In the recovery planning efforts that followed the flooding of New Orleans, we often heard the mantra that we need to have “the community involved in the schools and the schools involved in the community.” I first heard this from Clifton James. I’m sure he was repeating an aphorism, but it made an impression on me, and I think it needs repeating some more.
At the same time we were working on recovery plans, the craze for chartering schools was gaining momentum. Leaving aside the significant controversy over charters for now, let me just observe that charter applications can be more or less community-driven. Typically an educational management company will partner with a local community group, or vice versa. The question of who’s driving is huge. I was on the periphery of an effort to charter Dibert Elementary that was definitely community-driven. That effort failed (twice) and left a lot of people frustrated.
But it was not the only game in town. For years now, I’ve had my eye on another community-driven charter effort. I knew some of the people involved. I knew they were people of integrity with values that I respect and share. I knew that if they were involved in chartering the school, then the community really would be involved in the school, and the school really would be involved in the community.
And, crucially, this would not just be a covert way to serve the “NPR crowd,” i.e. white middle-class liberals. A school that serves only one segment of the community, or even primarily that segment of the community, will not reflect the community as a whole. I’ve got nothing against NPR listeners. I used to be one myself. In fact, the involvement of the NPR crowd is essential. But it can’t be just about them. It has to be about the whole community.
Community, community, community. All this talk about community sounds nice, but what if the community is divided and dysfunctional? That’s the case here in New Orleans, in Orleans Parish. We are a diverse city, but most of us are African American. (It seems odd to type that, so I should probably note that I am not, in fact, African American.) While there are a lot of middle-class Black families here, most of the poverty is also found in Black families. There are really not many poor white people in Orleans Parish. In fact, an analysis of recent census data for Orleans Parish indicates that 65% of Black children under age five are living in poverty. The poverty rate for white kids? Less than 1%.
What’s more, let’s remember what poverty means. While it’s possible to be poor and educated and healthy, for most people poverty is associated with lower educational attainment, lower life expectancy, and a host of other things we generally regard as bad.
I mention these unpleasant realities to underscore what true diversity really means. It’s not just racial-ethnic but also economic. If a school is to truly serve the community, its population must reflect the community.
Let me be blunt. The question that emerges is this: Will middle-class white folks send their kids to school with poor Black kids? Too often, the answer has been a resounding “No.” I’m not casting aspersions on other people’s choices which may be a result of many complex factors. I acknowledge there’s more at work here than old-fashioned racism. (Still plenty of that, though.) Unfortunately, the end result is just the same, and our schools still suffer a de facto segregation. This is true not only here in the Deep South but across the nation. Don’t believe me? Read Reviving the Goal of an Integrated Society: A 21st Century Challenge, which provides evidence that “the U.S. continues to move backward toward increasing minority segregation in highly unequal schools.” If you missed this in the corporate media, well, that’s no surprise. It made #2 on Project Censored’s list: US Schools are More Segregated Today than in the 1950s.
And this hurts us all. When our community is divided, we all suffer. Can a school provide the ground for uniting a community? We seem to be asking a lot of our schools these days. Nevertheless, this seems to be part of what our daughter’s new school aims to do. And this is why we want to be there. I don’t know the demographic numbers, but everything I’ve seen and heard seems to bear out these values of inclusion and community. I’m only just getting to know the extended family of children and teachers and parents. So far, I’ve been impressed and inspired by the passion and determination I’ve seen. I’ve saw that same light come alive in other parents’ eyes, as recently as yesterday evening. They are impressed and inspired as well. Together, we can do this.