Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

An eye-opener for a journalist who goes back to school

What happens when a journalist returns to her childhood school district to find the great racial strides of the 1970’s unraveling? Ask the Monitor’s Stacy Teicher Khadaroo. Stacy recounts her experience documenting the reversal of racial balance in Buffalo, New York in her recent cover story My hometown schools are segregated again. I went back to see why.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Education staff writer Stacy Teicher Khadaroo (l., in orange) has dinner in Buffalo with City Honors classmates (clockwise from l.) Heather Markwart, Ursuline Bankhead, and Cindy Giganti Ludwig.

Stacy's trip back to Buffalo was an eye-opener: schools tipping back to 80 percent non-white, high-performing selective schools serving a majority-white student body, and conditions leading to a civil rights complaint.

But Stacy will tell you that there are some bright spots in Buffalo as well, such as rising test scores and graduation rates.

I recently asked Stacy what prompted her to return to Buffalo to visit her old school district decades later.

Reports on Buffalo surfaced as I was researching the resegregation of schools nationwide, and even earlier, about civil rights and equity issues in urban areas. When I looked a little more closely at the history of successful integration in Buffalo, I realized that it started when I was in kindergarten there, and reached its peak around the time I graduated from high school. It was an irresistible alignment of my personal experience with education and the critical lens I could now bring to it as a longtime education reporter.

The headline for your cover story was “My hometown schools are segregated again. I went back to see why.” Do you think you found some of the major reasons why?

I knew a lot of the general reasons why, before I went to Buffalo. But what I really wanted to understand was the context in which the change had taken place, and I also knew that it wasn’t just a matter of linear progress that had then gone in a straight line backward. The current form of racial and economic isolation in schools has parallels to the historical form, but it also has a lot of differences. I didn’t just want to understand the past, but to link it to the present and the very good work going on to improve education in Buffalo for the future.

What kind of personal impact did you experience when you discovered segregation had come roaring back again?

I was perplexed and sad about that. But I was also humbled, and realized that I had maybe clung to a nostalgic view of my childhood, so I was glad to be alerted to take a closer look. When I took that closer look it didn’t damage my positive view of my own experience, but it broadened my perspective so that I could see how things maybe played out differently for different people, how I had experienced some racial privilege even amid wonderful attempts by the city and by families like mine who wanted to be part of a system that promoted more fairness.

You wrote that Buffalo has long been one of the most segregated metro areas in the country – Why is that?

Think of any practice historically used to keep African-Americans out of certain neighborhoods, unable to get ahead economically, etc., – like housing discrimination – and it happened in Buffalo in very aggressive ways. And some of that, or its vestiges, is still happening. For a long time there was a strong white-dominated power structure in politics and other realms, and that is slow to break down.

Does that make it more challenging to find solutions?

Perhaps, but there are plenty of efforts in Buffalo, and have been for a long time, to confront the discrimination and overcome it. One reason that a lot of solutions are taking hold in Buffalo now is that it’s a hub for education and is attracting a lot of newcomers who have an entrepreneurial spirit. And partnerships between community groups and schools are starting to flourish and make a difference.

As a young student attending a desegregated magnet school in Buffalo, did that experience provide you with any lasting takeaways?

Many. I learned about different cultures, family structures, jobs, foods, communication styles. I learned teamwork in a diverse environment. I learned to look at structures and systems, and how fair they were or were not. I learned not to stereotype people. I gained a level of comfort with and appreciation for people who may look different on the outside but with whom I share so many common values.

As a reporter in Boston, I covered the violent opening of Boston public schools during the federal court order during the 1970’s and 80’s. I can recall parents egging on their high school kids to throw bricks at the buses arriving with black students at South Boston High School. Was Buffalo able to escape this kind of violence?

I can’t give you a historian’s thorough answer of that question. Growing up, I was not aware of that kind of violence. But when I reported this story and talked to an African-American man who as a kid had been bused into South Buffalo, I discovered that he did face some hostility, including rocks thrown at buses. I don’t know the degree to which it occurred in Buffalo versus Boston, but it didn’t become as much a part of the popular narrative of Buffalo’s integration process – perhaps because the families who participated were both black and white, and voluntarily chose to send their children to schools across town.

You set out in the piece to return to your school system and explore whether Buffalo might provide some lessons to reduce racial and economic isolation for students. Are there points of progress you found that provide some hope?

Yes. I found school district officials who are working hard to create strong educational opportunities within each area of the city, and also to improve families’ access to opportunities at schools outside their neighborhood. I found a rising graduation rate, rising test scores, and a sense of energy around the idea that better and more equitable education is integral to the economic and social well-being of the city and the region. Even in schools that are largely made up of “minorities,” – really a misnomer because they are the majority in the school system – the diversity has been growing, providing some rich learning opportunities for students.

The integration activist Samuel Radford was a key person in your story... How important to your story was his willingness to show you around town?

He was so important, and so generous with his time. I needed someone who could both tell me what it was like to be the pioneer of integration from the African-American perspective and help me see the city today through the lens of current civil rights concerns.

You explained how his earlier experience at being a black student being bused into a white neighborhood was totally different from the experience of a white student attending a magnet school. You write that he and other black students paid a price for this. What did you mean by that?

I was just comparing his experience to mine and generalizing from there, and I also interviewed other black adults and heard similar stories. Black families had to sacrifice a sense of personal comfort and security to venture into majority-white schools – where some local residents made them feel unwelcome, or physically attacked or threatened them. They had to pay that kind of price for integrated education. As a white student, I didn’t experience any systemic hostility or serious threats when attending integrated magnet schools. I think it’s important for white people to understand that privilege that they carry around, often unconsciously.

One of the evolving solutions you write about is the focus on young students. What do you think this might yield over time?

My hope is that the efforts will have a big payoff. They are working to improve the curriculum districtwide at the early grades, and to train teachers to see the potential and the brilliance of the students rather than stereotype them or harbor low expectations. If they are able to partner with the community and invest enough to support the students and families who need the most help, they will create a much stronger pipeline for the city’s future development.

Maybe a current kindergartner in Buffalo will grow up to be a journalist, and will revisit the city in the future and be able to tell a really positive story about how the schools played a strong role in the city’s renaissance.

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