Thursday, December 11, 2008

in our schools, "diversity" goes much further than race

Outside of Blake High School, one of three campuses in the Northeast Consortium.

A study released last month by the County's Office of Legislative Oversight says that the Downcounty and Northeast Consortiums - which allow eighth-grade students across East County to select between signature programs at eight different high schools - has largely failed at its main goal of promoting racial integration. The report, which you can find here (warning! PDF file) concludes that the $3 million spent each year on the Choice Program, as the process is called, may not be be worth it.

I was told as an eighth-grader at White Oak Middle School many years ago that the Choice Program enabled me to select a high school based on what interested me. At Paint Branch, I could learn about medicine; at Springbrook, I could take drafting classes; but at Blake, I'd have sculpture classes, chamber singers, creative writing and film studies. And I picked Blake because of those classes, all of which I took. Nobody told me that I might've gotten in there because my race might have evened out the demographics of a school that white families supposedly sent their kids to because they were uncomfortable with the ethnic makeup of Springbrook and Paint Branch.

The Blake I attended was a school of pretentious punks and ambitious artists, surrounded by million-dollar houses populated by the kind of kids who had the time and resources to learn about Japanese cinema or start emo bands. It was, as my friends called it, "the liberal faggy school on a hill": if a student called someone "gay," he might get a lecture from teacher but would definitely endure dirty stares in the hallway for a week. Maybe Blake was majority-white, but it was a "diverse" school, if that word even means anything now, and I think I got exposed to a hell of a lot.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

But, of course, MCPS wants to see the racial numbers - a quarter black, a quarter white, a quarter everything, kind of like at Springbrook - so they gave students on free and reduced lunch preference in the application process. As a result, artsy kids with a little money who applied to Blake get rejected so that lower-income kids who may have signed up for Springbrook or Paint Branch were sent there instead. You've made a marginal impact on demographics, but you've also put two kids in programs they're not interested in, reducing morale and defeating the purpose of the schools' signature programs. It would be irresponsible to link that move to plummeting SAT scores at Blake, but the connection is unsettling.

East County's racial makeup is an issue of geography, and the Northeast Consortium was an opportunity to push the problems of Paint Branch and Springbrook - who are in lower-income areas and have higher minority populations - on a new school that had neither. I can say without a shadow of a doubt that the Choice Program and Blake High School made me who I am today, and that's a triumph. We've given a generation of students the opportunity to attend schools that nurture their interests and talents, but we're throwing away that success because Blake is apparently "too white."

Our public schools are obligated to expose their students to an increasingly diverse society, but in the Northeast Consortium, using race as a measure of difference might be missing the forest for the trees.


Thomas Hardman said...

Dan, I hate to do the Blogger equivalent of the old AOL "me, too", but here's my "a fine and incisive analysis, sir".

Sometimes I wonder whether or not I might have had some influence or been an inspiration to that policy.

For some years in the early 1970s, I was bussed out of my district to Farquahar MS, at that time, a brand new school, trying out a lot of brand-new approaches. And in the end, I turned out almost okay, which probably would not have happened had I been in schools in my own neighborhood. Still, there are people who think that "he got Bussed, he can read and write" and assume that since both things happened, one thing inevitably proceeded from the other.

And it's definitely the case that, at that time, Farquahar MS was most definitely not all-white. I definitely got early exposure to "diversity", especially in terms of income class.

I'm really disappointed, though, that MoCo has proven so unsuccessful at promoting racial integration in the county schools. It's probably, as you suggest, an abuse of the Choice Program.

I recall that you mentioned this, obliquely, in a response to my now-infamous "Single White Female, Don't Count On It" posting. Evidently they've got the reverse angle working at Parkland, where the free and reduced lunch crowd mostly live in the neighborhood, and they're busing in the brainiacs to the Aerospace program in order to pump up the numbers in what would otherwise clearly be a school swirling around the drain, so to speak.

Dave Murphy said...

Yet another reason there ought to be more mixed income housing in east county.

Thomas Hardman said...

You'll get no argument from me, Mr Murphy.

The thing is, Blake sits smack in the middle of what used to be Rural Black Poverty Central.

For example, in parts of nearby Sandy Spring (more or less) there were people living pretty much in shanties about 15 years ago, on land their ancestors got under the "40 acres and a mule" programs right around the time of the Civil War.

Then the housing boom came, and by selling some land all of a sudden those dirt-poor people were filthy rich, but they also didn't live there anymore. Some folks didn't sell, though, but the temptation is sure there. Blake is right across the road or right around the corner for some of them, but also right around the corner are spanking new McMansions.

I don't have a point here, just mentioning it.

Kirsten said...

Thanks for linking to the report. My horse in this race is the Down County Consortium.

I do think that the signature programs aren't sufficiently different from one another (at least in our Consortium) to make a real difference in school choice.