Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Racism & Middle School

When I pick up my middle-schoolers at the end of the day, I park on the north side of the school. Because I park on the north side, nearly every child who walks past my car is African-American. If I parked on the south street, or the east, or the west, where the houses are bigger, most of the kids walking home would have different complexions. But I park here and this is Wichita.

Despite the downtown sculpture commemorating one of the first lunch counter sit-ins for civil rights, Wichita still has ghetto neighborhoods. The word sounds pejorative, politically incorrect, but the dictionary assures me it is the correct choice: “a quarter of the city in which members of a minority group live especially because of social, legal, or economic pressure”. Wichita definitely has ghettos and one of them is north of our school. We’ve talked about it in the car. You don’t have to be a sociologist to notice that all the kids clustered at the crosswalk heading north are black.

Diversity is one of the things we love most about our middle school. It was certainly one of the first things I noticed. One in four students is black. Similar to our elementary school, fewer than half the students are white, and the school has strong Hispanic and Asian representation. Many of my kids’ classmates are bilingual. When my kids spend time with them, they are introduced to other languages and customs, unfamiliar foods and religious traditions. I’ve come to see that building these connections is not merely enriching, but essential for a healthy community.

Even so, I was unprepared for our middle school’s cultural showcase family night last month. My sixth-grader had interviewed an elderly relative, gathered photos, and researched the history of her Kansas heritage, while my son had created a presentation around a family recipe from Pennsylvania, complete with samples to share. Our calendar was a jigsaw puzzle of assignments, schedules, and places to be, so it wasn’t till I delivered my children on time that night and began to look around that I realized hundreds of other students had done the same things.

In one room students exhibited colorful posters depicting their heritage, values, family traditions, religious symbols, hobbies and allegiances. As we milled through the crowd of other families, the posters forming a collage on the floor, I paid extra attention to the diversity of religions—Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Protestant, maybe others I’ve forgotten—and appreciated the creativity that went into each poster’s design, revealing hints about the personality of the student presenting it.

The school's lunch room was transformed into a crowded international food court, each student’s booth offering a taste of a dish important to his/her family. Next to midwestern staples like apple pie, monkey bread, and—my favorite—“funeral potatoes”, sat traditional homemade tortillas, Mexican mole, South American ceviche. There were dishes from Norway and Lebanon, Germany and Japan. Parents and children jostled elbows past platters of hummus, fish, sticky rice, two versions of lumpia, and plenty of recipes I didn’t recognize. I sampled the layered Vietnamese coffee-coconut-&-pandan jelly and a syrupy golden dessert made with semolina.

Some children had compiled websites to present information from their family heritage. Others had typewritten reports based on interviews with family members. We skimmed stories about people who’d grown up in Beirut, in India, in Bangladesh, in Vietnam, on the Korean Peninsula. Each story (and I only read a sample of the dozens arranged on cafeteria tables) connected to one of my child’s classmates, made the places on the news feel a little closer.

It wasn’t until we got home that I felt something had been missing. Some place. Some one.
Africa! And not African stories or African cuisine, but Africa’s people. While the rest of us celebrated the families and lands we hailed from, Earth’s second most populous continent had been absent from the school that night. I hadn’t seen any soul food, no interviews that mentioned Martin Luther King or Jim Crow, no posters by African immigrants. Had I overlooked them?

At elementary school enrollment, at middle school concerts, at high school project fairs, I always rub shoulders with black families, many of them. How had I overlooked them on this night? The next day I quizzed three other parents who’d attended. Had they noticed any African-American students or parents? They couldn’t remember seeing any, either..

That’s when it hit me that the culture fair was only for students, like mine, enrolled in the academically rigorous pre-IB program. The first time I heard of it was when a teacher recommended it during 5th-grade conferences. Parents have to submit complex applications with multiple teacher endorsements and students have to achieve high enough scores on special weekend testing days.

Only one Wichita school offers the pre-IB program and space is limited. It’s a fantastic program for my children, keeping them challenged while preparing them for success in high school, where grades count for scholarships. But in a school that’s 25% black (drawing students from elementary schools that range from 12% to 52% black) the pre-IB program, as far as I can tell, no more than 5% black, at most. African-American males are almost non-existent in pre-IB.

When I tagged along with my daughter on my first middle school field trip, I was startled to see that the black boys she’d had as elementary classmates had disappeared, along with most of the black girls. In their place were more white kids, more kids from all over Asia and the Middle East. And though its presence was subtle at first, their families had more money. Here, my kids learn alongside their African-American peers only in their elective classes and in P.E., where expectations are lower, discipline laxer, and the students my kids now breezily refer to as “Reg. Ed.” suffer considerably less performance anxiety.

It pains me to consider that much of my kids’ middle school experience is, for all practical purposes, segregated. It pains me because when people are segregated, both sides lose. And it pains me because as I sit at the curb in my late-model SUV watching obviously “Reg. Ed.” kids walk home across Central Avenue, I wonder how pre-IB adolescents can avoid developing a sense of elitism.

I put my kids in public school because I wanted them to be part of the mixed-up circus that is the human family. I wanted to throw my lot in with that of the whole community, give my kids a common experience with their peers, sharing the same rules and opportunities, neither fearing nor feeling superior to people with different backgrounds. And yet, if African-American kids aren’t getting into competitive classes, can we call our education system equal?

Are black students failing the required testing? Or are their parents not applying for the program? Does it sound too stressful or intimidating? Is pre-IB an elite secret? Are teachers recommending the program as an option for black students? If not, why not? Are black students falling behind their peers in elementary school? If they are, how can we help? It surely wouldn’t have anything to do with the fact that from the beginning of their education, perhaps the only black adult male they see at school is the custodian?

Representation matters. It matters for the population represented, and it matters for those who observe. Kids aren’t stupid. Every morning they hear words like “one nation”, “indivisible”, “justice for all”, but at the end of the day the black kids walk north. Because in Wichita, we’re not all equal. Not yet.

Wichita ceased mandatory busing for school integration years ago, and today many of our schools are once again predominantly one race or another. And it’s no secret that the black elementary school in the neighborhood to the north and the Hispanic elementary school to the west are made up almost entirely of low-income students, while the mostly white school to the south is considerably better off. Those kids come together to share a building for the middle school grades, but they do not share the same experience.

We need more diversity; we need more equality. We need better funding for ALL elementary schools, especially those in low-income areas. We need more black teachers. We need better pay for those teachers. And we need to address the socio-economic factors that allow ghettos to exist at all. In 21st-century Kansas, one’s chance of survival to school age should not be dependent on one’s race, or one’s zip code.

I ponder these things and drum on the steering wheel. And then my kids climb in. They squeeze in their backpacks, their instruments, their lunch pouches. They buckle their seat-belts. I turn the car east and ask about homework. We talk about snacks, and what’s for dinner.