In a society threaded through with racism, creating racially integrated public schools that serve all the children is a job that must be actively undertaken all day every day. The effort must be intentional and constant, because unless there is an intervention, primary social institutions like schools will reproduce the society in which they are set. Confronting institutional racism is a huge challenge.
Once Racially Troubled, a District Shrinks the Achievement Gap is the story of one school district, in Ossining, New York, where staff have thoughtfully and persistently examined challenges for black and Hispanic students and worked together to help children from all racial and ethnic groups cross racial boundaries.
This is at the same time an inspiring and very mundane story. How to build enrollment of black and brown students in Advanced Placement classes? How to help students arriving at the high school as new immigrants with few English skills learn chemistry and advanced math? How to close a sad and frightening racial-ethnic gap in high school graduation?
The efforts that have paid off in Ossining did not feature expensive consultants, on-line curriculum, or the distribution of electronic tablets to every child. Instead Ossining instituted a district-wide elementary school integration plan at a time when the federal government had eliminated grants to support such efforts. It experimented with a bilingual program at the high school particularly in science and math classes. It launched Project Earthquake, an intensive program to encourage black male adolescents to engage in school. It developed an award-winning advanced science research program. The staff in Ossining continue assess how things are going and they respond to the needs they identify.
Ossining High school has also begun a partnership with the State University of New York in Albany to offer college level courses open to all students in subjects like “Racism, Classism, and Sexism,” “The Black Experience,” and “Crossing Borders”—courses that have drawn students from all races and cultures and encouraged students to “see their lives mirrored in the curriculum.” “’Some of the material that we use is challenging, it’s controversial,’ said Jillian McRae, an English teacher at Ossining who co-teaches several electives. ‘We’ve had students who have been angry. They’ve broken down,’ she said. ‘They see inequities in systems, they see inequities in terms of what they’ve had access to, what their parents have access to, what their grandparents did or did not have access to.'”
School reform in Ossining has nothing to do with punishing teachers or closing schools. It has emerged locally as the staff and the community have actively and intentionally grappled with what Ossining must expect of itself if it is to support all of its children in a diverse community set in a nation that persists in being separate and segregated. The high school graduation rates and college matriculation rates for all groups of students continue to rise.