The Reality of Segregation in Public Schools

Students of different races studyingWhy are schools still segregated in 2019? The answer to this question is a complicated one. One with roots deep in the history of our educational system. The surface answer has to do with the fact that racist curricula and prejudice within our society still exist. Where you live determines where you go to school. Many times, the poorer, minority students live in lower income neighborhoods. And as children become racially isolated, it then trickles into our schools, resulting in segregation.

In fact, segregation is even evident in schools that are racially diverse. You’ll notice that most students in advanced placement classes are Caucasian or Asian. Who do we see in remedial classes? We see African American students, particularly African American males. Even with a diverse student population, the evidence of systemic segregation is scarily rampant. The deep vestiges of racism and segregation subtly permeate through our schools and it sets dangerous precedents.

What are the signs of a segregated school environment?

One indication of a segregated school is a classroom that is predominantly one race. If all the students in the class are brilliant, over-achievers, and no one has a learning disability, this could be a sign of a segregated classroom. If you notice only students from one socio-economic background or religion, that can also be considered a segregated classroom. The aforementioned are the blatant signs. There are, however, more subtle indicators: Students who share the same perspective about social and cultural identity or a classroom where diversity is an afterthought, or not a thought at all.

People who have never been in a desegregated situation often maintain prejudiced ideas of those who may be different than themselves, propagating racial stereotypes. Being in a segregated school stunts a student’s view. It doesn’t allow that student to see what life is like outside of the school environment when they enter the real world. I say this while realizing that there is still, even in 2019, such strong racist ways of doing things in our country. The notion of African American individuals becoming equal participants in social, economic, and political arenas in society does not exist. While times and ideals have changed dramatically, we are nowhere near the place where African Americans like myself can celebrate equally in society as my white counterparts. People of color still don’t have a real, equal opportunity. While desegregation is a route that can help reverse this reality, we have yet to deploy it successfully and completely.

Why are educators necessary for change?

Thankfully, I had great teachers that looked out for me during my formative years. These teachers cared not just about our academics, but for us both as students of color and young members of society. They expected greatness from us. They held us to high standards. They did not want nor accept mediocrity. The same things our parents wanted for us; our teachers wanted for us as well. That’s the difference. This is where our teachers become vital. From third grade on during my elementary school years, I had teachers who cared. They challenged us, and we weren’t afraid of academic pursuits. It was expected that we would be smart. These teachers educated us by caring, maintained high expectations, and taught us that being smart was ok. That is what many of our young people are missing today.

Some things just don’t change. As educators, you get more from students when they know you care about them. When you genuinely care about their welfare, they know it. Teachers today have to do this, and we, as educational leaders, must show them how to foster this belief in oneself into our school ecosystem. Teachers aren’t here to teach only subjects; they’re teaching the whole student. Teachers have an impact on students, and setting high expectations gives them the confidence to believe that they can succeed. At its core, teaching has always been about relationships. If students know that you care, they strive harder to learn. They want to be successful in your eyes and want to achieve.

As educators, we must advocate to ensure schools are places where equity and social justice exist. As we prepare teacher candidates to be classroom ready, we must help them understand race consciousness and the power of diversity. It is up to educational policy makers to illustrate the power of diversity and teach the value of it. This is no easy feat. A lot of work is required to combat the institutional racism that remains embedded in our educational ecosystem.

There needs to be a preemptive strike by those who prepare teachers. We need to teach candidates about race, class, gender, age, and other identifiers that foster discrimination within our teacher prep curricula. In order to be classroom ready, young teachers need to understand the differences that exist among the students they will be tasked to teach. They will need to celebrate the differences among us and show their students it’s ok to embrace them. This charge falls upon us as education leaders and innovators. We must prepare our future teachers for students of different races, classes, and ideologies with contrasting experiences from their own. I wholeheartedly believe it is our responsibility as education leaders to infuse diversity training into teacher prep curricula, in order to foster diversity in the classroom. As a dean, I honestly believe my responsibility is to hire faculty who understand the social ramifications of their actions in the classroom. My choices must embrace and promote diversity while maintaining a commitment to social justice and pedagogy. I respect and celebrate the differences in all of us, and I will encourage that in our teacher candidates. Change truly starts with us as teacher educators.

What are the solutions to address school segregation?

As educators, there’s a lot we can do. We can contact our legislators and continue to advocate for the rights of all. We can continue to rally for increased education funding across the board, with an additional focus on tackling inequities in our public schools. Having critical conversations is key. We must ask the tough questions about this taboo subject, because with discomfort comes movement. We can’t place students of different races together in a classroom and expect them to succeed simply because they’re in the same space. The teacher’s relationships with the students is ultimately what will determine their success. Our job as educational leaders is to restore learning in classrooms. Remember the classrooms where students explored? Teachers taught. Students participated. This is what a school for everyone looks like. It’s an environment where teachers encourage discovery and compel their students to think critically. If we can make that kind of learning pervasive, and equitable, we would have successful, organic places of learning in which everyone thrives. What neighborhood a school is in, or what the median annual household income is in an area, will no longer matter. The classroom itself will become a vibrant sanctuary where educators are committed to teaching life-long learning in a safe setting for all.

Michael Dantley is the dean of the College of Education, Health & Society at Miami University.

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