Race & Education: The Real Issue is About Justice

Sep 1, 2014


"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free."

— Frederick Douglass

 The balls in this Illinois lottery bounced inside a clear bowl as the number-holders anxiously watched. I was among them in a middle school commons in Matteson, a south suburb of Chicago. Our daughter’s number was 10. But would it be our lucky number tonight? 

 For parents and children at the lottery four years ago, seeking a public alternative to well-documented, troubled high schools in Rich Township High School District 227, the Southland College Preparatory Charter High School in Richton Park, founded by Blondean Y. Davis, and scheduled to open that fall 2010, represented our best hope. Just one problem: 185 student applicants and just 125 slots.

“Number 73,” announced the officiating crew, wearing beige jackets and ties.

School Segregation Protesters

  “Number 125 ...

“Number 2 ...”

A man across from us sat, appearing nervous. Smiles were worn only by victors amid a palpable tension that grew as another ball popped up into the hand of the lottery master. I sat percolating — angry, on the one hand, that 56 years after the Supreme Court struck down school segregation in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, public schools remained separate and unequal; and on the other, angry that on this night the potential educational fate of 185 students came down to one simple dynamic: a wisp of air beneath a ping pong ball. What brought us all here was the hope of eluding District 227’s three high schools, where seven out of 10 students tested below the norm on the Prairie State Achievement Exam, or PSAE. Even with a graduation rate at 90.9 percent, one had to wonder just how much a District 227 diploma was really worth.

Sitting there, I couldn’t help but reflect on growing up in North Lawndale — an impoverished neighborhood on Chicago’s west side — and all the sacrifices my mother made to pay tuition at Providence St. Mel School, then a Catholic school, so I could escape an in-district public high school riddled with gangs and lacking in educational rigor. I thought about my own hard work and sacrifice as an adult, about how, even after having changed my economic status and my zip code, I still faced the same old challenges that seem to characterize public school systems where the majority student population is minority, even in the suburbs.

This much is clear now, four years since the lottery that night and 60 years since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case: the children — mostly poor black and brown — still suffer. That for decades Chicago Public Schools and others have wandered in the wilderness of “miseducation” and still have yet to fully cross the sea of red-tape bureaucracy. Have yet to overcome unions that often seem more concerned for teachers than students, and the bureaucrats and politicians who have failed to fix the system. What’s clear is that our future is at stake.

In an apparently growing number of public school systems across the country, minority students increasingly are becoming the majority — Illinois among them. In fact, according to the Illinois State Board of Education school summary, in 2013-2014, whites fell to 49.74 percent of the Illinois student body at 1,031,199, while other racial groups totaled 1,041,792.

In 2009, the America’s Promise Alliance reported in a survey of major school districts in the nation’s 50 largest cities that only 53 percent of students graduated high school compared to a national average of 71 percent. Chicago’s rate was 51 percent. Indianapolis was last at 30.5 percent, according to the report, titled Cities in Crisis 2009: Closing the Graduation Gap. Nationally, according to the study, 1.2 million students drop out each year. About 7,000 every day. One every 26 seconds. By 2013, however, the national graduation rate rose to 80 percent, according to America’s Promise Alliance, giving cause for optimism. But graduation rates alone won’t necessarily mean a brighter future, especially in cases where students are graduating from schools that are academically failing.

Failing schools breed social inequality and ensure the cementing of a permanent underclass. That’s not a shame. It’s downright criminal. And it’s clear that it is way past time for those under whose watch America’s schools have failed American children — for decades now — to fix this mess. I suspect they would, if their own children had to attend the schools where they teach or have charge.

The prescription for failing schools has included everything from the creation of charter schools, to mandating greater teacher and administrator accountability, to shutting down poorly performing schools and, in recent years, a call for extended school days. Still, I wonder what quantifiable difference the latter would make at schools where the question of whether students are really learning to begin with is arguable.

Whatever issues exist concerning American public education, they are exacerbated by the insertion of poverty and race, even if the solution is much less complicated. Even as I write, I marvel at our ability to explore and uncover the great mysteries of the world, to put a man on the moon, to launch a spacecraft billions of miles through the galaxy and yet fail to simply educate all of America’s children.

What’s the answer?

In the words of Paul J. Adams, my high school principal at St. Mel: “It’s not rocket science.”

Sitting, watching the lottery balls bubble that night, reminded me of how we as black folks keep waiting for the cavalry to come to our rescue when it is clear that no one can save us from us but us, and that maybe if we all did our jobs and worked to shore up existing schools, there would be no need for alternatives.

Another lottery ball popped up ... 

“Bingo!” a man yelled from the back as his child’s number was called, jumping to his feet, laughter filling the room.

“Woooo, thank you, Jesus!” a woman cried at news of their lucky number.

“Number 10 ...” 

It was our number. My wife thanked Jesus, our daughter smiled, and I shook my head, relieved but feeling more numb than lucky.

Disclaimer: I am not a “Super Negro.” 

I was born a son of the ghetto, joint heir to poverty, the firstborn of a 17-year-old black mother married to a black male, sometimes mechanic, 22. My father was an alcoholic. This was how he lived. It was the way he died. 

A deadbeat, he never gave me much more than his DNA or his name. He never called me with a birthday wish. I do not remember even so much as a kiss.

I was destined to become a statistic: black, male, poor, reared on the colder side of Chi-Town — where premature death by GSW (gunshot wound) sometimes seemed the lesser of the evils compared to becoming one of the living dead who staggered in hopelessness and despair.

Neither of my parents were college graduates. Welfare was too often our sustenance. Ketchup sandwiches and sugar water our treat. 

And education the antidote to my poverty.

Not rocket science

"As another has well said, to handicap a student by teaching him that his black face is a curse and that his struggle to change his condition is hopeless is the worst sort of lynching. It kills one’s aspirations and dooms him to vagabondage and crime."
— Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro 

Grass, emerald-green, lush and alive, glistened beneath the sun. And yet, for as far as I could see the other morning, outside the yellowish-brick castle in the 100 block of South Central Park, the grass still shimmers in the wind and sunlight — a simple symbol of promise, pride and hope, nearly four decades since I first laid my eyes on it.

I don’t recall exactly the first time I saw the lawn outside Providence St. Mel, or Paul J. Adams — the man responsible. 
It must have been sometime in 1974 — back when Afros and bell bottom pants were signs of the times, and the struggle to lay hold on the American dream still seemed elusive for blacks in America.

What I do recall clearly is the notion that grass wouldn’t — couldn’t — grow on the west side: too poor, too ghetto, too far from the fertile soil from which sprouts the stuff of American dreams. Back then, in neighborhoods such as North Lawndale — where I grew up and where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once lived, there was plenty of evidence to suggest that might be the case. I remember the sprinklers outside St. Mel that endlessly doused Mr. Adams’ lawn and how I quickly learned one of his most important rules: Don’t step on the grass, or else pay a fine.

It might be difficult to fathom how something as simple as grass could be proof enough that some things others deem implausible — with a little planting, watering and vision — might indeed become possible. I had spent my primary and elementary years in public school. But my mother saw St. Mel as an alternative to the local public high school, where, by 1974, there were changes in the air — more gangs, a sense of growing violence and also a decline in the quality of education.

As a kid, I was, in some ways, not unlike many poor black and brown children today. Written off by researchers, hopelessly predestined by my demographics to an unalterable mortal existence in the so-called “permanent underclass,” never to rise. Except if we were dubbed the permanent underclass, then those left behind today must surely be the “forgotten class,” perhaps the “abandoned class” — and access to a quality education never more important.

Looking back, it’s clear that while St. Mel put me on the path to success, what set me on the road to St. Mel was loving, caring educators who back then would even visit your home but who, most importantly, raised the bar of unwavering expectation rather than making excuses — or accepting any. “You’re poor. You’re black. So what. Let’s get down to business,” was their attitude. “Time to hit the books, raise the bar, no excuses.”

Whatever my mother lacked financially, she was never deficient in her provision of time and love — whether teaching me my ABCs and 123s, or taking me to the library, reading to me, making sure my homework was done, or that I was in bed by 8:30 and up early, ready to learn. She endeavored to be a partner — not an adversary — with teachers and school: pushing, prodding, praying and with great sacrifice, “paying,” in so many ways, from the day I was born. 

Mama always understood that the bedrock of a good education is good parenting.

“Where do we go from here?”

Dr. King asked that question 47 years ago. This much I can see today, even in the suburbs. We have arrived at a time and place when we favor material “stuff” more than substance. An era where discipline among children is lacking, and parental guidance and participation in schools and education are deficient. An age of decaying values, chief among them: respecting others. A time when we accept as the norm, behaviors we once were ashamed of. When there is an eagerness to point the finger but seldom the willingness to look in the mirror. An age of the existence of a status quo, “Afro-stocracy” (black school administrators) who themselves are resistant to accountability and reform, even at the expense of black children.

Where do we go from here?

At Southland, this year, the first class graduated — every one of them admitted to college. At Southland and at St. Mel — where since 1979, 100 percent of graduates have been admitted to college — Blondean Y. Davis and Paul J. Adams have proven that educating poor black boys and girls isn’t rocket science, not the impossible dream. Their approach: Students first. No excuses. Raise the bar. Work hard. Great expectations. And also this — the cornerstone of their success: involved parents who understand that nothing — absolutely nothing — is more vital to a child’s future than their education.

It amazes me how politicians and so-called educators continue to go ’round and ’round supposedly trying to solve this crisis in education. This much I have resolved: They can spend billions more without ever making a dent. 

I am also reminded that once upon a time, teaching a slave to read was illegal. That slave owners feared literacy. For they understood that an educated slave is no longer a slave. Today the truly enslaved still can’t read. There is a direct correlation between illiteracy and incarceration. Literacy and education remain the vehicles to freedom and the antidote to racism, discrimination, classism and ignorance. And I have resolved that the real issue of education really isn’t about education. It is about our will — our commitment to justice, to freedom and equality. And that should never — ever — be left to the chance bounce of a lottery ball.

John W. Fountain is a professor of journalism at Roosevelt University in Chicago and a weekly columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. From 2000 to 2003, he was a national correspondent for The New York Times. He also has been a staff writer at the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. He is author of the memoir, True Vine: A Young Black Man’s Journey of Faith, Hope and Clarity (Public Affairs, 2003) and Dear Dad: Reflections on Fatherhood (WestSide Press, 2011).

Illinois Issues, September 2014