Changing the Odds for Our StudentsSeptember 2010
By Nancy Rauch Douzinas
Everyone loves a success story. A man or woman, better yet a child, with heart afire overcomes all obstacles and beats the odds. We love to be reminded of the heights that human beings can scale.
I saw a video recently, a kind of success story, but one that left me with a different feeling.
It was about two boys: both black, seniors in high school, popular and successful at school, sons of single moms, holding down part-time jobs. One big difference: their high schools. Owen attended Rockville Centre’s South Side High School; David went to Wyandanch Memorial.
That’s a big difference, all right.
- In Rockville Centre 11% of students qualify for free lunch; in Wyandanch, 46%.
- In Rockville Centre 77% of students are white and 8% black. In Wyandanch 80% are black; none are white.
- In Rockville Center 89% of students go on to four-year colleges; in Wyandanch 21%.
The video was produced by the Long Island not-for-profit ERASE Racism and is designed to be shown in group venues, where people can share their reactions and start to dialogue (eraseracismny.org).
Both young men were successful. Owen graduated from South Side and went on to prestigious New York University. David went to Mercy College. Coming from a high school where barely one graduate in five attends a four-year college, is that perhaps even more impressive?
I’m delighted for these two young men. But what lesson does their story teach?
Someone succeeds, and you hear folks say, “If he can do it, everyone can.” The same when a poor, minority school succeeds. But these triumphs are stunning precisely because they’re so rare. The fundamental reality—on Long Island and in every major city in America—is the glaring, persistent education gap between middle class and poor, between white and black.
The fact that it’s possible for a child to beat the odds can’t be enough. The odds shouldn’t be against kids in the first place. That flies in the face of our core values, blights kids’ dreams, and robs us of talent we need to drive our economy and solve our problems.
We need to change the odds for poor and minority children. Why aren’t we?
We try. Decade after decade we grasp at fix after fix. The corpse of the last failed effort—No Child Left Behind--is not yet cold, and already we’re on to the next “reform.”
All the while, we ignore the source of the problem, recognized half a century ago by the U.S. Supreme Court. Separate schools are inherently unequal.
But it was we who created the inequality—on Long Island and across the country—the moment we separated ourselves by race and class. Once we take the kids with the highest needs and put them all in one school, we have—however unwittingly—stacked the deck against them. No, the odds are not impossible, but they’re way too high.
Rockville Centre’s South Side, it turns out, offers a nationally-known lesson on the way forward. They actually did close the achievement gap. How? By detracking—and thereby integrating—their classrooms. They mixed classes by ability and race . . . taught a new, more rigorous curriculum to everyone . . . and provided extra help to all the kids who needed it. All groups improved, blacks and Latinos the most. The achievement gap closed.
Success stories are great, if we take from them the proper lessons. It was not higher standards alone, but standards backed with tons of extra help that turned the odds in kids’ favor. That won’t work in Wyandanch and other segregated schools, where the sheer number of kids who need help overwhelms the available resources. Here, school-based remedies will continue to fall short. We need to think bigger.
South Side’s principal Carol Burris, who led the Rockville Centre reforms, is the first to agree.
“Segregated schools,” she says, “just don’t work.”