In a big high school (so big there are two large buildings located across campus from one another) in a not-very-big city that happens to be my hometown, something is happening that caught the attention of CNN … and then, of course, a host of on-air commentators and bloggers. As one headline put it, “Pennsylvania high school mentoring program resorts to segregation.” LancasterOnline says that Fox News’ Sean Hannity called the program “antiquated, offensive and completely irrational.” Darn, I missed it …
At McCaskey East High School (the newer of the two buildings I mentioned above), faculty and administration made a decision to implement a mentoring program for students of color in the face of a clear and continuing achievement gap between black and white students. After intensive instructional efforts and more than a decade of educational experiments failed to shrink the gap, these educators turned to affiliation and relationship as possible pathways to higher achievement.
The “segregation” is limited to junior class homerooms. For six minutes a day and twenty additional minutes every other week, African American teachers and students gather for a moment of . . . . Well, more on that in a minute.
Buried in the headlines is the fact that this experiment involves homerooms voluntarily divided by race, gender and linguistic diversity, with a homeroom teacher/mentor who is one of them. This is not an unusual experience for white students in most schools around the country, but it is often an unusual experience for students of color and language minorities in a country where the vast majority of teachers -- even in urban areas -- are white and do not speak a second language.
A couple things strike me immediately: first, this is an effort to make homeroom actually about mentoring and not just a place to stand for the pledge of allegiance or a place to sit for morning announcements. Debbie Meier and Central Park East High School (and lots of lesser known efforts around the country) taught us twenty years ago the power of an academic advisor who actually advises, who comes to know students as persons with aspirations too often hidden.
Second, this move comes after significant attention over time to the achievement gap that goes back to the days of Superintendent Vicki Phillips (now the Education Officer with the Gates Foundation) and has continued non-stop since then. A wide variety (maybe too wide, but that’s another post) of well-thought out instructional, curricular and structural efforts (including for example the creation of small learning communities around which the McCaskey East building was constructed) has not made a dent in the test score differences. Perhaps the problem is not only about heads but also about hearts, and about what we do and don’t do when are heads and hearts are not beating together. (None of this is in the news reports of course. I know this because, until this year, I was a resident of Lancaster, PA and a teacher educator who worked with School District of Lancaster staff.)
Third, this program is voluntary. Young men and women who identify as black can choose to be assigned to these homerooms. (It is not clear whether the ELL students are exercising a similar choice). Thus, the school is at least partly bypassing questions around race as a fluid category. In fact, my criticism might be that this option is not available for students who identify as brown or yellow or red – or gay. (Look at the next point to see why this might matter.)
Fourth, adolescents have affiliation needs. Duh! African American developmental psychologist Beverly Tatum, in an engaging book aptly titled, explains Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (Of course, the white kids are all sitting together too, but nobody writes a book about that.) With respect to gender, feminist social scientists have made a strong case for the power of all-female environments in developing leadership and efficacy in young women and I don’t know a single guy who went to an all-male school who doesn’t think it was good for him academically. And Lyn Okagaki, Commissioner of Education Research at IES, has found that students’ ethnic identity is positively correlated with school achievement.
My guess is that the folks at McCaskey East wisely figured out that if these homogeneous groups had power for shaping kids’ self-understanding and identity, putting a similarly-identified adult into that group might create a pathway or pipeline for messages that cast academic achievement in a positive light. And remember, this is for homeroom. It is not about segregating kids for instructional purposes.
Now, I am not suggesting this isn’t dangerous. CNN trotted out NYU’s Pedro Noguera who acknowledged that these educators were “well-intentioned” but fretted that they might be inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes by providing students with “support” in race-based groups (no mention of the gender factor or the idea that this homeroom plan applied to everyone). And frankly, the longer Pedro spoke, the more I realized he didn’t know the specifics of this case; he clearly thought that the purpose of this “segregation” was instructional support. But it’s not. It’s about growing into an identity of oneself as a thinker, as a learner, as an academic achiever. Now that can’t be done wholly outside of the process of instruction; initial success is the key to the grounded self-confidence that feeds more risk-taking and more growth and achievement. But there is good reason to think that this kind of relational intervention can help kids of color (as well as young men and young women) frame a place to stand as a person with a mind and a heart and a future.
Of course this is dangerous. Everything is. Education is tricky business with attendant risks at every turn. But as my basketball commentator sister, Mimi Griffin, is fond of saying, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. (She stole that from either Wayne Gretsky or Michael Jordan, depending on whom you believe.)
The folks at McCaskey East are taking a shot. If their shot goes astray, I trust them to figure that out and adjust the next shot. You should too.