The Sophie’s Choice of “Good” Public Schools for Black and Brown Students

Sharif El-Mekki
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

What is life like for Black and Brown students who call the picket-fenced suburbs or small towns, with the “good schools and safe neighborhoods” home? 

Frequently it’s just as gutting as living in the old neighborhood, going to even the most chronically underfunded, forgotten public school.

Parents of color are too-often faced with the zero sum proposition of choosing between schools and neighborhoods that are supportive of a positive racial identity for their families and schools and neighborhoods that are seen as higher-performing schools and more financially-resourced neighborhoods.  

And while the dominant image of Black and Brown America continues to be one that is tied to urban life, Chris Stewart frequently reminds our 8 Black Hands audience that the reality is that about half of Black families are not in urban districts. Better than 2 million Black students and well over 3 million Hispanic students go to school in non-urban districts. And at the same time, in these suburban and rural districts, Black and Brown students often comprise a much smaller percentage of the student body, with white students accounting for some 60 percent of suburban district enrollment and north of 70 percent in rural districts. 

Given the profound disparities in resources, support and opportunity that we see between urban majority Black and Brown schools and whiter, wealthier schools outside of cities, many parents of color do what they must to enroll their children in these “preferable” districts.

White teachers are much less likely to believe that Black students overall can achieve than their white peers.  Indeed, when evaluating the very same Black student, that effect is still pronounced, especially for male Black students. Black students are more than three times more likely to be suspended than their white peers and racial bias of White teachers and school/district leaders is far and away the biggest driver of that disparity according to respected researchers.  The result is a self-reinforcing cycle of diminished academic success and higher incidence of contact with the justice system later in life, i.e. the school-to-prison pipeline. 

These two dynamics of low expectations and disproportionate discipline for Black and Brown students are on display in “good” school districts around the nation.  For example, take the Upper Dublin district in Pennsylvania, not far from my hometown of Philadelphia.  Among the top-ranked districts in the state, just a few years ago Upper Dublin was the subject of a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education.

Families alleged that while just 7 percent of Upper Dublin’s students were Black, about 50 percent of out-of-school suspensions were given to Black students.  At the same time, Black students were tracked almost exclusively to the lowest-level courses.  In the 2014-2015 school year, zero Black students were in gifted education programming across the district’s four elementary schools. Of the forty-two sixth-graders in gifted education, zero were Black. In 2019, the school district settled with the parents who brought the complaint with promises to change academic tracking and other practices. This wasn’t a one-off, that’s life for countless Black and Brown families.  

And so, to survive, to get by, and maybe even thrive, many of these students are forced to assimilate, shed their Brown or Blackness. And while the painful politics of “passing” is nothing new for many Black and Brown Americans, this form of forced code switching can be profoundly damaging to the emotional and physical health of children.  This need to shrink their full selves to fit into white dominant schools is so internalized that many families don’t even discuss it.  They “suck it up”, take it in stride, add it to the secret pain and shame that attends so much of Black and Brown life. 

With the pendulum of school board politics swinging in a decidedly reactionary and racist  direction, Black and Brown children in these environments find themselves increasingly labeled the enemy, their Blackness an affront to the violent insecurity of white supremacy.  We see it in a host of efforts against diversity, equity and inclusion, any number of book and curriculum bans, and the latest development, a fiendish opposition to even social-emotional education, even the rabid racist response to Chris Stewart’s latest piece highlighting the experiences of Black children in schools. No child should have to go to school behind enemy lines, but that’s the increasing reality for many Black and Brown children in our suburban and rural schools. 

Culturally affirming schools, on the other hand, are nurturing and supportive places that empower children as they equip them with the academic and social skills that they need to thrive. They are staffed and led by educators with high levels of cultural competence, many of them Black and Brown.  The evidence of their success includes higher student achievement and graduation rates, greater student agency, and better community engagement.  They do this despite massive resource inequities compared to majority white schools. At the same time, many majority Black and Brown schools support students with complex academic and social-emotional needs that frequently attend to their higher levels of poverty. 

And so that’s the “Sophie’s Choice” for Black and Brown public school families: either suffer the enduring indignity of suppressing one’s identity at a majority white school with resources or have the potential to be educated by people who understand and support your whole person, with fewer resources in more challenged environs.  It’s as impossible of a choice as it is a daily reality for millions of Black and Brown students.  

What do you think?

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