Breaking the Barrier of Educational Apartheid

In writing our book, Simon and I interviewed 22 award-winning principals who had moved their schools from low performing to high achieving.  All of these schools were in areas of high poverty in their communities.  Most people did not expect these students to do well.  In fact, often the biggest challenge for the principals was to get the adults to believe that race and poverty were not an excuse for poor academic success.

This attitude among adults does not necessarily come from a racist perspective.  More often it was paternalistic or benevolent in nature.  The adults feel sorry for all the stress and dysfunction their students deal with.   They want to “give them a break,” and not pile on more hard-to-reach expectations.  The mindset is often: If we can just give them the Basics, they can survive in their environment and at least attain a high school diploma.

As a consequence of this mindset, students in high poverty schools often aren’t challenged.  The content and learning strategies are set at a low level, not requiring much effort or depth of thinking.  This difference in learning expectations among urban versus suburban schools is causing a new kind of racial and economic divide. We call it “Educational Apartheid” and it is seriously hurting our children and our country.

Yet in writing our book, we met many principals who had overcome this serious educational issue.

When Sheila Harrity, principal at Worcester Technical High School, first started at the school, it was the lowest-performing high school in the city and one of the poorest performing vocational schools in the state of Massachusetts.   What infuriated her the most was the expectations and rigor in her urban school did not match the higher standards of the suburban schools she had come from.  There were no Honors or Advanced Placement classes, no tutors, and very little personalized instruction.

But Sheila believed that in order to give students a true lift in life, they needed to be supported by having strong rigor and high expectations in their classes so that they could meet the changing expectations of business and industry after graduation.   Students needed to do more than just memorize and regurgitate irrelevant information for a test.  They needed to know WHY they should learn the topic, and how learning science and higher level math showed up in robotics, culinary classes, and cosmetology.  Sheila believed that students rise to the occasion based on expectations—and her students did indeed do that!

Judy Marty, principal at Mater Academy Charter School in Hialeah Gardens, Florida, had a similar experience.  Her staff kept telling her “these kids cannot learn this ‘rigor stuff.’”  So she took them to visit schools where rigorous learning was working.  Judy told her teachers, “You can’t just cover the material.  Look at the standards.  Go deeper!  You can’t just use the same lesson plans as before!”  Judy told her teachers to assume that every child was going to college or postsecondary school.  Tell them that they will have to work hard, but if they do so, they can meet that goal!  And now 97% of her students graduate on time and 92% go on to college or postsecondary school.

For more information about how this difference in expectations among our schools is causing a new kind of racial and economic divide, watch this trailer for a documentary on education inequality, “Teach Us All.”    

Then join Break Barriers Together to change these outdated mindsets and work together to build a community of hope and purpose for our children.