A local school is caught up in a controversy that is opening some very ugly wounds. Central Elementary School of Mamaroneck, NY is being accused of segregating Kindergarten classrooms along racial lines. The numbers are frightening: four classes each with about 18 students; one class had 13 students who were Hispanic, black, or Asian; the other three had 15-16 white students. The teacher of the class that was predominantly children of color was black; the other three teachers are white.
In response to a formal complaint filed by one of the parents, the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) launched an investigation and found that while the stated practices of the district were “facially race-neutral”, the “facts failed to support the conclusion that School staff … were consistently adhering to the District’s stated objective of creating four equally balanced Kindergarten classrooms.” [emphasis Kazzy’s] The wording there is a bit awkward so, in summary, the OCR found that the policies themselves were not necessarily discriminatory but that the district was “inconsistent” and “subjective” when it came time to apply these policies for placement and the results were that the school’s actions did indeed have a “disparate impact on the basis of race or national origin”.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. Robert Shaps released the following video response:
Now, leaving aside that Dr. Shaps looks like a bad SNL character mocking a 1970’s school administrator, his response is pretty disingenuous when you read the actual content of OCR’s response. Yes, OCR found that the stated policies were not problematic. But, ohbytheway, they found that the numbers could not be attributed to statistical anomalies at least in part because there is clear evidence that the polices were not actually followed. Whoops.
This is a complicated situation, one that is hard to ferret out, especially since there are and will always be many unknowns. But having been in a number of placement meetings throughout my teaching career, here is my best guess at what might have led to the disparities:
- School policies were not followed. It is likely that stated school policies were never followed (there is a planned second complaint that would investigate all classes in the school going back five years). This is not atypical for schools.
- A number of “unofficial” parent requests were made. The majority of these were made by white parents. The majority of these likely requested their children to either be with other specific white students or apart from specific black students. The majority of those likely weren’t motivated consciously by race, but race was a contributing factor subconsciously (e.g., “Oh, Mr. Principal, while I have your ear, I think Johnny would much prefer to be in Billy’s class and not in Malcom’s class. He and Malcom just don’t seem to get along and I’d rather not have that influence around my son.”) None of this is atypical for schools.
- Someone in the process thought there were benefits to ensuring kids of color had classmates and/or teachers who looked like them. This is not atypical for schools.
- Any and every attempt at being “race-neutral” failed. This is not atypical for the world.
So, what to do, what to do? I’m uncomfortable throwing around the word “segregation” in this case. This was not segregation, at least not the type of segregation we think of when we think of segregated schools in our nation’s history. I don’t know that the mother’s call to fire the Principal and the Superintendent are correct either, though they can certainly learn a thing or two about public relations and crisis management (again leaving aside the Superintendent’s choice of hair style, glasses, and suit, which themselves seem fireable in 2012). And I certainly don’t believe that leaving in place the stated polices is preferred, EVEN IF THEY WERE FOLLOWED PERFECTLY!
Ideally, classroom placement should be subjective. It should factor in things like race and ethnicity. All students do better when they have classmates and teachers who look like them; students of color specifically do much better. There is a logic to saying, “Let’s make sure that Anthony isn’t the only white/black/Asian/Hispanic in the class,” just as there is logic in saying, “Let’s make sure that Susie isn’t the only girl in the class.” Students should be seen as individuals, with unique needs; they should not simply be seen as a series of data points, one corresponding to gender, another to birthday, etc. They should not just be randomly thrown into a bag, shaken up, and distributed according to some formula. Classes should be constructed based on what serves the needs of the students best. There is no magic bullet, as many of these needs bump up against one another, but there is a hell of a lot better way to do it than what this school did (both in terms of what they say they did and what they actually did).
And, hell, you could even make an argument that the exact makeup of the classes would be ideal for all students involved! You’d have to do a hell of a sell job because of the potential for the type of controversy that is now brewing, but you could make that argument! The problem is… the school does not appear to have had the students’ best interests in mind. If they did, they’d come out and offer their rationale front and center. Even if they failed, there’d be much more room for forgiveness if their intentions were noble. But instead the school is hiding behind a disingenuous partial reading of the OCR’s report, refusing to acknowledge their failure to follow their own policies, and is chalking it all up to a “statistical anomaly”.
Saddest of all, as is so often the case when school or education-related controversies bubble up, a group of students -of children- is caught in the middle. It is highly unlikely that the classroom setups are ideal for meeting the needs of this particular set of students. It is less likely that, even if they were, the school would be prepared to actually maximize those benefits, given the amount of ass hattery they’ve demonstrated thus far. When faced with a legitimate complaint that students were being underserved, the Mamaroneck school district did what so many supposed educational leaders and institutions have done in the past: cover their ass and fish over their students.