In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line, but I can’t seem to get there no-how. I can’t seem to get over that line.
~ Harriet Tubman
Public schools can bring us together. When children learn to care for each other with tolerance and understanding, they will grow to respect one other as adults. Honor the memory of George Floyd and black citizens who have unjustly died, by reconsidering our past efforts to integrate public schools. One place to start is by reading Gerald Grant’s book, Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There are No Bad Schools in Raleigh.
Learn how, once upon a time, Raleigh brought children together to learn, thereby reducing the gap between the rich and poor (92).
Vouchers and charters divide. Private schools and charter schools segregate. Remote learning, or learning at home or anyplace anytime, does little to bring students together.
This country needs strong public schools that unite students and families.
Who’s considering how to address the growing racial chasm that, along with the virus, could be America’s undoing? It has been 66 years since Brown v. Board of Education. How have public schools changed?
As we watch the unrest in Minneapolis and around the country, how, after all these years, can America bring students together? How, when Covid-19 separates us, can we find our way back to schools that are better than before? What will public schools be like when this disease is over?
In 2003, Gerald Grant wrote Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There are No Bad Schools in Raleigh. Sociologist James Coleman influenced Grant. Coleman wrote about the importance of human relationships and support networks of a community. Grant compared his home, Syracuse, New York, which became mired in loss, to Raleigh, North Carolina, a beacon of hope.
The people of Wake County (Raleigh) made school reform honorable. It wasn’t easy or perfect, but it worked.
Here are some highlights.
- Merged systems. In 1976, Raleigh citizens had the political will to merge the city and county school systems. Merging had a purpose, both systems were in trouble and destined to fail. But the merger set in motion the changes that would later remake public schools (120).
- Talking. People from the community were able to voice their concerns. No matter how difficult it was to hear contrary viewpoints from both sides, people were heard. This took place over several years. Folks were fighting tooth and nail against merger, but they fought well and it was an open fight. It was not one of those things where we went into a back room and made a decision and forced it down your throat. It was in your face, and we kept going back and forth. This happened over a period of years. But we kept meeting and kept talking (89).
- Black teachers. Changes involved encouraging a strong core of able black teachers and principals to work with students (96). Real integration of different kinds of people “means that I now start to understand who you are and what you are about (101).”
- Magnet schools. Magnets are public schools that offer a unique curriculum to draw students to the school. Performing arts, math and science, or some other emphasis that appeals to students. They’re sometimes controversial because they usually include a selection process, and they might focus too early on what appears to be a career path, but overall, they’re a good way to draw white children to urban schools. The magnet schools in Raleigh were always filled, racially balanced, and no downtown schools were closed. Wake County had 27 magnet schools.
- Teacher control. Teachers were given control to create their school programs. They were also held responsible for the programs they created.
- Choice within the district. Parents were given a wide range of choices as to where they could send their children, within the school district. They didn’t always get their first choice, but this application process allowed the district to create a workable balance in race and class count (99).
- School ownership. Raleigh school leaders made black families feel welcome. They included them in decision-making.
- Teacher choice. Teachers were asked to only remain at their schools if they believed in the program. Teacher buy-in was critical to success. Teachers had to have high expectations of the students.
- They set a goal of 95 percent. The superintendent didn’t only set goals for others to follow, he linked his own contract renewal and salary increments to the goal (103). Not all schools reached that goal, but many did! The test score gap between black and white children narrowed dramatically (104). Wake County students performed well on national tests too.
- Used data wisely. The school district used quality control guru Edwards Deming to learn how to analyze the data correctly and speed up change (103).
- Rich and poor balance. Each school had a balance of rich and poor students. Any school where more than 40 percent of its students qualified for subsidized lunches was considered unbalanced (105).
- Principals moved. Principals weren’t fired if they didn’t do well. They were moved. I’m not exactly sure what they meant by this, but it seems less harsh than recent arbitrary principal firings for the sake of reform.
- Student network. Underprivileged students got to know wealthier students and their parents. Parents sometimes served as role models and helped students find employment after high school, or helped students get accepted to college (106).
- Better school buildings. Middle class parents helped improve the schools. They often had connections to replace incompetent teachers, drinking fountains that didn’t work, or other crummy school conditions (106).
- Busing. Busing worked both ways. Parents liked magnet schools. They wanted those schools and their children to succeed.
This is not a complete list of how things changed in Raleigh. Nor are the many people who deserve credit for making these changes mentioned here. Please read the book.
Other variables affect school change, like housing and transportation. Grant discusses how they affect change in the book.
For years, from 1976 to the 1990s, Wake County was committed to integrating their schools, then it ended. In 2009, a new conservative majority was elected to the Wake school board, and they voted to dismantle the integration plan. Michael Winerip of The New York Times wrote how families were to send their children to neighborhood schools. A child who lived in a poor, black section of Raleigh would attend schools with other poor black children. A white child from an upper-middle-class suburb would attend a school with white children.
Some fought against it. Then the school board appointed a new superintendent. They chose Mr. Tata, a retired brigadier general, who worked under Michelle Rhee in the Washington D.C. school system. He’d once written on his blog that he admired the Tea Party and Sarah Palin, which caused a sizable stink here.
What happened in Raleigh should have become a model for other school districts. Where would we be today if that had happened?
Public schools reflect our health as a society. Right now we aren’t well. It’s time to refocus on integrating public schools, strong schools that unite, not divide. Start by returning to and studying what occurred in Raleigh. Now is the time.
Grant, G. (2009) Hope and Despair in the American City: Why there are No Bad Schools in Raleigh. Harvard University Press.