This Month with Millie

September 11, 2017

“Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment.”

 

Brown vs. Board of Education 347 U.S. 483 at 493 (1954)

 

            My daughter just started kindergarten last week. In preparation for this momentous event, I tried to learn as much as possible about Dallas ISD schools in the past year and a half. Having grown up in the New York City public schools, the public school system here was completely new to me. One of the statistics that kept popping up for me was that only  4.9 % of the DISD population was white.  I immediately thought that must have been a typo that someone made. Considering that it was rare for me to take my daughter to the playgrounds in different neighborhoods close to us and see more than one or two people (if that) that looked like me, it surprised me that Hispanics were the majority in most of the neighborhood schools. I soon discovered that the Dallas schools are one of the most segregated urban school districts in the country.[1]  On a nationwide level, public schools today are more racially segregated than they were in 1970, which is concerning when you consider the fact that studies frequently show that students who attend racially segregated schools perform worse than those who attend racially and socioeconomically diverse schools. It is also concerning when you consider that what a child experiences and learns in school will shape who they become as an adult.

 

            By the middle of this century, the Census Bureau estimates that whites will be a minority in this country. Because of technology, our world has become smaller and, as adults, many of us frequently interact with people from different countries and cultures in our professional world. It, therefore, can only benefit our children to attend school with children from, not only diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, but also diverse socio-economic backgrounds. I went to my neighborhood elementary school in Brooklyn in the 1970s. My friends were Polish, Italian, Korean, Chinese, Russian, Puerto Rican, Dominican, and a mixture of everything possible. I went to the corner store owned by Koreans to purchase a dreidl to play with. I made a pinata in school and gave a class presentation on salsa music to my class. I learned how to make crepes in my 3rd grade class. My friends' parents cooked ramen and pierogies for us while my mom made arroz con gandules for them. I firmly believe that this diversity is what helped so many of us to become successful. My father has a high school diploma and my mother did not graduate from high school because she could not speak English when she moved back to New York at the age of 16 and yet both my sister and I went to specialized science high schools and went on to get graduate degrees. Nonetheless, I've noticed that many here in Dallas seem to have this notion that if you live in an apartment or are black or Hispanic or have parents that don't speak English, it must mean that you can't score in the 99th percentile on standardized tests or be at the top of your class. It's unfortunate that, in 2017, people still believe this. But how do we change this?

 

            We chose to send our daughter to Robert E. Lee because of their dual language and I.B. curriculum. I also chose to send her there because of the diversity that I noticed immediately the first time I visited the school. I'm also happy to see that more and more families who live in the neighborhood are choosing to send their children to the neighborhood public school, resulting in a more mixed student body, which can only serve to enhance the education and experience of the children who will one day be our leaders. Studies do show that students of all colors who attend diverse schools have an increased sense of civic engagement and have a higher comfort level with members of racial and ethnic groups different from their own. In other words, it's not just minority students that benefit.

 

            With all of the talk about school names and taking down Confederate statues, some seem to forget that there is a lot more that we need to do to combat racism and improve our schools and neighborhoods or else we will find ourselves going back to the way things were before the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education. We need to interact with each other. We need our children to interact with each other. We need to live together. More importantly, we need to be educated about cultures other than our own. We also need to stop pitting people against each other. As an example, I was recently told by a woman on Facebook that I do not know and have never met that, even though I am a dark-skinned American Latina woman with obvious African ancestry, my opinion on changing the names of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee elementary schools does not matter because, in her book, only the people she defines as black get to have an opinion.  I've also been amazed at the number of people in Texas who don't know that Puerto Rico is part of the United States and therefore, Puerto Ricans are American and not immigrants. This just goes to show what happens when you have a lack of diversity in schools. Children become adults who are ignorant to other cultures and end up oblivious to their own prejudices. In order to really learn from each other, we must stop seeing people as others.

 

            If you have gotten this far, you are probably wondering what you can do to combat these prejudices and what can you do to to make DISD less segregated. (And if you have gotten this far, thank you!) If you have a young child not yet in school, tour your neighborhood school. Check it out for yourself. Don't rely on online reports or what your neighbor or friend says and definitely don't rely simply on a school's test scores. Go to the school and observe and ask questions. Perhaps you don't have children or maybe your children are grown. In that case, volunteer! It is super easy to volunteer in the schools. Fill out a a form online, get a background check done, and attend a short online presentation. Be a mentor, especially if you are a woman or a person of color. Children need role models. They need to see what options there are out there for them. Join your local PTA or SBDM. Get involved. It really is that simple. You don't have to look like everyone else to have your voice heard and help to do better for our children.

 

 

 

[1]   New York Times June 19, 2017 “Dallas Schools, Long Segregated, Charge Forward on Diversity” Dana Goldstein

 

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