Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The 4 R's: Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmetic, and Race?

For most of us, Governor Wallace's infamous stand in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama was just a piece of history that we learned about in social studies class--a reminder of our tortured past as Alabamians, and our tenuous relationship with race. Today in 2007, forty four years later, the ugly "R" word again rears its head in Tuscaloosa, as new school district rezoning has many community citizens outraged at what looks an awful lot like "resegregation". In an effort to assuage the overcrowding that has plagued Tuscaloosa City Schools, the powers-that-be have drawn up a suspiciously unequal rezoning plan, which is forcing mainly black students to relocate to low-performing schools. Naturally black parents are furious, and are turning to the Bush Administration's controversial 'No Child Left Behind Act' for legal recourse. The law itself gives parents the option of moving their child from a failing school to a better one, and as such renders the school board's relocation plan as somewhat illegal. Unfortunately, having not previously followed the local news coverage, I first read of the story when it was picked up yesterday in the New York Times (read it here). The school that was pictured in the article, University Place School, is actually just down the street from our house.

The majority of the low-performing schools in Tuscaloosa are found in an almost exclusively black part of town, called the "West End"--an economically struggling area that has only one grocery store and no bank, but is instead populated by numerous predatory lending businesses, and whose denizens fall mainly into the low-income bracket. Virtually all of these schools did not make what is called "Adequate Yearly Progress", or AYP, the Department of Education's standard for holding school's accountable, and had failing scores in reading and math testing. Today, as part of my second volunteer job at the Center for Community-Based Partnerships at UA, I visited one of these sub-standard schools in the West End, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School, where we are implementing a reading initiative. Because MLK is a struggling school, it qualifies to receive "Supplemental Educational Services" under No Child Left Behind. Though today's trip was mainly reconaissance, the program will begin in full swing next month. I don't know yet if I'll be on the ground, working hands-on with the kids, but even if I'm not, my involvement with this type of educational outreach is really teaching me a lot.

Although there doesn't seem to be one good answer to fixing the race gap in education, the recent re-zoning legislation definitely seems like a step in the wrong direction. But to look on the flip side, the work being done by the Center and also organizations like the United Way, are real positives for Tuscaloosa schools. And at least somebody is making strides towards educational renewal, even if they are just baby steps.

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