Responsibility and a Dream
The beginning of the year holds many reminders to stop and think about Dr. King’s dream. His was an idea of equality and rejoicing in difference throughout all facets of society. In education, The Brown v. Board of Education decision, making segregation in schools illegal, was a first step.
In the education arena today, there is a focus on accountability and testing as a way to raise the levels of students. Those in the “front lines” — the teachers — are often presented as those standing in the way of academic successes that were planned by those in boardrooms and offices. Teachers do carry a deep responsibility to their students, a fact that few if any would dispute. After all, how many careers referred to as the “front lines” don’t carry amazing responsibility? Still, accountability to the ideas of Dr. King go far deeper than the performance of an individual teacher in his or her classroom.
In Brooklyn today, and similarly in many other parts of America, two schools are separated by a city block in distance, but the differences run deeper than that. The first school contains the population of its upper-middle-class neighbors. It is a school that is sought after and without room for new students. Only 13.2 percent of the students receive free lunch. About 68 percent of its classrooms are populated with white children.
The second school is also a great school. It is zoned for the housing projects that often inhabit the same space as the upper-middle-class neighborhoods that have grown up around them. Those who live in beautiful apartment buildings next door to its classrooms have children who are not attendees. They go instead to the first school. New modern construction within this school’s zone is reassigned to the school one block away. The PTA does its best to raise funds in a school that provides 70 percent of its students free lunch. Unlike its neighbor, the second school’s makeup is 24 percent white children attending class with about 76 percent black and Hispanic children.
When one city block is all it takes to flip school population statistics, how far have we come? One block in an era in which racial equality rarely graces public discussions of education or is touted as a major problem.
The second school receives Title I funding meant to equalize opportunities that the school down the block does not worry about. But can funding satisfy the spirit of integration or soothe the conscience of a community? This teacher wonders about the inequality that Dr. King urged us away from, and the greater systems that keep them intact.
Who will accept responsibility for that?
Christina Steel has worked as the Special Educator half of a teaching team in P.S. 32, Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, for five years.