Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology has some explaining to do.
That’s because the high-performing public school has only three black
students in its 2012 graduating class. That’s three, not 3 percent, out of 476 students. So let’s do the math.
In a community where black and Latino students comprise about 10 percent and 22 percent, respectively, of the Fairfax County Public School district, they make up 1.5 percent and 2.7 percent of the top school in the district, according to a federal complaint recently filed by the Fairfax County NAACP and a group called the Coalition of The Silence. With black and Latino students making up 32 percent of Fairfax County’s student population, not even the rules of probability would allow such a startling statistic.
This disturbing news is not puzzling for those familiar with racial segregation before the 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. Brown rendered segregation harmful and unconstitutional. A Virginia school blatantly defied that court order and closed its doors for 10 years, just to avoid integrating its schools. And with the 1955 Brown v. Board of Education II decision, rarely articulated in public discourse, segregationists set out to impede integration efforts.
Tracking was one such impediment — as seen in Virginia. Since the early 1980s, the nation saw the resegregation of public schools. Today, 90 percent of the country’s black and Latino students are in predominantly segregated schools. Administrators, counselors and teachers act as gatekeepers and use tracking in elementary and middle schools to segregate blacks and Latinos (both gifted and struggling ones) into the separate academic tracks.
Indeed, research has long found that Latino and African American students are misplaced in courses below their abilities in ninth grade; the research also has found that the number of high-ability African American and Latino students not taking college prep courses in math and science is more than twice that of white and Asian American students of the same ability level.
Meanwhile, as gatekeepers, teachers direct most whites and Asians into college prep, honors and advanced placement courses. In a landmark 2008 study, for instance, Mary Hatwood Futrell and Joel Gomez found that “tracking often puts low-income and minority students at a disadvantage because they are disproportionately placed in lower-level tracks.”
Their future already predetermined, black and Latino students get stuck with a curriculum that lacks rigor. They get bored. So they drop out or disengage with the system. As a result of this internal segregation in districts nationwide, we see top-performing schools like Thomas Jefferson telling us that only three black students could meet its rigorous standards in math and science.
No one should accept this nonsense.
But sadly, many people do. They theorize that the paucity of black students at top high schools is because of black pathology. This kind of myopic thinking is evidenced by a recent commentary in The RootDC that eschews the historical context of structural inequality: social, political and economic barriers erected by laws and customs in the past. The misguided heap most of the blame on black parents, not systemic oppression.
This racially tinged debate about parental involvement distracts us from a crucial problem: the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that occurs in the nation’s schools. In classrooms, these micro aggressions, where little movements of the eye, lips and body send signals to black and brown students that they belong on basketball courts or factories and not in advanced placement classes, should be exposed.
Sure, opportunities abound in America. But so, too, do gatekeepers who determine which child is likable or “a good fit” for their environment. We are duty-bound to find out if these kinds of micro-aggressions are at play in the FCPS district. At this time, a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education may salve the injury to thousands of children already victimized by such an insidious scheme.
When we as a nation can make the claim that schools give all students high-quality academic preparation to ensure their success as useful citizens, then, and only then, we can indict black parents. This is not to say black parents’ responsibility is contingent on what teachers do. It is only to point out that we should focus on creating a learning environment in which teachers prepare all students to compete in this global society.
In the meantime, black people must continue their quest for full citizenship, including its essential component: a quality education. And if that struggle entails marching, protesting and filing lawsuits, then so be it. But they should put a new twist on this “tired and old” fight for civil rights. They should fully engage 21st-century technology such as Twitter and Facebook to demand an explanation — and accountability — for the sake of their precious children.
Ann-Marie Adams is a race and education contributor to The RootDC. She is the founder of a hyper-local news site The Hartford Guardian, which bridges academia with urban communities.
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