Still separate and unequal

June 17, 2008

Segregated schools aren’t a relic of the past in New York City and elsewhere across the United States--and the effects are plain to see.

LAST MONTH, Zelma Henderson, the last living plaintiff in the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education, died at the age of 88. Henderson, an African American woman, attended desegregated schools as a child and wanted the same experience for her children. Her son remembered that when she felt strongly about something, "she was like fire."

But Zelma's story isn't over. And it isn't even just history.

Unfortunately, there are those who want to throw a halo over the past in order to disarm the present. Civil rights heroes and heroines are on postage stamps and the object of all kinds of official praise all the way up to the White House. Meanwhile, the real victories of the movement are being undone daily. Nowhere is this truer than in America's schools.

More than half a century after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled segregated schools unconstitutional, they continue to exist--not on the fringe, but as the normal, accepted mode of American educational life. As far as integrated education is concerned, the year might as well be 1908, not 2008.

As Jonathan Kozol points out in his devastating book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, you can tell which schools are over 90 percent Black and Brown just by their names.

Pick your favorite leader of the struggle for desegregation. Any school that bears his or her name is bound to be segregated. Hence, virtually every school called "Martin Luther King" or "Thurgood Marshall" or "Rosa Parks" is highly segregated. It's more like the shame of a shameless nation.

ZELMA HENDERSON was outraged in the early 1950s to learn that her children would have to attend a segregated school in Kansas. We need some of her outrage and fire today in New York City.

Columbia University, whose long-held plans to raze west Harlem are finally becoming reality, recently took over the top floor of a west Harlem elementary school. Here, this institution of "higher learning" has brewed up a cruel mixture of gentrification and segregated education that would make Zelma Henderson choke.

This June will conclude the first year of the Columbia Secondary School (CSS), a small-sized, Columbia-sponsored, "public" middle school. Oh yeah--and its students are predominately white. Like some kind of twisted joke of a metaphor, the white students are on the top floor, while the bottom four floors are for the minorities.

When CSS moved in, Columbia decided the building needed a series of immediate renovations (that the Department of Education somehow never got around to)--they upgraded the elevators, for starters. Teachers at the school have told me that there's one elevator for CSS students, and another for everybody else. And the CSS kids can ride their elevator without a pass, unlike everybody else.

Columbia spent money to spruce up the garden and install a fire escape. Will the Black and Latino kids need a pass to escape from a fire?

And just when you thought it couldn't get any more separate or any more unequal, now New York City school children (predominantly of color) will have to make up for the latest losses on Wall Street. Budget cuts of up to 6 percent, depending on the school, will go into effect for the 2008-2009 school year.

The relatively small school where I teach is an extreme example. This year, for a variety of reasons, we were "overstaffed," which meant we had about 12 to 14 kids in a class. This was at least a step in the right direction.

Next year, with the allocation restored to "normal" and the mayor's cuts, we'll lose approximately $1.5 million--about 20 percent of last year's budget. In human terms, that means we'll have classes that are twice as large.

This year, since we were "overstaffed," I was allowed to create a fledgling drama program for a few periods a week. My sixth-graders put on some scenes from Romeo and Juliet. At first, they weren't sure if they could pull it off, but they persevered, mastered every thou, hast and whither, and by early June, were ready to spend a whole day performing for different classes. The school was really proud of these kids, and more importantly, the kids were really proud of themselves. Next year, we'll be short-staffed, so the drama program will be shelved.

(Dear Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein: a plague o' both your houses!)

Something tells me that wherever the Wall Street bankers send their kids to school, there'll be the same small classrooms and arts programs next year as this year. The kids at CSS will continue to be exposed to a wide range of creative arts: theater, mural painting, photography, film, multimedia design and gardening (according to their Web site).

In fact, New York state has one of the highest gaps between education dollars spent on white children and those spent on minority children. According to the Washington-based Education Trust, the difference is more than $2,000 per child.

The Campaign for Fiscal Equity, after 15 years in court, finally won money to try to close that gap. Their victory means that the state is going to give city schools an additional $600 million this year--but with Bloomberg cutting $450 million from the schools, it's a case of one step forward, one step back.

And remember: That struggle was only to provide equal resources to racially separate schools.

This is a sore topic. Plenty of my fellow teachers are outraged by our segregated schools, and resigned to them at the same time. For many educators, the day-to-day focus is on trying to give minority students an equal education.

But we can't draw blood from a stone. The Brown decision states that segregation in education, even if the resources granted to each group are equal, creates "feelings of inferiority." Regardless, if the last 50 years have shown anything, it's that resources for segregated schools have never been equal.

The best way to remember Zelma Henderson and the Brown plaintiffs is not to give up on the fight against America's apartheid schools.

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