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Admit it. Many middle-class families are scared to send their children to schools with low-income children of color.
More than 60 years after the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, that mandated desegregation in schools, and after 25 years of education reform, white families aren’t flocking to neighborhood schools or charters with black children. In my view, faith-based schools are filled with people who are afraid of poor folk as much as they are God-fearing.
If we’re honest, the racial bias associated with high concentrations of low-income black and brown students is the main reason why people whisper, “I’m not going to experiment with my kid.”
There are some people who aren’t afraid. Teachers and school personnel who work with low-income students are more likely to trust their own work and don’t see students as liabilities or risks. If teachers commit to sending their own children to public schools, maybe people who pay tuition to alleviate their fears will follow.
A coalition of seven charter school management organizations (CMOs) in New Orleans and the Kingsley House, a non-profit that serves low-income and vulnerable populations, have partnered to offer a “diverse by design” early childhood center. Diverse by design is the latest jargon that describes a concerted effort to create racial and socioeconomic diversity in schools.
Hoffman Early Learning Center, which opened in 2015, currently hosts federally funded Head Start programs that provide free pre-K programs to qualifying low-income families with 3- and 4-year-olds. Head Start programs are intended to promote “school readiness of children under 5 from low-income families through education, health, social and other services.”
This summer, Hoffman will expand to a full-fledged center that includes Early Head Start (daycare) and children of tuition-paying CMO employees. For every Head Start seat, Hoffman will offer a tuition-based seat for those who don’t qualify for the program. The mix of low-income students and others presents a diversity of students seldom realized in New Orleans or anywhere else.
“We are recruiting families who want a diverse school and who are not blind to the fact that our schools are segregated,” said Eboni Walker, executive director of the Hoffman Early Learning Center. “We want families who value the research that shows children learn best in these diverse environments.”
The majority of students currently in public schools in the U.S. are low-income and concentrated in the same schools. The regional research group Southern Education Foundation found that in 2013, poor students accounted for 51 percent of the public school population. According to a 2015 analysis by the Washington, D.C., think tank Urban Institute, “Students in low-income families are over six times more likely to attend a high-poverty school.”
New Orleans, which at 25 percent has the highest percentage of students attending private schools, mimics national trends. According the Louisiana Department of Education, enrollment of African-American students decreased from 93 percent of total enrollment in 2004 to 87 percent in 2014. Meanwhile, most white students attend selective schools that administer tests that students must pass to be enrolled. In addition, 84 percent of students enrolled in public school were deemed economically disadvantaged in 2014.
More than creating charter schools or soliciting vouchers, authentic education reform unearths root societal attitudes toward black, brown and poor people. White and middle-class folk showing others that it’s not a risk to send a child to a good school with lots of black and brown kids — now that’s real reform.
Hoffman’s executive director, Walker, is a New Orleans native who attended a mix of public and private schools growing up. She understands how enrollment patterns develop around race and class. “There’s a historical and cultural tradition of going where your family has been,” she said. Referring to the white and middle-class flight to Catholic schools in the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education, Walker says that Hoffman “is trying to desegregate re-segregated schools.”
If it proves successful, this program will first and foremost offer more quality seats in a city that desperately needs them. According to data compiled by the New Orleans Campaign for Grade Level Reading, which is organized by a group of local early childhood advocacy organizations, there are 11,900 at-risk 0- to 4-year-olds in New Orleans who do not have access to a publicly funded, early childhood education program. The Hoffman effort will also change the practice of building diversity on the backs of black people. Our failed previous attempts at busing brought black kids into white neighborhood schools, but schools are more segregated today. Moreover, schools with large populations of minority students get less funding and have less-qualified teachers than schools with majority white populations.
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There are some caveats with every effort to diversify schools. We should never believe that making student populations whiter is some kind of solution. Schools should get the resources they need to be successful with any population. However, without a deliberate effort to mix enrollees of free federal programs with paying students, we won’t get economic diversity. Public dollars should be spent to heighten public ideals such as diversity and non-discrimination. This effort does that.
I believe most parents dream of their kids walking side by side with their neighbors’ kids on the way to school, no matter the color of their skin or the wealth of their parents. But by the time our preschoolers go on to high school, we have found ways to excuse our opting out of neighborhood schools.
If we are ever to make our education utopia a reality, parents, school leaders and communities must nurture the dream of diversity as early as pre-K, so we don’t get accustomed to living separate educational lives. Maybe then our kids can teach us adults something about education reform and diversity.