Minorities to schools: Listen to us

Parents protest from Greensboro, N.C., to San Francisco to win a greater say in their own children's education.

The new school year was to come laden with goodies for the black and Latino kids of Greensboro's south side. Targeting overcrowded schools, city officials intended to hire 34 new teachers, build a new high school, and fire up a trendy achievement program at one middle school.

Disturbed over a growing disconnect between the theories of "educrats" and the realities of black and Latino culture, parents saw the district's flurry of bureaucratic beneficence more as "politricks" than real help for their kids.

In the board's well-meaning votes, many minority parents here saw: a gambit to tear down a historic black school, the firing of 94 black aides to make room for the 34 likely white teachers, and, in the new International Baccalaureate program, another test for their kids to fail.

The clash in Greensboro highlights an emerging reality in low-income neighborhoods across the country: Tired of watching their kids struggle to learn under the academic policy du jour, minority parents across the US are demanding that school districts listen to their ideas of how best to educate their children.

And their answers, which frequently include a desire to put minority children in all-black or Latino schools or make sure they have a teacher of the same color, are dismaying some educators. They are afraid a generation of diversity policies may be undone by the very people those policies were created to help.

"We're seeing more and more minority parents stand up and get involved on a more systematic level," says Judith Brown, an education attorney with the Advanced Project in Washington, an educational advocacy group affiliated with the NAACP. "It's a phenomenon that's percolating across the country."

Organizing in pews and community centers from the steep streets of San Francisco to muggy Drew, Miss., these new parent activists are having more success than many of them ever imagined.

On Saturday in Denver, hundreds of black and Latino parents on the city's vast north side cheered at the opening of a dual-language Montessori school designed not by administrators, but by parents.

In Drew, Miss., parents are engaging the school board over "zero tolerance" policies that set out to make schools safer - but which parents say have resulted in a disproportionate number of black students being kicked out of the classroom.

And yesterday morning in San Francisco, Edison Elementary opened for the first day of school, thanks to parent protests. At least one mother, Linda Gausman, planned to walk the halls after dropping off her fourth-grader to savor the victory. This summer, Ms. Gausman and more than 100 other mostly minority parents waved placards on the streets and lobbied the state school board to override a decision by a local school district to close the popular school. "We had no choice but to win - for our kids," says Ms. Gausman.

Parents show up to class

With not enough time to develop a boycott, a peaceful protest began here Monday in Greensboro's elementary, middle, and high schools. Forty-one years after black youths convinced shops to end lunch-counter segregation in this city, hundreds of parents were expected to stroll into local schools as part of an organized civil action to bring attention to the plight of their children.

Even before protests began yesterday, the school board made concessions to the at-times volatile crowds that have packed recent board meetings.

The board promised parents they'd hire a restoration consultant to study options other than tearing down the visibly deteriorated school.

And the new "international baccalaureate" program at Hairston Middle School? On hold until parents are convinced it won't become another stumbling block.

"This isn't rocket science," says Carmia Caesar, an attorney with the Advancement Project in Washington."Every parent wants what's best for their child."

These new parent activists see the answer in allowing them to choose where to send their children to school, through the use of either charter schools, vouchers, or other options. A new poll shows that 70 percent of poor black parents want the choice to send their children to private or charter schools. And the growing population of middle-class blacks and Latinos choose private schools at higher rates than whites do today.

For many of these parents, the elusive ideal of diversity is far less important than ensuring that their own children get a quality education. The result, in many cases, has been a return to more segregated schools.

Wanted: black teachers

In Charlotte, for example, 80 percent of those who applied for private-school vouchers were black. A large majority of those parents are sending their kids to a new cadre of all-black church schools that require strict discipline and uniforms.

Oftentimes, parents are frank about demanding teachers of their own color for their children. "It's just a fact: Where a white teacher may see a thug, a black teacher will see a kid," says Ms. Brown.

For those who still believe in integration as a means to ending inequity in schools, it's a discouraging trend.

"I don't think there's any maliciousness on the part of people to get away from people of other races, as much as this is an artifact of trying to increase their own security, safety, and their own futures," says Randy Thomson, a sociology professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "The effect, unfortunately, is the same."

But for the small group of black parents and children assembled at the St. James Baptist Church in Greensboro's Smith Hall neighborhood last Thursday, it's time for educators to listen to the needs of parents instead of hewing to well-meaning, but ultimately condescending, social ideals.

Diversity: just talk?

They say integration may have worn out its promise, especially as it's hard for the system to argue that new policies, such as zero-tolerance, are not disproportionately affecting black and minority teens.

"People kind of lost track of the idea of improving the quality of education for minorities," says Jay Greene, a scholar with the Manhattan Institute in New York. "Instead, we've been obsessed with the idea of mixing. Unfortunately, mixing is usually done at the expense of minority students."

That's not how Susan Mendenhall sees it. "What we're trying to do is raise standards and put some extra academic emphasis on those schools that are highly impacted by poverty," says Ms. Mendenhall, the chairman of the Guilford County School District.

But Goldie Wells says such statements no longer assuage minority parents. Too often, academics just don't get it, says the retired Greensboro teacher.

"When you look at all the black kids being kicked out and failing, you start to wonder whether they're just pretending to educate our children," says Ms. Wells.

Still, as protests began this week, the emotions swirling around the school board's decisions have simmered down into something approaching communication, says Mendenhall.

"We've had so much division, but, if the end result is getting minority parents involved in the school, I'm glad of it," she says.

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