in defense of south bend schools & their decision to focus on african-american student success.

South Bend Community School Corporation made some national news this week that caused a minor controversy.

From the Yay-hoo story:

An Indiana school is giving third graders an inspiring early look at higher education with a series of field trips to local colleges — but the excursions are for black students only, which has angered some district parents.

“I just think it breeds intolerance and creates misunderstandings,” said parent Kelley Garing, speaking to KTRK regarding the field trips at the South Bend Community School Corporation. “It creates a divide.”

The series of trips — for black third graders in seven district primary schools — began Thursday with a visit to Ivy Tech, a community college. They’re the brainchild of David Moss, director for African-American student-parent services with the district, who tells KTRK that the trips aim to set a much-needed good example for the students. Read more

I admit my initial reaction to this story was raised eyebrows and general disappointment with South Bend Community School Corporation leadership for allowing a field trip for one group of kids while leaving the others behind. But then I listened to what SBCSC’s David Moss had to say in defense of this program. It doesn’t take long to see this initiative wasn’t just pulled out of a hat. The school corporation didn’t make this decision hastily. I’ll admit it may have been poorly executed, but the motivation for focusing on their African-American students comes down to a data-based decision.

Why would school administrators develop a program giving African-American kids additional consideration? It requires a careful examination of the student population, broken down across ethnic lines. I understand this is a sensitive issue for many, but I assure you it’s important to this story. For example, nearly 20,000 kids were enrolled in SBCSC schools in 2011. Caucasian students represented the largest segment of students at 38 percent. African-Americans were the second largest, at 34 percent. While those two groups are close to even in terms of size, their outcomes are uneven.

While 16.5 percent of white students in the school system took the AP exam in 2011—a test to potentially earn college course credit—less than 5 percent of African-American kids attempted it.

College enrollment numbers are even more stark. Last year, Indiana University’s freshman enrollment was only 7.2 percent African-American, significantly lower than the state’s 13 percent African-American population. By comparison, that state’s population is about 77 percent white. How many white kids enrolled at IU last year? 74.9 percent.

Sure, on the surface, this story looks shocking to some. It’s created some emotional responses. That’s understandable, because third graders don’t understand any of this. They just want to go on field trips. But SBCSC officials addressed a very serious problem in their schools because the data simply demands the attention. It’s no different than how business owners make decisions. Of course, if only it were that simple, but it’s not.

I can’t necessarily defend the program, because it does separate third graders and, in their minds, it may seem like the white kids are being ignored. But it’s important to realize Moss and SBCSC were looking at a serious lack of achievement among a large population within their schools and developed measures to tackle it. Sure, the execution could’ve been better, but let’s not call it “discrimination.” Let’s not retire to our tired, exhausting ‘us vs. them’ polarities that will ultimately lead to nowhere.

Should the school corporation modify this program to be more inclusive? That would be prudent, but it must not be ignored that their African-American student population is far behind in terms of achievement. Continuing to develop programs and measures to instill a sense of urgency and value in academic success is critical. Education is and always will be a primary key to success.

It’s both commendable and smart that South Bend school administrators are choosing to tackle this problem with students at a very young age. That being said, I also understand the complexities and socioeconomic differences with regard to race and culture. I am sensitive to the racial component here—sensitive to both sides of it—and I do believe a policy of wider inclusion for children is critical. Even though the children’s best interest is at the heart of these decisions, the road to hell is often paved with good intentions.

But that doesn’t mean developing specific academic plans and programs based upon data is a bad thing. In fact, it’s a slightly revolutionary idea for public schools. As much as we want to believe one size fits all, the statistics tell a story that shows children in the black community do not advance onto college as often as white children.

Certainly, you and I may object to third graders being divided along racial lines. But let’s at least acknowledge South Bend schools administrators were not being arbitrary here. This was not a knee-jerk response from Moss and others. The data shows a clear need in this segment of the population. Addressing this need also impacts the entire community. The more educated a community’s population, the crime rate lowers, the employee market is more robust and more money flows into the local economy. The tax base also grows, allowing local governments greater opportunity to improve the community. Education is the rising tide that lifts all boats, even if you don’t realize it.

Give credit where credit is due: David Moss is addressing a very serious, almost crisis-like situation in South Bend schools. He and others in that community are trying to shift the paradigm to make kids from underprivileged communities realize their full potential through education. Sure, this program for third graders needs a tweak or two, but let’s not reflexively curse the efforts out of hand.

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Filed under analysis, college, education, Indiana, opinion, south bend

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