may succeed.
There are always reasons to do nothing. On Nov. 5, the Democrat and Chronicle ran a collection of stories about the New York State School Quality Index, developed by the USA Today Network, of which the Democrat is a member. Rather than rate schools strictly on test scores and graduation rates, the new index looked also at intangibles—”teachers and administrators who care about their students; children and parents who take pride in the community; high-quality instruction and an array of extracurricular activities.”
Using that measure, four city elementary schools (two of them charter schools) and one high school are among the top schools in Monroe County. Good news? Absolutely. Never underestimate the way gifted teachers and principals can transform student lives, or the ways committed parents can lift their children up, or the way some children rise above the obstacles they face.
Education is about more than numbers; it takes place in the quiet interactions among students and between students and the adults who guide them. But these successes are not widespread; broad change requires new policies and new approaches.
Here’s how the Democrat and Chronicle editorialized on this new index:
“And, it is heartening to see that some schools in the Rochester City School District lead the way on these measures… But, the quality index and (Superintendent Barbara) Deane Williams’ attention to the good work that is nearly always overshadowed by the bad allows us, for just a moment, to be a little more optimistic. We can feel hope, instead of hopelessness. And, we can applaud those city educators and students who are succeeding against the odds. By tweaking the usual narrative, just a touch, fixing our city schools seems ever so slightly more attainable.”
Nothing wrong with feeling hope. But never does the local daily newspaper in this city—despite decades of supportive evidence—editorialize on the power of integration to turn lives and schools around. Never do the editors write that the best and most effective way to improve the odds of success for the poorest kids among us is to work together as a community, sharing educational resources so that every child can attend a great school and have great opportunities. Never do the editors say that segregated schools are unacceptable and represent the failure of our community to truly care for the children we are so quick to define as “our future.”
Despite my rant, I am hopeful that we are close to choosing a new course, a path toward integration that will mean every child in our community gets to attend a great school. We have a new generation of parents who support change. The New York State Regents are calling socioeconomic diversity the key to improved outcomes. The city school board has committed to working with others to develop interdistirct magnet schools.
That is all good news. But we need to remind ourselves every day that we have a long history of sacrificing some children to avoid the hard choices we need to make. And that still gives me pause.