Article originally published in NEA Today magazine, May 2014. Get the app, view the entire iPad/Android edition: www.nea.org/neatodayapp
Some might say Justice Elliot’s name is ironic. Where’s the justice in growing up poor, the second oldest of five children all under the age of 11, living crowded together with their single mother in cramped Section 8 housing in Montgomery County, Maryland?
Is there justice in attending a public school where more than two-thirds of the students come from poverty, where just 7 percent of the population is White, and where educators have to work twice as hard to ensure that their low-income, minority students receive an education equal to that of more advantaged kids?
Certainly, there wasn’t justice for another boy growing up in racially segregated Baltimore, Md., just 30 miles to the north. His school was 100 percent African American, his classmates overwhelmingly burdened with poverty. Fortunately, he had educators who made a difference in his life—one asked him to read and memorize the U.S. Constitution, another acted as a mentor and friend, ultimately shaping his historic legal career. The boy grew up to be Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
But 60 years after Marshall successfully argued to end the legal basis for school segregation in America, students of color still lag behind in education and income. Sixty years later, where is the promise of justice in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision?
Despite the fact that Brown v. Board became the law of the land in 1954, it wasn’t until many years later that most of America’s schools began to integrate. When they finally did, the benefits were clear. One study found that integration led to a 25 percent fall in Black dropout rates in the 1970s. Another, more comprehensive study in 2011 that examined desegregation of kids of the civil rights era found that it led to higher earnings, better health, and better prospects in life. Research further shows that all students in integrated schools do better academically—both majority and minority students.
But despite the proven benefits of integration, this nation has retreated in recent years to pre-Brown conditions.
Today, nearly half of the nation's students are low income. Forty-four percent are students of color, and both populations are concentrated in segregated schools. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, 80 percent of Hispanic students and 74 percent of Black students are in schools where the majority of students are not White. At the same time, 43 percent of Hispanic and 38 percent of Black students attend “intensely segregated schools” where White students comprise 10 percent or less of the student body.
How did this happen? Busing delivered integration to public schools. But when the Supreme Court overturned busing policy in 2001, districts parked their buses. They redrew school boundaries, ignoring diversity considerations. In 2007, the high court invalidated voluntary school desegregation plans, ruling that there was no compelling state interest in achieving diversity.
Those rulings together with the deindustrialization of our cities, the sharp rise in minority populations, the housing bubble and the Great Recession, have created neighborhoods and public schools that are increasingly segregated by income and race. And when a school becomes segregated by income and race, it’s difficult to break that cycle. Concentrations of poor or minority students—and often, poor and minority go hand-in-hand—combined with low school performance drive middle-class families away, further distilling the concentration and exacerbating its effects.
“What we’ve seen over the past two decades is a slow but steady increase in the isolation of Black and Hispanic students. It’s not just an issue of race. There is ‘double segregation’ of race and poverty,” says Gary Orfield of the UCLA Civil Rights Project. “Few people want to address these issues, but we must talk about the value of diversity and the success of stable, integrated communities so we can start to reverse these dismal trends in our schools.”
In Brown v. Board, then-NAACP attorney Thurgood Marshall fought for students who crowded around shared desks in shoddy one-room schoolhouses, sometimes made of tar paper with no indoor plumbing, let alone school supplies. But today, in predominantly Black and Hispanic schools, you might not know decades have rolled by. Their schools are literally crumbling around them. Toilets are blocked, ancient HVAC systems break down, and educators provide their own classroom supplies.
In the 1950s, Marshall fought for access to schools for children of color so they weren’t forced to travel hours a day to attend classes. Today, schools in low-income, high-minority neighborhoods are being closed in record numbers, forcing children to travel to other schools, often many miles away.
There’s another aspect of the Jim Crow era that remains true today: Despite the many obstacles in their way, public school teachers remain tireless foot soldiers for equality, committed to educating and nurturing all students, and willing to go to heroic lengths to get the job done. Then, as well as now.
But the odds are stacked against them as the gulf between the rich and poor grows. Today, the number one predictor of a student’s academic achievement is not race but family income. In fact, achievement gaps between low-income and high-income students are wider than those between Black and White students.
“It’s not right that the richest, most powerful nation on earth is not dealing with the issues that are affecting this country’s youth,” says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. “We’re on the cusp of a movement to address education opportunity gaps. These gaps are real. It depends on your ZIP code. It depends on the socioeconomic status of parents. It’s wrong and we need to build addressing this issue into everything we do.”
Justice Elliot is a fourth grader at Glenallan Elementary in Silver Spring, Md. The school draws kids from an area of concentrated poverty in Montgomery County, a suburb of Washington, D.C., where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening into a canyon. Educators there are determined to provide a boost for students who don’t have the same jumping off point as their affluent neighbors to the west, in upper-middle-class enclaves like Bethesda and Potomac.
“In Montgomery County, pockets of poverty exist in many areas, but the east side has experienced an especially rapid demographic shift,” says Fred Stichnoth of One Montgomery, an advocacy group committed to school equity as a means for creating a stronger community.
What happens when you give forth graders a recorder and have them interview each other about equality and fairness? Hint: They talk about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his example for them. Listen in:
The county is now majority minority, and many communities are very diverse with integrated schools. But some neighborhoods in the east are almost entirely Black and Hispanic and low-income. It’s uncomfortable to talk about and nobody wants to be labeled as the “White” or “wealthy” school, the “minority” or “poor” school. But until the conversation is started, and the factors contributing to poverty are addressed, the pattern of low-performing, low-income schools will continue. No matter how tirelessly educators work, they can’t compensate entirely for the impact poverty has on a student.
“A large body of research literature explains the deleterious effect of poverty on the individual student’s academic performance outcomes,” Stichnoth says.
The list reads like the side effects of a dangerous pharmaceutical: Low birth weight, impaired neurological development, circumscribed vocabulary exposure, lesser familiarity with letters and numbers, lesser attention span in the classroom, more frequent health interruptions, stress, hunger, and increased mobility.
Justice knows a bit about mobility. He and his family frequently move from one affordable housing complex to another while his mother looks for a living wage. He and his brothers and sister bounced around four different schools in the D.C. area before landing at Glenallan.
Justice knows about health “interruptions,” too. One of his classmates died from an asthma attack last December—kids of poverty are far more likely to suffer from asthma than middle class and wealthy kids. The ten-year-old has learned far more about adversity and hardship than a child his age should, but he’s also learned about the power of diversity and community. There are very few White, affluent kids at his school, but there are students from nearly every continent on the globe.
“Everyone comes to this class with different backgrounds," Nicole Walsh, Justice’s fourth-grade teacher, says. “When we lost the young man from the asthma attack, each student brought different mourning rituals and experiences from their cultures. That’s the power of diversity.”
Green index cards cover the door of Justice’s classroom. Each contains the goals of the students, in blocky fourth-grader handwriting. Some are short term—“My goal is to learn more vocabulary words.” Others, more long term—“My goal is to get really smart so then I can get a scholarship then I can be a doctor and get some money.”
Justice’s goal is to play professional basketball. He practices every day with his friends on the courts next to his apartment. They all have hoop dreams, but Justice also likes to design things—cars, phones, even new animals he conjures up in his head. Plus, he’s pretty good with numbers—math is his favorite subject.
Walsh reinforces Justice’s interest in math, suggesting he could probably be the accountant for star basketball players one day, maybe even the team accountant for the Washington Wizards. She’s aware no 10-year-old dreams of a future in accounting. Still, she plants a seed that could take root over the years.
“All these kids have distracting home lives and have been in crisis at some point in their young lives, including Justice. I know he has a lot going on at home and school isn’t always the top priority,” she says. “But he does his best, even if he doesn’t always turn in homework, or get things signed. He tries, like all these kids. They’re so positive. They know they don’t have the same advantages a lot of kids have, but they appreciate what they do have.”
Justice appreciates having a loving mother —one who is fiercely devoted to her kids, wants them all go to college, and encourages them to be a tight band of siblings who all look out for each other. He also appreciates his teachers and their very obvious concern for his and his classmates’ success.
Portia Elliot praises her son's academic accomplishments. As a Black student in a high poverty context, Justice's mom wants to make sure he does not become a statistic. The educators around him are making sure that doesn't happen.
The sad reality, however, is that “schools of concentrated poverty and segregated minority schools are strongly related to an array of factors that limit educational opportunities and outcomes,” wrote the authors of a 2012 report by the University of California Los Angeles’s Civil Rights Project. “These include less successful peer groups and inadequate facilities and learning materials.”
Recognizing the challenge, Maryland’s state education funding formula works to provide extra funding to students coming from backgrounds of poverty and English language learners—categories of students who typically find themselves in more segregated schools. But even with strong levels of funding, the schools can’t provide all of the wraparound services students of poverty need.
Districts around the country could learn a lot about more equitable funding from Montgomery County. But, without a societal shift toward integration, where cities and suburbs redraw school boundaries and plan affordable housing and transportation systems to create more integrated communities, it isn’t enough.
In the meantime, the educators at Glenallan try to offer the academic opportunities kids of means have—there’s an afterschool math club, a writing club, a theater club, an engineering club, even a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Academy.
Glenallan is a STEM-focused elementary school, and Principal Peter Moran wants his students to know that the science, health, and technology careers Montgomery County is known for are well within their reach. Using the Title 1 grant money Glenallan receives as a low-income school, Moran hired a STEM teacher, bought lab materials, and developed a curriculum for daily hour-long STEM labs for every grade level.
On a brisk winter day, sunlight streams through the windows in Glenallan’s STEM classroom where Justice and his classmates are seated around tables with their lab partners. Each student wears a crisp, white lab coat—young versions of the real doctors and scientists working at the National Institutes of Health just a few miles away.
Wearing a crisp, white lab coat Justice settles in for the daily hour-long STEM lab.
“What are material engineers? We’ve talked about materials, what would a material engineer do?,” asks Zulay Joa, Glenallan’s Cuban-American STEM instructor. Hands shoot up, and Joa calls on Justice.
“They help clean things up,” he says. “Like oil spills!”
The students recently investigated the effects of an oil spill in a water body. They were fascinated by the project and the huge impact a spill can have on the environment and wildlife. But when they learned how much money it costs to clean up a spill, they were stunned. “It’s crazy money!” says Sulayman Samba.
“We strive to bring equity here, which is why we emphasize the STEM program—math and reading alone do not provide equity,” Moran says. “Our STEM program was created to provide our students with an opportunity to develop an interest in science and engineering. Programs that are as in depth as our STEM Academy are sometimes only available to those who have the financial means to access it.”
The school invites STEM speakers every month who live and work in the county, and they also hold a large career day so students can see the enormous range of professions they can pursue that might not have been available to their parents. Educators also take the kids on college visits to the University of Maryland and Georgetown. They walk the campuses, sit in classes, and tour the dorms.
“The motivation that comes from that exposure is really unique—they wouldn’t have that experience otherwise,” says Moran. “If nobody in your family has gone to college, it’s easy to follow that trend. Our job as educators is to bring an end to that trend.”
Moran has had students tell him that he’s the first White guy they’ve ever really known. He works hard and takes pride in being a positive force in their lives. “Hopefully that positive relationship will carry over, and they’ll make the assumption that other White people will treat them in the same positive way,” he says. “They know the stereotypes that exist about race and class, and if we’re not talking about those things, we’re not preparing them for real life. We’re authentic. Realness goes a long way.”
Education is something of a family business for Moran. His mother and grandmother were both teachers, but it is his grandfather, Pat Moran, who continues to inspire him. The elder Moran was the principal of nearby Wheaton High School from 1971 to 1983 and was known and admired for his love of the community, for treating everyone with respect, and for proving that education is the key to success.
Wheaton High School Class of 1957
Wheaton High School Class of 2012
Wheaton’s population is very different from what it was during Moran’s tenure, but his values are still being upheld at the school by the current principal, Bennie Green. “I have my diplomas hanging on my office wall for a purpose,” Green says. “I want the kids to see them, to see that I went to Ballou High School in D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood, but that I made it out of there, and I went on to college, and then graduate school. I want them to see that I also know what it’s like to struggle, but that with hard work, you can rise above economic struggles.”
Growing up, Green’s first love was music. He practiced the trumpet in the bathroom of his one-room apartment while his siblings pounded on the door. He knew he wanted to go to school for music, but higher education wasn’t a popular pursuit for many kids in his southeast Washington neighborhood.
“Enrollment in my school was 99 percent African American,” he says. “Everyone was poor. Poor was normal. But the people I associated with had goals — we grew up in Anacostia, but we dreamed big. Yes, there were drugs. There was violence. But that was a powerful motivator to work hard and do well at school. It’s all because of education that we got out.”
This is Green’s first year as principal at Wheaton. He’d been the director of instructional music at Wheaton for 20 years, but after seeing so many kids struggle with poverty, he realized their needs stretched beyond anything he could meet as a teacher.
“These kids have needs that went well beyond the classroom,” he says. “I had a student who was homeless, who sometimes slept on the couches of his classmates. I had kids new to the country who spoke no English. There were kids whose families didn’t have enough money for food or bills, let alone for field trips. But as an administrator, I have the ability to help provide that support.”
Wheaton has two magnet programs: bioscience and engineering. There is also a Bioscience and Health Professions Academy, an Engineering Academy, the Institute for Global and Cultural Studies Academy, and the Academy of Information Technology, sponsored by the National Academy Foundation. All are designed to prepare students for college and careers, and the school partners with the community through job shadowing, speakers, internships, and credit-bearing college courses at Montgomery College.
“The students at Wheaton represent our community economically and ethnically, and our doors are open to everyone,” says Green. But Wheaton is the county’s highest-poverty, lowest-ranked high school, according to district data. Most middle and upper middle class families want their kids to go to the district’s powerhouse ”W” high schools—Wootton, Whitman, Walter Johnson, and Winston Churchill—with their high-income, low-minority populations and soaring test scores.
MCPS = Montgomery County Public Schools
FARMS = Free and Reduced Price Meals
MCPS = Montgomery County Public Schools
FARMS = Free and Reduced Price Meals
Even if Wheaton’s doors are open to everyone, it’s mostly kids from the nearby, low-income communities who walk through. Once they do, however, the educators work in overdrive to provide opportunities to create a more equitable education for them. The curriculum rigor has increased and focuses on project-based learning that resembles workplace settings and real-life situations. According to district superintendent Joshua P. Starr, it’s a way to redefine Wheaton and make it a model of 21st century education that other high schools can follow.
Lisa Gerhardt is a teacher in Wheaton’s rigorous Bioscience Academy. She says it’s not that Wheaton is trying to make up for a lack of resources—unlike many school districts around the country. “This is Montgomery County!” she says, which is third in per-pupil spending in the entire U.S., behind only New York City and Baltimore. A challenge at Wheaton, Gerhardt says, is that students carry the burdens of poverty—burdens that can be too heavy for many students no matter how hard their educators work to level the playing field.
“A lot of students are struggling learners because they have more obstacles, what we call ‘academic interruptions.’ They’re caring for younger siblings when they get home because their parents are at work, so they have little time for studying. A lot of students have jobs after school to help provide for their family, and they try to squeeze in homework on the bus ride to their job or while they’re on a break. They’ve got way more on their plate than some more advantaged kids do, so we focus on academic support. We want them to know what success looks like.”
Melissa Sanchez, a 15-year-old sophomore, knows what success looks like. She’s in the National Honor Society, is sophomore class president, and is one of the most hardworking students in Wheaton’s biomedical magnet program.
Melissa Sanchez wants to break the stereotypes people have about Latinos. She wants to be a radiologist. As an honors student, she is on her way.
“I’m very interested in the human body and how things work. I want to be a radiologist,” she says. “Being Hispanic also motivates me to want to be something in life. People don’t expect Hispanics to be professionals, but I want people to see that we can make a difference in the world and be as successful as anyone.”
She’s aware that a lot of kids aren’t as successful, and that Wheaton has a high dropout rate—13.4 percent, compared to Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School a few miles to the west, where it’s less than 5 percent. She has 38friends who struggle, who have little time for studies and start to fall behind.
“One of my best friends has a lot to deal with outside school and she couldn’t focus on everything, so she started skipping class, and she started thinking about dropping out,” Sanchez says. Too many kids give up, so Sanchez works extra hard to be an example—for the students who want to give up, and for the wider society who might give up on them all.
“This is my chance to show everyone that a student from Wheaton will graduate and go on to do amazing things,” says Sanchez, who is inspired by her mother who studied law in El Salvador. “I am very proud of who I am, and rather than just focus on being poor, I see how you can come from the bottom to maybe be a millionaire one day. There will always be someone who will put you down, but you have to succeed for yourself.”
Sanchez says she wishes there were more affluent, White students at Wheaton. “If there were more students from places like Potomac, I’d be friends with them. I’m in favor of more integration,” she says. “They only see what their families are like, but they would benefit a lot from seeing how we are. We’re very friendly, and we’re a lot like them. We’re from different cultures and have different views that we can all benefit from. It would break the stereotypes. It would make all the students better.”
Sanchez is right. To riff on a popular saying, a rising tide at a desegregated school lifts all boats. Desegregated schools provide students with the opportunity to learn and work with children from a range of backgrounds, preparing them for our multiracial society and allowing them to understand a variety of perspectives. Integrated schools reduce the power of stereotypes and increase the ability to communicate and make friends across racial lines. And desegregation can have lasting effects across generations. Students of all races who attend integrated schools are more likely to seek out integrated colleges, workplaces, and neighborhoods later in life, which may in turn provide integrated educational opportunities for their own children.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett is determined to see more integration in schools and neighborhoods. Leggett, who grew up one of 13 children in a three-room house in Jim Crow, Louisiana, points to housing policy as one path to integration.
Montgomery County has a Moderately Priced Dwelling Unit (MPDU) law that requires developers to make at least 12.5 percent of new residential units available at affordable prices. It’s a successful model of inclusionary zoning, but not enough to fully integrate communities by income. According to Leggett, communities also need job stability, better access to transportation, and, of course, high-quality schools.
“If you look at those areas in the county where we find the higher levels of poverty, you do not have the job structure to entice people there,” Leggett says. “The biggest impetus to ensure that we have the kind of integration we need and we do not have flight from those communities is to make certain we have the jobs. If you also reduce the challenges that you see in terms of the social problems, enhance the educational communities, and make certain the schools are performing at a level that people want to send their kids to, you’re going to have a fully integrated community.”
Leggett hopes that every young person in the county, no matter their country of origin or their income level, recognizes that they have a future in Montgomery County.
“We need to instill in their minds, brains, and souls, each and every day, that they are part of this and we value them,” he says. “If they feel valued, if they think that it’s appropriate for them to excel, if they think that they have the proper role models, I think they will in fact excel.”
Back at Glenallan Elementary, Principal Peter Moran is making sure Justice and some of the more at-risk students know they are valued and will excel. Justice is one of 25 boys in “Gator Guys,” an after school program named for the school mascot that Moran created to help at-risk boys learn leadership and study skills.
Members of Gator Guys are boys Moran thought would be good role models for each other because they each bring something that the others can learn from. During one of their meetings, he asked them why they made great leaders for the school. “No challenge can stop me,” said one boy. “I’m not afraid of making mistakes,” responded another. “I’m an original,” said Justice. “I’m not trying to be anybody else but me.”
The Gator Guys
They also have goals they’re working for, which is what another “Justice” continues to call us to do.
”A child born to a Black mother in a state like Mississippi has exactly the same rights as a White baby born to the wealthiest person in the United States,” Thurgood Marshall famously said. “It’s not true, but I challenge anyone to say it is not a goal worth working for.”
Commemorate the 60th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education on May 17th, 2014 and teach about segregation in schools. Use these curriculum resources on nea.org to supplement your American History, Social Studies and English Language Arts teaching plans.
For Parents and Families
The research is clear: When families and communities are involved in their children’s education, students attend school more regularly, stay in school longer, and perform at higher levels. That’s because educators can’t tackle socioeconomic and racial disparities alone. They need help from students’ families.
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Equity and opportunity are cornerstones of public education. The stakes have never been so high, the need never so great. Join the National Education Association parents, students and communities in the fight for great public schools for EVERY student! Visit www.nea.org/schoolequity to get involved.
Originally published in NEA Today magazine, May 2014.
Writer: Cindy Long
Producers: Sewell Johnson, Amy Jordan, Rebeca Logan
Photos: ©2014 Luis Gomez/NEA. Courtesy of the National Education Association. All Rights Reserved.