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"Is Racial Integration Essential to Achieving Quality Education for Low-Income Minority Students, In The Short Term? In the Long Term?,"

by Kati Haycock July/August 1996 issue of Poverty & Race

Fifteen years ago, I was dead certain that the answer to this question was a resounding "No"! Black kids and brown kids absolutely did not need white kids sitting next to them in order to achieve at high levels. Rather than obsessing about who was sitting next to whom—an increasingly useless preoccupation given the pitifully small numbers of whites left in urban school districts like Oakland, where I lived—it seemed to me that we ought to be concentrating on ensuring that students in predominantly minority schools were educated at the highest levels.

That, in fact, is what I've spent most of the last fifteen years doing: working to upgrade the education provided by schools serving poor and minority children, first in California and then in urban centers across the country. I figured that while Gary Orfield and others like him were worrying about how to get a bitter mix of students, people like me could work on improving schools no matter who they served.

I still believe today what I believed back then: students with lots of pigment do not need students with less pigment in order to achieve at the highest levels. I believe it because I have seen it over and over again. When students are taught to high levels, when they are challenged to use their minds, they absolutely will achieve.

But I am haunted by three as yet unanswered questions:

  • Will the American people ever care enough about schools filled with poor black and brown children to invest in them the resources necessary to get these young people to high levels of achievement.., or must such schools also contain more affluent white children?

  • Will rank-and-file teachers—minority and white—ever abandon their low expectations and watered-down curriculum for poor minority children.., or must teaching be forced upward by the
    presence of more affluent white children?

  • Will graduates of racially isolated schools—no matter how well educated—ever be able to come together across racial lines to create a culture where race is no longer a hindrance... or must such a society be seeded in our classrooms?

In my bleaker moments—when I despair in the dark of night about the pace of change or about how difficult it is to secure change not just in a few schools but in a whole system—these doubts crowd their way in and demand equal time. At those moments, I wonder whether Gary hasn't been right all along.

But then there are the good days— the days when our work is going very well; when more poor and minority students in our cities are writing at high levels, passing courses like Algebra and Geometry, and moving on into college; and when we feel like nothing can stop us. On those days—which, fortunately, are in the majority—I don't spend a lot of time agonizing about these questions. I figure Gary can do that.

Kati Haycock Kati Haycock is Director of The Education Trust (1725 K St. NW, #200, Wash., DC 20006, 202/293-1217, E-mail: Vice Chair of PRRAC’s Board of Directors.

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