Tuesday, December 22, 2009
The following is an opinion piece I wrote for a newspaper in Winston-Salem, North Carolina regarding school choice. It was based on my experience and all of the information in it is true. Naturally, it was not published. The truth hurts, I guess.
For the previous two years I was a middle school teacher at Philo Magnet Academy in south Winston. Last year, the population of our school consisted of 93% of our students being non-White. This always struck me as odd, considering the fact that Winston-Salem has a school-choice policy. It was not until I returned to graduate school this school year and thanks to the works of Donaldo Macedo, I saw that school choice for many students is not even an option. In his book, Literacies of Power, Macedo describes the “choiceless choice” that many of these students have. Having taught in the system for two years and now having an opportunity to reflect upon it, I can honestly say that school choice is not an option for a vast majority of our students here in Winston-Salem.
How is it that we have a school like Philo here in Winston-Salem? The truth is that when the idea of controlled-choice was put into place in the mid-1990’s it had an intended policy that would make sure no one school’s racial makeup deviated more than 25% from the overall racial makeup of the district. However, this “controlled” portion of the controlled-choice policy was never enforced. We now have the highest performing high school in the county that is 90% White as well as a school like Philo Magnet Academy. A book has been written by a Duke University professor named John Clodfelter titled After Brown in which he chronicles three school districts that have become so segregated that they rival levels seen in the 1940’s and 1950’s. One of the three districts Clodfelter used in his study was Forsyth County, North Carolina.
So we’ve seen the collapse of the controlled portion of the controlled-choice policy. What now about the actual “choice” part? This choice, as Macedo eloquently describes in his novel, does not exist for everyone. This is without question, the case here in Forsyth County. In theory, each student has the option of attending one of three schools in his or her zone as well as a number of magnet schools open to everyone in the county. All this student has to do is return the proper paperwork and he or she is guaranteed one of their top two schools. However, should a student not return the paperwork then he or she is assigned to their local school. For these students the “choice” was actually made for them by the school district. By not returning the paperwork, the students have in essence, assigned themselves to their home school, something they very well may not have wanted in the first place.
Why would a student not return such a vital document? There are three main reasons that lead to this outcome. The first is that the paperwork itself might never make it home. The student might not realize the importance of it, or even realize that he or she has a choice at all even though we try to remind them as best we can. The second reason is that many of our parents are either illiterate or work second and third shift. This can cause difficulties in trying to return important paperwork on time. The form for school choice is lengthy and takes time an effort and this can frustrate many of our immigrant parents. The last reason students might not return the form is that they might have family responsibilities. A large portion of our students walk to and from school. It is the expectation that they be home when their younger siblings get off the bus. Therefore, it is necessary for them to be at a school as close as possible to their home.
Thus when students then end up assigned to the local school by the district, these schools end up reflecting the socio-economic status of the area. Philo Magnet Academy is in one of the more run down areas of town. This means that there is cheap housing available for any who chose to purchase it. This area also has a large Hispanic population. Most of the construction jobs that draw in several immigrant families are based out of this area and many of our Hispanic parents that work these jobs do not have access tot their own personal transportation. Therefore it is necessary that they live near their jobs so they could walk or carpool to make it on time. Our magnet program has attempted to draw in students from higher socio-economic classes. Many of these magnet students make up the seven percent non-minority population of the school.
It was only four years ago that Philo had a White population of nearly sixty percent. However, students and parents began to choose Clemmons Middle instead of Philo and word spread like wildfire. For those who don’t believe in the concept of White flight, they clearly haven’t been in our schools. In only four years, the White population at Philo dropped by nearly sixty percent. Why is that? The answer lies simply in socio-economics. These White families had more access to resources than our minority students. They knew about school choice and the paperwork it entailed. They communicated with each other in social circles and eventually they decided that Philo wasn’t the best place for their students. Friends wanted to be with their friends and this caused a ripple effect. Philo Magnet Academy was left with the ones who experienced the “choiceless choice.”
I write to you all today to get this issue out on the table. Segregation is our schools is alive and well and it needs to be addressed. We should not have schools with such unequal racial make-ups in a district that is exactly fifty percent White and fifty percent minority. Nobody seems to be asking why five years ago Reagan High School was built in an affluent area and why Atkins High School was built in the middle of the ghetto. There is without question an elephant in the room here, and that elephant is race. It’s time to start asking the tough questions about where our schools are now compared to where they were sixty years ago. Are we actually making progress? Let the debate begin.