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Race, schools and lowering walls

integrationDealing usefully, productively, with matters of school and race seem to be areas where thoughtfulness, gentility and an assumption that everyone involved is of good will – even if, in fact, not everyone necessarily is – are near absolute requirements. There’s almost not such a thing as a single objective reality, since the view changes significantly if your stance alters just a little.

But scaling back emotion does seem to be generally useful, which may help in finding the sometimes obscure line between problem-solving and obsession, and in finding out what the problem is. Removing that last from the realm of the subjective to reasonably objective is tough work.

There are problems to be solved. The Oregonian pointed to one last week in the Portland schools: “One in four African American middle school students was suspended or expelled from Portland Public Schools last year. One in 14 white middle schoolers was suspended or expelled during the same period, records show.”

This statistic – the story goes on to develop it in some detail – more than indicates the existence of a problem. But what is that problem? Is it teachers and administrators more inclined to discipline black students than others? Is it not such an inclination, but a greater difficulty in communication? Could it have to do with the social or economic conditions in parts of the city where many of the black students live? (The story does note, “Rates of discipline are disproportionate no matter whether a student attends a low-income Portland school or a wealthy one.”) Is there a cultural consideration? Or something else?

No immediate answers here, just a suggestion that the school district start looking into – as it apparently has begun to do – why the disparity exists, and why it’s so great. Defining the problem isn’t easy.

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat discovered that too, when his column a week ago declared that the Seattle School District is obsessed with the subject of race.

There’s a difference, his column suggested, between acknowledging racial issues and trying to define and solve them, and finding “race” as central to almost everything because you expect to find it everywhere. His opening instance was a fair case study: An argument from the district’s Equity and Race Relations director that summer school break is racist and “results in less access to services and opportunities of a society based on race.” As Westneat suggests: How could that possibly affect non-minority students any differently? (We might note here that as a matter of general public policy, we’ve long been in favor of getting rid of summer breaks and instead setting shorter breaks through the year. But that’s another issue.)

That’s only one of many items he cited. His conclusion: “This obsessive focus on race in Seattle schools has gone too far. It’s killing us.”

As you might expect, there’s been reaction, and his column today sifted through the hundreds of emails and other communications he’s received in the last week.

bullet A school district employee: “I’m a big believer in what Martin Luther King said about judging people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. This district pigeonholes everyone by skin color. You have no idea what a destructive force that has been in the schools.”

bullet A maintenance employee describing the 35 race/cultural-awareness training sessions he’s had: “Some of the classes were good and made you think. But after about five of them I had kind of gotten the point.”

bullet A former South Seattle student: “The more they talk about race, the more segregated it becomes. I went to Madrona and it had blacks and Jews and Italians and Asians. Now instead of educating all the kids, they’re worrying about what color people are.”

Westneat suggested that the larger share of responses were along these lines, but noted the critics as well, who – to judge from the column – seem focused on “unexamined white privilege.” Some of that was a response to Westneat’s story about his family’s experience at the Madrona K-8 school.

You may have seen a story in this newspaper last week titled, “Race, class splinter a school.” It was about how white people started enrolling their kids in a black school, but then left in a case of white flight.

I am one of those white people. After four years of fundraising and volunteering at our local school, Madrona K-8, we transferred our kid to a school a mile away, McGilvra Elementary. We did it because there were 31 kids crammed into our first-grade class. They got little to no recess. And the administration seemed to be resistant to the arts, music and foreign-language study. And was ambivalent, sometimes hostile, to our efforts.

We were sad to leave. There are many great things at that school, such as dedicated teachers and outstanding families. But the degree to which race has come to dominate the story is eye-opening. Especially since much of the race-baiting comes from school-district employees.

First, there was an e-mail, sent from the vice principal’s computer to a departing white parent. It said the school wanted to get rid of her. . . .

The response to that was, essentially: What did you expect? You want your kids to soak up diverse cultures, but you’re not willing to put up with the poor conditions, the absence of arts and music and foreign language classes, and recess – well, welcome to life in the minority community.

He quoted an elementary school principal (who also used the “unexamined white privilege” frame) this way: “We’re not going to be able to change things until we give up on that self-protection of ourselves and our kids. It means setting aside our own agendas, and understanding that education is about a lot more than advanced academics and enrichment activities.”

Does that translate to: Give up all hope for quality education, so that . . . what? . . .

Our response to that would be much like Westneat’s: “. . . maybe it’s my white privilege showing again, but I still don’t get why anyone of any race or class should have to give up music or foreign language. Or recess.”

Sounds here as if what’s not being focused on at Seattle is the solving of practical problems, in the interest of ideological – racial – grandstanding. And Westneat’s columns, like the Portland study, leave little doubt that the problems are real. And in need of practical solutions.

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