Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Kicking Children Off the Raft

Microsoft Corporation opened the School for the Future in West Philadelphia earlier this year. It is part of their concerns for the United States’ development of a technologically savvy workforce. The School of the Future is special because it brings Microsoft’s ingenuity to the public education sphere. It is special because it brings hope, opportunity and backing to those students lucky enough to be admitted. It is common in that it is yet another school on a long list of schools that profess to infuse technology and global citizenry on a beleaguered set of black kids. It is common also, in that it is afflicted with the standard dilemmas that accompany every life raft thrown into a throng of drowning people. Who do you save and who do you let drown?

One of the concerns that members of the community in West Philly had was whether their kids would have access to the school or not – a typical concern when highly publicized, big money, marquee schools are injected into poor, predominantly black and Hispanic communities. Will the white kids and the rich black and brown kids end up taking all the spots? Will the school simply crème the crop and claim success? The school’s admission policy is set so that students from a broad swath of West Philadelphia are eligible to attend. The school administrators declared that it was important for them to be fair and offer as many children an opportunity to attend the school because of the tremendous opportunity that it represents. The conditions of West Philly are such that, that does not dramatically change the demographics of the students in the school. It does, however, undermine the immediate community’s vested interest in the school. Their policy raises the question of distributive justice. Why cannot good schools in troubled neighborhoods be as exclusive as good schools in good neighborhoods? Why is fairness so important when considering school opportunities in neighborhoods that deal with the most unfairness?

Several high achieving neighborhood schools in white communities are very clear about the geographic exclusivity of their admissions policies. If you do not live within specific boundaries, you simply cannot attend or your chances are relegated to an often unused lottery. One of the consequences of this practice is that the communities are directly vested in the schools. They are schools for the children of those neighborhoods and the parents and children have a vested interest in their success. The policies do not declare that for reasons of justice and fairness the school must make slots available to students from broad swaths of a city. The clamping down on bussing programs confirms this philosophy. The success of those schools and the intimate relationship with the neighborhoods is important enough that it trumps the call for distributive justice. It is the concentration of concern and resources that strengthen not only the schools, but the communities in which they reside.

One might argue that white students who are excluded from such schools do not face the damning probabilities of under-education, ignorance and poverty that so many black students face. They do not, so the stakes associated with admission are lower. White kids in metropolitan settings will generally be fine regardless of where they go to school. Blacks kids, however, are often faced with the options – admission to the marquee school or drowning in ignorance and bad education. Here is the savior’s dilemma. Is it morally acceptable to forsake some to save a few? Can the merit and benefit of drawing strict neighborhood boundaries around these schools trump the sense of fairness associated with more inclusive admissions policies?


Limited boundaries concentrate efforts and resources such that they can be more efficiently leveraged to improve education. They could even go further and put a cap on the incomes of families whose children are eligible. If you do not live within radius r and you have an income greater than i, you are ineligible. Poor black and Hispanic students are the most isolated set of students in the country. No one wants to go to school with them, no one wants to live near them, no one wants their children to be influenced by them, they are vilified at every turn and their isolation is complete. Every societal unfairness and capital market failure has been heaped upon them. As such, their school solutions should be equally concentrated, focused and exclusive.

Limiting the boundaries of access increases community involvement. The importance of involvement and sense of ownership by a local community cannot be overstated. That parameter, next to the school’s staff, may be the most critical determinant of success. If the vast majority of students attending one of these savior schools come from the local community; the local community will take note, care and be engaged. It is that simple. There are innumerable implicit and explicit advantages to that reality. Indeed, it makes the life raft more effective. Those on the raft can lock arms with those in the immediate vicinity and thereby stabilize the raft. The consequences of this brand of morality are brutal in the near term, but the potential for long term success is far greater.



IK said...

Hear, hear. I listened to a story about something similar yesterday -- the extreme mortgage foreclosure rates going on, especially in places like Ohio. What we know with certainty about this situation is that Blacks have been targeted by mortgage firms for loans with extremely shady terms (subprime, arm, etc.), so much so that three times as many Blacks as whites finance their homes with these predatory loans. Not surprisingly, then, the bulk of the foreclosures are happening to Black families.

BUT, now that there's some help on the way -- legislative protections are being enacted, along with state-provided financial relief that may help forestall some foreclosures -- the people who make decisions about who to help with the limited amount of resources available are saying, "This is not a problem restricted to minority communities anymore." So, as usual, Blacks get hit hardest by the problem, and when a solution arises, *fairness* is the focus.

As usual, we must as, Fair for whom?

The Nightshift Chronicler said...

Last June I blogged about a similar issue, a school in lower Manhattan where the white parents rallied to ensure that a charter school was not added to their school. Here's the link

Quality Public Education is suffering in this country because far too many people see it as an option rather than a right, or rather, far too many people are not properly positioned to leverage that right in their community's favor. This nation is more committed to the story of the exceptional student or teacher rising out of the ashes than it is to ensuring that these students and teachers are not the exceptions but rather the rule. You could see it in the rhetoric of education policy that borrows war terminology in futile if not completely moronic ways. No Child Left Behind is absurd and tragic because it suggests that children are soldiers and the school is a battlefield. Feel free to cast schools as competitive but not as warzones. If there is a move for positive change then the language should reflect that imperative. No Child Left Behind should be All Children Must Go Forward. The act of going forward implies moving onto a better place rather than recalling the stigma of being left-behind as a platform of educational policy. That's the equivalent of naming your pastry shop dung bakery and wondering where are all the customers?

The Nightshift Chronicler

luvlife0702 said...

the situation in seattle is so bad that it can't even be called a disparity when you got more of a chasm in the performance outcomes of black folks and white folks in teh city.

we've had issues with the integration that gentrification is bringing to seattle.

the new urbanites (white folks) being very involved and raising lots of money but then the old urbanites (aka black folks) feel resentful because with that money and involvement come a desire for more control over content of education. therefore a focus on music and other 'non-essentials' while the black folks are years behind in reading level and feel that they are losing power to the new folks who are pushing out their neighbors.

gentrification is bringing some harsh racial realities to the fore the way busing did in the past. so now, even though the neighborhoods get integrated the schools get segregated as whites go to one school and blacks go to another. and the truth is that in several examples, the white folks (liberal as they are in the city with the most biracial folks) want to go to school with the kids of color. but the racial and class tensions become so problematic that they exercise their freedom to move.

the answers seem elusive and the problems so visceral that though it may be politically correct for me to feel guilt at opting out of the public school system altogether i dont. then again the public school around the corner is where the ex-governor sends his kids and so although i'm an 'apartment dweller' , my neighborhood is rich enough to have one of the best schools in the state. because not only does race matter, so does class.