Students can benefit from diverse schools

When Abby Norman received an invitation to a charter school organizational meeting, she was surprised. A frequent selling point charter operators make is that they are necessary where public schools are failing, but the neighborhood elementary school where Norman’s daughter is a kindergartner isn’t failing.

In fact, it is an excellent school with an innovative principal, a foreign language program, caring teachers, a robotics lab. Norman’s daughter loves it and is thriving there.

The charter organizers were Norman’s new neighbors, white parents who had recently moved into a majority minority community in DeKalb County, Ga. Not one had ever visited the neighborhood school. When they discovered that Norman’s daughter goes there and is the only white child in her kindergarten class, they warned her to take her out.

“When I am able to move past the anger, the frustration that people are talking about a school they know nothing about,” Norman wrote for Huffington Post, “I listen to what they say. Behind all the test score talk, the opportunity mumbo jumbo that people lead with, I feel like what is actually being said, and what is never being said is this: That school is too black.”

Norman’s neighbors might have tried to hide their bigotry, but the readers of her article didn’t. Their comments were vicious. Slanderous. Hate-filled. Unapologetic racist sophistry. They wished – and predicted – harm for Norman’s daughter.

Once I spent three days interviewing faculty, staff and students at Columbia High School as part of an accreditation team. The school was clean and orderly. The students were excited about what they were learning and articulate about their plans for life after high school. The curriculum was rigorous, full of Advanced Placement courses.

Columbia High School was a terrific school. It was also 90 percent black. I heard multiple stories from students about how they felt unfairly judged by the white community, who shunned them and transferred their children to other “whiter” schools.

Some of the unfounded assumptions white parents make about black schools are addressed in two recent reports, the first an analysis of eighth-grade math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test (NAEP). The study divided schools by the percentage of black students: fewer than 20 percent, 20 to 40 percent, 40 to 60 percent, and more than 60 percent.

The results give the lie to the concern that white parents often express that their children won’t learn as well in “high density” black schools. In fact, the NAEP scores for white children, when sorted by socio-economic levels, were the same regardless of what density school they attended. That is, white children’s performance did not suffer because they went to “high density” schools.

The children whose performance did suffer by attending “high density” schools were black males, perhaps because they already have so many cards stacked against them.

Skittish white parents should also pay attention to the research highlighted recently on NPR showing white children actually benefit from attending integrated schools. Research shows that racial and gender diverse groups work harder and smarter than homogenous ones – possibly because more viewpoints make for more creative innovation.

Our country is becoming more diverse, and children who forge genuine cross-racial friendships and learn to work well with people of different cultures will be the most successful. Parents – and policy makers tasked with drawing attendance lines – would do well to remember that.

Kay McSpadden teaches English at York Comprehensive High School.