Education experts discuss issues around desegregating schools after Baltimore Sun series

A group of educators and education experts discussed the challenges in closing racial achievement gaps and desegregating schools in a Baltimore Sun forum on Wednesday night following the Sun's "Bridging the Divide" series.

In a four-part series published this month, The Baltimore Sun detailed the difficulties leaders face in integrating schools by race and class whether through a redistricting in southwest Baltimore County or in classrooms in Howard County.

Some of the panelists said race had previously been a conversation few in Baltimore would touch. Some were optimistic about local school systems' ability to overcome segregation.

"Being the second African American superintendent for Baltimore County public schools, I recognize we have come a long way but we have a long way left to go," said S. Dallas Dance, one of five panelists. But, "95 percent of what we're dealing with, we can fix it."

Yet Camika Royal, an assistant professor of teacher education and co-director for the Center for Innovation in Urban Education at Loyola University Maryland, said black students can bear the brunt of having to teach their white classmates about who they are in integrated schools.

"I reject the premise that all students learn better in an integrated setting," Royal said. "It concerns me when we make that claim. Do I think there are benefits? Sure, but a lot of times black children are sacrificed."

The Baltimore Sun, Loyola University Maryland and the Maryland Humanities Council sponsored the forum on Wednesday night as a community conversation on the path forward for integration in Maryland's schools. Hundreds attended.

The Education Writers Association supported the project with a fellowship and underwrote the cost of the forum. The Sun also commissioned an analysis from the Maryland Equity Project at the University of Maryland to create a database that breaks down every public school's racial and socioeconomic makeup.

The series also looked at Hartford, Conn. where the state built 42 new magnet schools, attracting suburban and city students to cross district lines to attend integrated schools.

By 2014, even as Maryland's population grew more diverse, its schools were becoming more segregated, with poor and minority students concentrated in schools with few white, affluent students.

Marcy Leonard, principal of Hammond High in Howard County, where white and black students spoke in the series about their different experiences in being pushed into or discouraged from taking higher level classes, said diversity has improved her school. "Over the years we've gotten blacker, browner, poorer and better," she said Wednesday night.

But as a "well meaning white woman," Leonard said people like her need to do more listening to the people affected by education policies.

Royal called segregation a "white people problem" that they created and needed to figure out how to solve. Meanwhile, she said, majority black schools need the same resources as majority-white schools.

Karl Alexander, director of The Thurgood Marshall Alliance, spoke of a school in Baltimore near Penn Station that had achieved a degree of integration.

"This issue has been off the radar in Baltimore city for too many years," he said. "You're going to win this battle one school at a time."

More than one-quarter of the state's public schools are considered highly segregated, a designation that means 90 percent or more of their students were minority, according to the Maryland Equity Project at the University of Maryland.

Maryland was the third-most-segregated state in the nation for black students in 2014, the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles reported last year.

In those segregated schools, researchers say, students will often find themselves with less-experienced teachers in less-rigorous classes — and more likely to lag behind their peers.

Since the 1980s when the nation's schools were at their most desegregated, the courts have backed away from mandatory efforts to diversify schools. Gradually, schools have resegregated, and progress in closing the achievement gap has mostly stalled. None of the efforts to shrink that gap — by setting higher standards, imposing more testing, holding teachers more accountable — have worked.

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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