News & Politics

What Really Divides High Schools?

A young writer reviews one veteran author's take on high school segregation in America. Can one progressive school undo years of racial oppression?
Class DismissedIt's an old American dream. Black kids and white kids eating and playing together. Sharing the same classrooms. Drinking from the same water fountains. But take a look at most public schools today, and it seems Brown v. Board never happened. Schools in the ghettos serve minorities, schools in the suburbs serve whites, and the few that are in between are segregated by academic tracks and white flight to private schools.

Of course, there are a few schools that come closer to the dream than most. One such anomaly is located in the aggressively liberal city of Berkeley, CA: Berkeley High School (BHS), the most racially diverse high school in the nation. At 38 percent African-American, 31 percent white, 14 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Asian and 8 percent multiracial, BHS has actively worked against the national trend of resegregation. They have decided to fight the cultural, economic and social divisions that mark our society, consolidating both their wealthier white students and their poorer black and Latino students into a single, 3,200 strong student body.

But though the campus shows a rich cultural diversity, its achievement statistics shine a glaring light on the spectacle of racial inequality. The average white BHS student boasts a 3.2 grade point average while his black peer posts a 2.1. White BHS kids average in the top 85 percent of students nationwide, while their black classmates average in the below 40 percent. Most of the white students go on to four-year colleges, while most black students fail or drop out.

But statistics can't tell you everything. They can't tell you what those BHS students behind the numbers feel about how race and class move them up or hold them down. For that, you have to turn to the students themselves -- to the Keiths and Autumns and Jordans of BHS. Enter their world for a school year and you'll get a hard, pointed look at the state of today's public education.

Keith, Autumn and Jordan are the central characters of Class Dismissed, the newest book by author Meredith Maran. Maran spent a year researching racial inequities in public high schools -- and putting a face to the numbers -- by following three students from Berkeley High's senior class. She attended their classes, went to their games, spent time with their families, interviewed their teachers, and tracked their challenges in their final year of high school. Through their individual lives, Maran shows how the system helps some and fails other segments of a diverse population.

Keith is an African-American football star with limited literacy. He has several supportive teachers and coaches in the school who help him through school bureaucracy that screws up most student's schedules and offer tutoring support when he teeters on failing. Unfortunately, it is not enough to defeat years of academic neglect. Like many black students with early underachievement, he was placed in special ed classes instead of getting help and since than, his dreams were driven only by the prospect of football. Keith's a popular guy in school, but that's no help when he is arrested DWB (Driving While Black). His frustration at what he sees as an unjust arrest are interpreted by the police as resistance and get his ass kicked and put in jail (on prom night, no less).

Autumn is a biracial young woman -- her mom's black and her father is white -- who cares for two younger brothers, works after school and strives to be the first in her family to go to college. Autumn works hard for what she wants, and in some respects, gets it. Despite an after-school job and a mother who cannot provide much support, Autumn gets good grades and attends AP classes where she is one of only two students of color. Still, even if she gets into her top colleges, she doubts she will be able to afford tuition, much less room or board.

"With all the other factors in their lives, why should schools rectify the economic disparity, institutionalized racism and social segregation they face? Meredith Maran's response was to flip the question on its head. If our education system is not designed to address these inequalities, she asks, what is?"
But while Autumn works so hard, Jordan makes it look like a breeze. Jordan is a Caucasian, upper-middle class student with a personal college counselor and apathetic outlook. Though he didn't skate through his teens stress-free (his father died a year before), Jordan finds schoolwork easy and should have no problem sliding into the school of his choice. When Berkeley High's bureaucracy accidentally sends colleges his and many other students' wrong set of mid-term grades, Jordan is denied his top schools and spirals into depression. Read in contrast, his frustrations seem in direct resistance to his background -- rather than a product of it, like Keith's.

Reading these profiles of Keith, Autumn and Jordan, you might ask, Why should public school be held accountable for these three students successes? With all the other factors in their lives, why should schools rectify the economic disparity, institutionalized racism and social segregation they face? I asked these questions and others to Meredith Maran when I met her at a coffee shop near Berkeley High's borders.

Maran's response was to flip the question on its head. If our education system is not designed to address these inequalities, she asks, what is? In her book, she quotes UC professor Pedro Noguera: "To the extent change is possible, it is more likely to occur in education than in any other sector." In person, she qualifies that statement: "If not here, where? And if not now, when?"

This is a mantra shared by BHS, and Maran shows that the school has made distinct efforts to interrupt the cycles of poverty and underachievement. BHS has instituted several small schools within the larger one to give more direct attention to at-risk youth, and it has integrated classrooms to break up the social and scholastic segregation so prominent at lunchtime and in college admissions. Keith, the D average student, took part of a Computer Academy that aims to keep students who might otherwise drop out stay in school and get their diploma. Autumn and Jordan both participated in CAS, a Communication Arts and Sciences program that challenges traditional teaching methods and promotes diverse classrooms. The school also supports a student Health Center, a childcare center, a Student Learning Center, The Diversity Project, an African-American, Latino/Chicano and Woman's Studies departments and mandatory Ethnic Studies classes.

The results? You would be hard pressed to find a more socially aware student body. Politics and activism are regularly discussed and encouraged within the school. Although many cliques are made up of similarly skinned friends, there is also an encouraging osmosis outside of racial categories. You attend school-sponsored poetry slams where white girls and Asian boys and Latinas and black teens all root each other on.

And yet, those numbers still sit heavy.

Of the graduating class of 1998, 6 of 10 black males dropped out or flunked before their senior year and only 18 black men, compared to 111 white males, had the grades to attend a four-year college. As Maran points out, tackling this problem is much like trying to lay blame on the chicken or the egg, knowing the only definitive answer is that one begets the others. Our neighborhoods are separate and unequal, as are our elementary schools, our time, our resources, our cultures, our expectations. Too many minority parents have neither the time or the resources, and too many white parents drop their responsibility by dropping their children in private schools -- an action that only helps lay the next egg in the cycle of inequity.

This white flight from public education, if nothing else, is what fueled Maran to write Class Dismissed. Maran sees white parents' commitment to public education and integration as critical to our future.

"Private schools are a prime instrument for maintaining inequities in education and society," she writes. "If we are to fulfill America's yet-unkept promise of democracy, we must first close the hatches through which those with money and privilege escape the common fate."

Some have found this advice radical, wrong and downright un-American. "Ms. Maran's proposal to abolish private schools is anti-democratic, immoral, and only serves as a propaganda tool for her socialist 'progressive' teaching agenda in the public schools, which extols as education such celebrations as International Women's Day and Indigenous Peoples Day," wrote one angry reader in response to Maran's pro-public school editorial in the SF Chronicle. In person, she qualifies her proposal by suggesting that perhaps we should abolish public schools and make all private schools free, giving everyone the advantages of small classes, supplies, and qualified teachers. Either way, the crux of her argument is that we need to rethink what education means.

"'Let's give all of our children the benefit of each other, by educating them in heterogeneous classes where rich kids and poor kids, 'challenged' and advanced kids, native Spanish speakers and fourth-year Latin students learn together and from one another... Let's put all of our children in the same boat, then work together to raise the level of the river.'"
Many people in this society seem to think that education can be graphed at charted through tests and numbers, but Maran sees real education as what we learn from those around us. Interacting with people of different cultures, learning to value their perspective and get along as a community - that, she argues, is the most invaluable skill a young person can learn. Or as she writes in her book: "Let's give all of our children the benefit of each other, by educating them in heterogeneous classes where rich kids and poor kids, 'challenged' and advanced kids, native Spanish speakers and fourth-year Latin students learn together and from one another... Let's put all of our children in the same boat, then work together to raise the level of the river."

It is an appealing metaphor, but on the other hand, we don't all live in Berkeley. Yes, Berkeley High is an interesting case study, but the strength of Maran's approach -- the intense focus on BHS -- also turns into a weakness. Maran never convinced me that what's hardly possible at Berkeley will begin to work elsewhere. She's starting from a very liberal base, one that is relatively receptive to her idea of banning tracking and encouraging integration, but does not make enough of an effort to address the parental fears or bureaucratic logistics that keep this from happening.

Also, at times Maran's descriptions sound like they are perpetrating the very stereotypes her three students are trying to break out of. "African-American and Latino seniors cruise down Milvia in muscle cars with rap music blaring, then hunt for residential parking several blocks away. White seniors pay eight dollars to park their SUV's in the private garage across the street." And though she augments her story of the school with voices from the teachers, parents and administration, sometimes the good guys/bad guys delineations seem too drastic. Maran does not shy from her hearted support of students, parents and teachers nor her anger at police and politicians, but in doing so, seems to hold the former faultless and the latter as The Enemy.

Much of this seems due to the fact that this is a political book. Yes, it is also a biography, an argument, a tale, but Maran tells me she's an "unapologetic socialist" and sometimes her politics weigh too heavily on the stories she is telling. The book was written with a purpose -- to get wealthy white children in public school -- but in doing so, it simplifies or slips by difficult questions. For example, in passing, she writes that the black students "occupy the top rung of the school's social ladder as firmly as they occupy its academic bottom: the other kids emulating their language, their music, their style." It may not count for much when looking at those numbers -- grade points, income and statistics -- but as a teenager, which is the point-of-view she purports to describe, this is huge. When asked, Maran describes how this phenomenon cuts both ways, pressuring the black students to maintain "coolness and machismo" and leaves many white students with feelings of social inferiority and white guilt. How much richer it would be if these psychological side effects were explored within the book. The same goes for gender dramas and cultural differences that play such a massive role in interracial understanding.

Then again, perhaps this is asking too much. Looking at high school, you are looking at a microcosm of all of our problems, and it seems as impossible to have that solved in a book as it is to expect it to be solved in a classroom. Class Dismissed doesn't pretend to deal with it all, but instead focuses on the very pointed problem of a racial achievement gap, how it is manifested in three young adults and how we can possibly address it. To this affect, the book succeeds. It provides both the practical solutions and the passionate reasons why and how we should improve our public schools. Black kids and white kids reading and learning together. Class Dismissed insists it's a dream worth working on.

For more information on Class Dismissed, or to contact Meredith or the students she followed, please email to: [email protected].
Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018