Contrary to the stereotypes, education continues to be a value of the highest priority in the Black community; dating back to the underground schools in the Antebellum South where Black people, at the risk of losing limbs and life, taught themselves reading and writing.
After the Civil War, education attainment was a primary goal for Black people: from 1870-1885, their attendance rates were equal to, if not greater than, Whites. Booker T. Washington observed that “in every part of the South, during the Reconstruction period, schools, both day and night, were filled to overflowing with people of all ages and conditions.” By 1900, the illiteracy rate among African-Americans under the age of 40 was virtually non-existent.
There are some who claim Black people themselves are the reason why Black students underachieve academically. However systemic racism is to blame. Black children are too often overdisciplined, undereducated with fewer resources and attend schools in dangerous conditions. In addition, Black students are underrepresented in advanced level and/or advanced placement classes.
*Source: Civil Rights Data Collection
**RED – Underrepresented enrollment
***GREEN – Overrepresented enrollment
Tina Lawson, like all parents, desires the best education for her children. To that end, Ms. Lawson is an advocate for her three children; as an African-American parent, that means self-determining the education her children receives. Prior to high school, Ms. Lawson enrolled her children in private school. For high school, she chose to enroll her children in the local school district; the Upper Dublin School District. Upper Dublin is a Philadelphia suburb.
When it was time for her son to enroll at Upper Dublin high school (UDHS), he was referred to a college prep track history course for ninth grade. Ms. Lawson preferred that her son be enrolled in the honors history course for ninth grade due to his eighth grade scores. Although there was some red tape, her son was placed in the honors history course. But what Ms. Lawson discovered was that her son wasn’t the only victim of tracking within the school district.
Proponents of academic tracking argue that it allows students the opportunity to learn at their own levels. However, tracking in schools is often segregation from within. Tracking perpetuates the achievement or opportunity gap in education. Tracking happens throughout the country, even in New Jersey (my home state), where like Tina Lawson had to do with her son, Walter Fields and his wife Donna Wharton-Fields had to do with her daughter when she was denied entry in an advance freshman math class.
Prior to enrolling at Columbia High School in affluent Maplewood, NJ, Jordan Fields scored advanced proficient on the state math tests in middle school and earned an A in Algebra 1 during eighth grade. However it took a discussion between Mr. and Mrs. Fields, the math department chair and principal for Jordan to be enrolled in a geometry course to keep her on track for AP Calculus during her freshman year. During Jordan’s sophomore year, the Fields again had to confront school administration due to the low levels of support, if not outright discouragement, Jordan received from her algebra 2 teacher.
Parents must always advocate for the academic well-being of their students. For Black parents, this means confronting and combating anti-Black attitudes and systemic racism wherever their children attend school. Sadly, no matter where Black students attend school, Black families will encounter racism of some sort no matter where they attend school.
Schools are inherently white institutional spaces; institutions whereby white norms are imbedded within an institution’s structure and culture.
On the night before he died, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King called for America be true to what they said on paper; Black parents desire the same from their children’s schools. The State, at all levels (local, state and federal), are responsible for providing a quality education for Black and Brown children and they must be held accountable when they don’t.
As part of our duty as Black parents, we must do our part to hold schools accountable for educating our children; sadly, we may be the only entity capable of doing so, as was the case for Tina Lawson and Walter Fields.
Lawson, president of Concerned African-American Parents, filed a complaint with the federal education department in 2015 alleging a long-standing pattern of discrimination that steered African American student into low-level classes. Also, the complaint alleged that overly harsh disciplinary practices led to Black students being suspended at much higher rates than their White peers who committed similar offenses.
The result of that complaint was a settlement by UDSD and CAAP through mediation. According to the settlement, UDSD will reduce the number of tracks in math classes from three to two in their middle school over the next two years. By the 2022-23 school year, the district will have no other tracks besides “academic” and “honors” at the high school.
Fields founded Black Parents Workshop, Inc. to try and work with the Maplewood School District to address the problem of Black students placed in lower academic tracks. When that didn’t work, Fields and his wife filed a complaint with the federal education department to end Black steering into lower level classes and to desegregate the district’s elementary schools. The complaint resulted in the school board agreeing to a settlement to do just that.
It is no accident that districts, and the State at large, choose to not educate Black children. Some fail to do so blatantly, like the state of Michigan and Detroit Public Schools. Others do so covertly under the guise of colorblindness, whereby policies, procedures and norms hurt Black students and other students of color.
However, the Black freedom struggle is rooted in the idea that liberation for the Black man and women is America being who it says it is on paper. Historically, liberation is achieved through organizing, marching, protesting, and using the courts. Those strategies are not to be avoided now. Thankfully, folks like Tina Lawson and Walter Fields haven’t forgotten them.
America may never like us. Racism may very well be a permanent threat to our children. Nevertheless, we must speak up to ensure that schools do right by our children. Don’t just march on…fight on until victory is won.