Monday, November 02, 2009

Tales of the Public School Nothings

“Why do you talk like that?” “You’re not like those Black kids.”

Before I donned the standard white dress of my fifth grade graduation, I had heard phrases like that all too many times. According to a report from National Public Radio titled “Mind the Gap: Why Good Schools are Failing Black Students,” I was something of a “straddler,” or Black kids that navigate the rift between privileged classmates in advanced academic programs and the friends they leave behind, mainly Blacks and Latinos without the same societal expectations. This peculiar duality that many minorities experience is precisely one of the reasons why schools are failing them.

At my neighborhood elementary school, I took classes in a small annex that was dubbed “the pod,” where the city’s only elementary Magnet program was housed. While the greater school was predominantly African-American, the Magnet school was mostly White. I excelled in my classes and still managed to retain neighborhood friendships, though both sets of peers regarded me as something of an oddity. I didn’t appear to subscribe to the limited and often negative view of Black achievement, as others did.

And because of my educational environment, I was taught: challenged, constructively criticized, encouraged, and rewarded. I was told that I was smart, and expected to behave accordingly. My teachers were given positive cues on how to deal with me because of my past markings. And while my education was the best that my city could inexpensively offer, it often felt that my schooling was nothing more than an accident, a byproduct of being in a class full of White students that the teachers were eager to reach.

But the real achievement wasn’t a Black girl making the grades, rather a Black girl making the grades without “selling out.” “Mind the Gap,” spoke to students in Northern New Jersey who were straddling the space between achievement and authentic African-Americana, which are often seen as being contrary.

At the core of this issue is a damaged sense of self in the Black community that is reinforced by academic tracking, which is often prejudiced and biased. Black children who make it to honors, Advanced Placement, or Magnet classes (in and of itself a feat at some schools) find themselves ostracized and forced to deal with social implications never present for White or Asian students, who see themselves all throughout the top tier of their school’s hierarchy.

There are certainly Black success stories within public schools. I did well throughout primary school and attended a prestigious all-Black college on a full scholarship. I graduated in three years and am now a writer. It’s not a stretch to say that in the gamble that is the nation’s public schools, I won. But what can be done about the losers?

The solution certainly isn’t a simple one, but part of it should be a representative sampling of ethnicities at all levels of education. Standing against this, as “Mind the Gap” proved, are the middle class parents who are mobilized and ready to fight for their kids’ spots at the top. But the question that’s never asked is, “What have those children done to deserve their status?” Is it really a question of intelligence or hard work, or have those children simply been dealt a winning hand?

Listen to the documentary in its entirety at

1 comment:

Britt said...

Very well-written. There is something to be said for expectations.