In D.C., separate and better than equal.
Sunday, May 16, 2004; Page B08
I was 2 when the Supreme Court handed down its Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. It was a ruling that was to shape my time in D.C. Public Schools. In contrast with the experiences of most students today, I was to receive an excellent education, but what I didn't realize at the time was that my education also was to be an anomaly.
I owe my top-notch education to a tracking system put in place by the D.C. Board of Education a year after the desegregation of the city's schools. The system was a response to reports about systemwide academic deficits among 10th-graders in the District, although the board approved the system for use in all grades.
I was in the first experimental class for gifted students. We were pulled from neighborhood schools and put into a special program. I was with the same teacher and the same students, all black -- thanks to white flight -- from fourth through sixth grade.
In junior high, I traveled an hour to attend a school with a majority-black student body that was tracked so tightly that students were shifted between Honors 1 and Honors 2 based on midyear test scores.
I learned Latin, took advanced physics, did literary analyses and composed symphonies. I had a schedule that allowed me to have a two-hour lab or participate in a 30-minute discussion group. I had teachers who practiced what they taught -- artists, playwrights, activists. I had classmates who lived in the projects and classmates whose parents were senators and bankers. My four best friends were black, white, Chinese and Indian. My family had no money, but I never felt poor. My schooldays frequently went from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
My public school education prepared me well. My SAT scores stunned a recruiter who was in town to help black students get college scholarships. I went on to Oberlin College in Ohio.
Little did I know then that not all Washington students shared my experience. In 1966, at the beginning of my freshman year in high school, the D.C. Board of Education contracted with Columbia University Teachers College to undertake a 15-month assessment of programs and practices and to make recommendations to improve the tracking system. Instead the study became the basis for a 1967 court suit, Hobson v. Hansen, in which U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Skelly Wright held that "ability grouping as presently practiced in the District of Columbia school system is a denial of equal opportunity to the poor and a majority of the Negroes attending school in the nation's capital, a denial that contravenes not only guarantees of the Fifth Amendment, but also the fundamental premise of the track system itself." Future classes, therefore, would not be included in such a tracking system.
It was sobering to learn that the system that served me so well was denied to others. But it was equally unnerving to think that, as a teenager, my social justice antennae were so out of whack. I found my yearbook recently and read every entry. Almost every one of my fellow students had been a member of a club or team. Almost every picture was integrated. The number of blacks in the Honor Society had been proportional to our representation in the school.
In 1999 my son was a freshman at Montgomery Blair High School in Montgomery County. The composition of the student body was strikingly similar to that of Washington schools 30 years earlier, but the academic and social segregation was far more extreme.
My son was one of only four students of color -- two African Americans and two Hispanics -- in the 400-student math-science magnet, the latest version of tracking. Even his extracurricular activities were heavily segregated.
Yet the Montgomery County Public Schools stand out in national comparisons as a system that is successfully tackling the racial and ethnic achievement gap. According to data released by the Manhattan Institute, it has one of the highest overall graduation rates (85 percent) and the smallest achievement gaps (15 percentage points between whites and Latinos, 13 points between whites and African Americans) of all county school districts.
The D.C. schools paint a contrasting picture. Fifty years after Brown, not enough white students are enrolled in the District's public schools to even calculate a reliable graduation rate for them. Graduation rates for African Americans and Latinos in city schools are below 60 percent.
Urban school districts are struggling to find ways to offer an "equal" education to student bodies that are predominantly poor and minority. And suburban and mid-size districts are trying to find ways to educate student bodies that are increasingly diverse racially and socioeconomically, and that may be more socially segregated than ever.
I left high school academically, emotionally and socially prepared for life in a multicultural society. I can't believe that that preparation -- both academic and social -- is any less important or less possible now than it was 35 years ago.
-- Karen Pittman
is the executive director of the nonprofit Forum for Youth Investment in Washington.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company