A successful integrated school requires more than diverse students

Great Schools for All communications team member Marta Driscoll interviewed Clay Osborne recently. Osborne, a member of the Strategy Team,  is currently President of True Insights Consulting, which offers executive and performance coaching for businesses and other organizations.  Clay also worked as the Vice President for Human Resources at Bausch + Lomb, the Deputy County Executive for Operations for Monroe County and an assistant professor at Rochester Institute of Technology,

MD: What’s been your involvement with Great Schools for All?

CO: I went on the North Carolina trip in 2012. During that trip, I became convinced that desegregating schools is one of the many challenges in our community that needs to be addressed, among many others, to solve the plight of young people of color in the public-school system in Rochester. To me it’s important to emphasize that this is just one part of the solution.

We also need more teachers of color in the district. We need to have more engaged parents and students — the district is losing engaged parents to charter and parochial schools. Charter schools to be successful, what works is small classes, engaged parents, and engaged students. If you get those three, education works. I believe that that’s what will work for the public schools in Rochester.

In October, Nikole Hannah-Jones spoke to a large crowd about how Rochester came to have some of the most segregated schools in the nation and encouraged us to call on educational leaders for change. We’ve heard a wide range of reactions to that message, from “it was spot on in describing the problems here” to “it was way off base.” What was your reaction?

I would say I’m in the middle. I believe integration helps. It helps in the way that Hannah-Jones describes it. When you look across the country, the places with resources are either white school systems or integrated systems. The challenge comes in when you have segregation of people of color. The research shows that all students benefit from attending integrated schools — African Americans, Latino, and white students. Public schools should be a microcosm of the world students will eventually work in, and that world is increasingly diverse.

Others say that integration is folly, especially black people from older generations, many of whom attended segregated schools in the south and are very successful. There is a perspective that says the problem is the integration of schools. That’s how we lost black teachers.

At a recent speech by renowned researcher and author Dr. Joy Degruy, she explained that black communities tend to be more relationship centric than object centric1. When black children attend school, they expect to have a relationship with their teacher in order to learn.

One of the things kids learned when they attended black schools in the south was that the teacher loved them. Today, when they attend schools where they pick up that the teachers don’t love them, it makes it difficult to learn. Instead, they sometimes learn the teachers are afraid of them. Then there is a standoff. Teachers have a hard time teaching because you can’t teach students you fear. And the students don’t get the nurturing relationship they expect. The lesson is that no matter the new technology and other resources, if there’s a standoff between teacher and student, we’re not going to see the student make much progress.

So that’s another perspective and I can see both perspectives. Integration is the answer, because with integration comes resources. But you have to find ways, that in an integrated school, we can also increase the diversity of teachers and help some overcome fear of their students. So much about success in life stems from confidence and high self-esteem. This is especially important for people of color and people in any minority status. That’s why it’s critical black students have positive and empowering relationships with their teachers.

How do diverse education experiences impact adults as professionals? Can you talk a little about how you came to care about that?

At one time, individual contributors dominated companies. Today, people who are successful can collaborate, be part of teams, and lead teams. At Bausch and Lomb, I noticed that the people who came from communities where they engaged with many kinds of diverse people, performed better in teams and they grew more quickly into leaders.

If we think outside the corporate environment, to the community level, author Richard Florida found that communities which have seen sustained economic growth for 15 years were those that were most inclusive of diverse groups of people2. They embrace immigrants who start businesses and stabilize housing. They also have a high tolerance for gays and lesbians, which is a good proxy for overall tolerance in a community. These communities leverage diversity, rather than suffering from conflict stemming from it.

Why do you think our leadership seems reluctant to move forward on a school?

I think change requires a certain level of discomfort and I think people in this region are relatively comfortable. For those who aren’t poor, this is an easy place to live. Things are good. Meanwhile, there is increasing dysfunction in poorer parts of our community. I think that people are daydreaming if they think that their comfortable life is not at risk if we don’t address the challenges and dysfunctions right outside our window.

How do we get a more proactive and visionary mindset among our leaders? How do we get a community mindset that if my brother is in pain, then I’m in pain too?

Is there anything that makes you hopeful for Great Schools for All, and that some of these other efforts you’ve discussed will succeed?

I think there are good people trying to address a lot of the challenges we just talked about. What’s needed is growing the amount of diversity in our leadership. We need to create opportunities for cross-race engagement and interactions. Our region’s leadership is relatively homogenous. We need younger, more diverse, broader leadership. We need to identify, develop, and listen more to emerging leaders of color in our community.

Their perspectives may be jarring to the older generation of leaders. What tends to happen in town, is if your perspective is too jarring, you don’t get invited back to the table. We need to open up our leadership core to people whose different experiences allow them to bring different perspectives and solutions to this challenge.

That’s definitely a long game.

It’s a long game, but we have to start. The mission of Great Schools for All is a long game too. We have to find ways to stay motivated and keep the pressure up.

  1. Relationship Approach, Epigenetics and Multigenerational Trauma, speech by Dr. Joy DeGruy, 11/30/17
  2. Rise of the Creative Class, book by Richard Florida, 2004