“But he is black”

I was observing in a first grade classroom several years ago. It was late-January and the class had a new student that joined the class after winter break. I loved watching this little guy. To me, it was obvious he was bright and very likely gifted.

Each day, when reading groups were called during “circles time,” the students would all rotate to different activities with their reading group. One of the “circles” was going to the teacher table and reading with the teacher.

I watched as this student read flawlessly. He was in the lowest reading group. I was impressed, but the teacher offered no praise or recognition of his efforts.

I was packing up for the day after observing during “circles time” and witnessed the start of writing. The first graders had handmade dictionaries they could write words in for reference. When someone could not find ‘friendship’ in their dictionary, they asked if anyone could spell ‘friendship’ for them. Without missing a beat, this student spelled friendship for the fellow student, while writing his assignment at the same time. I was floored. “What a smart little kiddo!,” I thought.

I approached the teacher about it the next day. I asked why she placed him in the lowest reading group. She replied, “Well, it’s obvious.” I asked what was obvious. She said, “He’s not from around here.” I told her I thought he looked to be adjusting to the curriculum very well and could probably be in the highest reading group and should receive higher level books at the school library to keep his interest. “But he’s black.” I am pretty sure I made one of those horrified faces.

There it was: her racism. After a short pause where the teacher was clearly trying to make some connections, she said, “But he’s black.” I launched into my arsenal of questions about assessments she had done, or information from his prior school. No assessments were done. No prior grades or prior curriculum reviewed. She guessed she did make an assumption and would look at his placement next quarter.

I left that day in utter shock and confusion. Of course, I went to the principal and the following week when I came into the classroom he was in the highest reading group. With light humor in her voice, the teacher said, “I guess I did make some assumptions about him,” and never said anymore about it.

As a qualitative researcher, it is my job to tell stories. I tell the stories of those around me. I still am learning to not intervene when I see something like this. It’s so hard when you see the world playing out in front of you in such a biased way, a way that greatly affects the future.

Education is not broken. It works and does a great job of educating many students each year. But there is a gap. A lot of gaps actually. There is the gap between access to quality, affordable education and the achievement gap, that affects the first gap, which affects the second gap, and, well, you can see it’s a cyclical problem. Most social problems are.

Let me explain:

You’re born into a white family. You have privilege you won’t understand for years to come, if you ever do grow to understand it. You may live in a neighborhood with access to AAA schools, which get the tax funding, which can hire and retain teachers better, which can offer more diverse course offerings and services.

The school you attend is only a 10-minute-or-less bus ride from your house. You might even have a stay-at-home parent to get you on and off the bus. After you get home, it’s time for a snack and homework.

This continues until high school where you are involved in activities and decide to get a part-time job for spending money and a car.

College is in the near future, so you make some visits to college campuses with your family. You apply to multiple colleges. Your GPA and your ACT scores are pretty good. Those prep classes really paid off. You get a scholarship to Private U. Your good grades and degree from Private U line you up for internships which position you just right for a cushy first job.

Now the other side of this:

You’re born into a non-white family (education inequality is not just affecting people who are black) in a neighborhood with a low socio-economic status. You might not have three meals a day, unless you go to school, where you get free lunch through the free-and-reduced school lunch program. But maybe you’re hungry because someone had to work the night before and you were home alone and forgot to make yourself dinner. Or maybe there just wasn’t dinner. Now you have to learn on an empty stomach until lunch.

Your school could be the neighborhood school or maybe your parents applied for a slot for you at neighboring schools with better resources. Your short walk or bus ride to school now starts in a cab at 5:30 am. Regardless, when you get home, you’re hungry, tired, and sometimes nobody is home to help you with your homework.

This continues until high school where you have to get a job to help support the household. You still have to do homework, which means you get less sleep. Now you’re trying to learn while hungry, or tired, or both.

You take the ACTs because it’s what your high school counselor said to do. Your scores are ok, you think. Some of your friends did better, but some did worse. You have to help support your family, so maybe you’ll pick up some classes at the local community college while you work full time.

You do the best you can in your classes while working, and get close to getting your associate’s degree. Your counselor suggests transferring to the four-year college just a 30-minute drive from the city. You don’t have a car, and public transit to the college can take over an hour. Finally she tells you that you just need an internship to complete the program. You can’t quit your full-time job to take an unpaid internship for a semester. Your family is relying on you. What are you to do?

These situations are scenarios I made up. They are not what every student who is white or every student who is another race or ethnicity face, but they do capture the essence of lived experiences actual students live through each day.

Last night I attended a session about Closing the Gap here in St. Louis. The room was filled will brilliant and passionate people. The panelists are all doing great things and we should learn much from them.

Some people in the room felt strongly about ‘grit’ and it’s impact on education. ‘Grit’ does impact a child’s education, but at what point do we depend too much on the ‘grit’ or determination of a child?

The answer is complicated, but the route there is simple: it take a village. The only way we can fix this is together. We need to have more conversations like Closing the Gap.

So what can you do? Encourage people in your community to build programs and services in the community for students. Support local projects affecting education. If you don’t have dollars to donate, donate with time and energy! The organizations would be glad to have you.