Some political big shots visited south St. Petersburg the other day. They included U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, along with U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor. They were there in response to a series of newspaper articles that have condemned five schools in that part of town as “failure factories,” and the dignitaries wasted no time condemning the Pinellas County school district for all the problems, with Duncan calling the neighborhood schools a “man-made disaster” and “education malpractice.”
As the conversation continues on the five schools — Campbell Park, Lakewood, Maximo, Melrose and Fairmount Park — the genesis of the problem has been traced to the district’s decision in 2007 to abandon decades of forced busing and return to neighborhood boundaries. The district even has been accused of “resegregating” south Pinellas schools, and Duncan seems to agree.
“You can’t have this conversation and not talk about race,” said the secretary.
Yes, race should be invoked when we’re talking about these schools because they are predominantly black and poor. But I wonder why white schools in north Pinellas are not classified as segregated. Anyway, a little historical perspective also is in order.
First, what the Pinellas school district did in 2007 was what should have been done in 1954 following the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision, which outlawed legally segregated schools. All that was required by law was desegregation, or the end of dual systems, which assigned students based on their race. Many civil rights organizations and educators believe the opposite of segregation is integration, not desegregation. The result was decades of forced busing to achieve “racial balance.”
And it’s important to remember that many black parents were relieved when Pinellas schools were granted unitary status in 2007 and no longer forced to follow court-ordered racial quotas. They were sick of their children being bused all over the county and wanted them closer to home.
Second, we must do away with this notion that an all-black school is automatically doomed to fail its students. Even though in Brown the Supreme Court unanimously held that “separate educational facilities were inherently equal,” and in the public mind black schools were judged inferior, history shows many of them were more than equal even though they often were set up to fail.
How they did it was straightforward and has been chronicled: Dedicated teachers. Strong principals. Order. Discipline. High expectations. Community and parental support.
Of course, times have changed, the most important difference being the fragmentation of family structure. And although I’ve never gone along with the idea that poverty is an excuse for failure, it’s a fact that students from the poorest families, who tend to move frequently, have the highest absenteeism rate, which hurts academic performance.
Many supporters of the district have said it’s too much to ask schools to be responsible for correcting the poor educational performance of children born into troubled homes, and they have a point. But when I wrote on this issue a while back, an emailer made a statement that I couldn’t dispute: If white kids in north Pinellas were failing at these rates, administrators would have redesigned the schools to work better for them. They would have changed the teachers, administrators, length of the school day or year or curriculum and anything else. Because if white kids were failing en masse, everyone would demand a big fix.
When nonwhite kids are failing, however, the discussion tends to focus on the chaotic homes many of them come from, and it ends there. So instead of bold action, a sort of sullen resignation sets in to what former President George W. Bush called the soft bigotry of low expectations.
As I said before, all parties need to stop pointing fingers and placing blame; it’s time to pull together.