Separate and unequal

Are Sac City schools part of an educational apartheid?

Illustration By Sandra Hoover

For a good port in the unabating storm of Sacramento’s self-esteem issues, there’s always the city’s vigorous racial diversity. That is, at least, until next Thursday, when Jonathan Kozol arrives to inform us that it’s 2006 and our schools are still segregated.

Kozol, the Harvard- and Oxford-pedigreed progressive ed-school darling, long a concerned chronicler of urban scholastic plight, will acquaint the Mondavi Center crowd with his most recent book. It’s called The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, and as you can guess, it doesn’t mince words.

Kozol labels Brown v. Board of Education’s legal mandate for school integration a failure, its moral mandate an imperative. He writes wrenching personal stories about the persistently monochromatic complexion of American inner-city student populations and their widening color-coded achievement gap. His accounts of over-regulated, standards-obsessed classrooms, with their distracting and deadening rituals of accountability, read like wry satires of doomed Eastern Bloc governments from decades past. To President Bush’s famous charge against “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” he responds with the counter-charge of “a devious appeasement of the heartache of the parents of the black and brown and poor.”

And he calls for a forceful resistance. “Over the past five years, I’ve visited more than 60 schools in 11 states,” Kozol told SN&R recently, during a call from his Boston home. “Virtually everywhere I go, if you took a photograph, that photo would look identical to the faded photos that we see in textbooks about schools in Mississippi 50 years ago. And virtually all these schools are not only segregated, but they’re savagely unequal in resources to the schools of the middle class.”

It’s easy to label these assessments self-evident. Less so to venture a proper accounting for them, let alone a solution. Suffice to say Kozol’s visit here is highly anticipated.

“Do we ever really know the truth about this kind of stuff?” said Toni Newman, a parent of two Sacramento City Unified School District students and former McClatchy High teacher now pursuing a master’s degree in education. “It’s really difficult. I have Kozol’s books; I’ve heard him speak. My take is this: We live in a color-caste society. Race is a biological myth, but it’s a social and economic reality. In the American mind, when we think of a poor person, we think of a black person. And teachers’ low expectations for students become self-fulfilling prophecies.”

At CSUS’s 18th annual Envisioning California education conference two weeks ago, one panel discussion was convened expressly to confront these very ideas.

“How can historically marginalized groups transcend ‘underachievement’ in schools not designed for them or by them?” said panelist Lisa William-White, an assistant professor in CSUS’s Department of Bilingual and Multicultural Education. “Most of our educational institutions value whiteness.

“Don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say here,” William-White continued. “But one of the benefits of a segregated society is that children were buffered. Community leaders were invested in the lives of these people. They had an opportunity to believe that they could be successful.”

Jonathan Kozol on our education system: “At the very best, what you have now is a <span style="font-style:normal">hereditary</span> meritocracy.”

“This is hogwash, this nostalgia for the good old days of segregation,” Kozol later commented. “Yes, some of those schools had a protective quality about them that was socially comforting to black folks in the midst of hostile white communities in those days. But comfort level is one thing; competitive success is something entirely different. Very few of those children ever went on to college. But in almost every instance of inter-district integration, the high-school completion rate of black students tends to be 90 percent or higher.”

Of course, the incidence of inter-district integration being what it is, Kozol keeps the books and lectures coming.

“I think we’re only just beginning to look at this whole issue,” said Sacramento City Board of Education President Roy Grimes. “Schools are being resegregated basically because of the housing patterns. A lot of it is tied to who can afford to be where. Sac City has this concept of small high schools, 500 or less. But how do we ensure that students who attend the schools are from across the district and across the population? People think a small high school in their community is theirs, but it belongs to the district.”

Kozol had a firm response for this point, too. “So long as residential segregation exists, there’s no way to break the back of educational apartheid, except by ambitious transportation programs,” he said. “And there are, by the way, plenty of successful ones. At the same time that we battle to integrate public schools across district lines, we also have to launch a relentless attack upon residential segregation—of which the real-estate industry is the architect. It’s time to enforce housing laws vigorously, to stop the notorious racial steering that goes on. Give a heavy tax advantage—a major deduction on mortgage interest, for example—to families that purchase homes in racially mixed communities or to families that don’t flee from newly mixed communities.”

In the meantime, some Sacramentans have taken an entrepreneurial initiative to turn their suffering inner-city schools around. To wit: the tellingly named St. Hope Public Schools.

“I have some of my friends saying, ‘Why would you go to Oak Park?’” said Lisa Serna-Mayorga, whose son is a second-grader there, at St. Hope’s PS7. “We drive from Natomas Park, 17 miles away.” Serna-Mayorga is also the daughter of late Sacramento mayor Joe Serna—and, admittedly on account of her father’s legacy as an overhauler of Sacramento’s failing schools, St. Hope’s PR person.

As she puts it, this academics-intensive charter-school system, founded in 2003 by former Oak Park resident and NBA all-star Kevin Johnson, has high expectations, across the board. Accordingly, its students have performed well.

The system isn’t without its critics. “The takeover by St. Hope Corp. was done with very little concern for the students there,” said Ahjamu Umi, a local activist whose daughter graduated from St. Hope’s Sac High last year. “Frankly,” Umi added, “I don’t think there is a solution in this system, where money’s more important than people—where the children are just going through the institution to get a receipt.”

There is also the matter of PS7’s conspicuous demographic complexion—264 black students out of 287 total. “We’re getting there, but we had to go find our students,” Serna-Mayorga said. “Literally, the recruitment was word of mouth—folks from St. Hope going out to the community. They went to churches in the community, which are predominately African-American. Sac City schools don’t really allow us to recruit on their campuses. So, whoever shows up on the first day of school is whoever shows up. It’s constantly on our mind that the diversity needs to be there.”

But St. Hope’s real promise is in not needing any trickle-down from the white and wealthy ’burbs. It’s a proving ground, where, for now, students might be predominantly poor and predominantly black, but at least their teachers’ high expectations can become self-fulfilling prophecies.

“For us,” Serna-Mayorga said, “it’s almost like Kozol’s argument doesn’t apply.”