In America, race and class are inextricably linked. Whether by chance, or more likely, by purpose, that is the reality that we must live with. Most of the children who attend New York’s Lower Laboratory School for Gifted Education and Straus School, and their parents, know this all too well.
Straus and Lower Lab inhabit the same building in New York’s Upper East Side—P.S. 198—yet the two schools couldn’t be more different. The only thing they share is the building. While they utilize the same halls and bathrooms, the two schools never interact, even during lunch or recess. There’s an even more striking area they don’t share—the front door. Lower Lab, along with its student and teachers, gets to use the front door while the Straus students are forced to go around the side of the building to use the back door.
In Steven Thrasher’s article, “Inside a Divided Upper East Side Public School,” published in New York’s Village Voice, he describes the scene at P.S. 198 by saying, “If you’re a white student and you arrive at the public elementary school building on 95th Street and Third Avenue, you’ll probably walk through the front door. If you’re a black student, you’ll probably come in through the back.”
Now here’s where it gets interesting. Lower Lab’s population is 69 percent white students, and the rest primarily Asian children, who come from all parts of Manhattan, arriving in dark SUVs, taxis, and towncars. The Department of Education has designated Lower Lab as a gifted and talented school, only open to children who score incredibly high on standardized tests given at age four. Straus, on the other hand, is zoned, which means any child from the neighborhood can attend. As a result, its student body is 47 percent Latino and 24 percent Black, with most coming from lower-middle class families.
Dr. Pedro Nogeura, professor of education at NYU, and author of “The Trouble With Black Boys: And Other Reflections on Race, Equity and the Future of Public Education,” sees a problem. In an interview with the Village Voice, he notes, “When you send young kids to school where the racial lines are so stark, there is the process of saying there is something fundamentally different about us, which is why we can’t be together… What we have here is really Plessy at work: separate, without even being equal—but very much separate.”
Yet for us to cite Plessy—while both accurate and appropriate here—and leave it alone, does a disservice. We cannot just say that the schools are separate and unequal. This is obvious. We must examine how much of this issue is truly and exclusively racial. It’s also important to examine the effect this may have on the students.
That which children are exposed to during their formative years in elementary school undoubtedly shapes their perspectives, perceptions, and opinions for the remainder of their lives. And what does this social segregation teach them?
It teaches them to stratify and “other” people. This separation creates an “us” versus “them” mentality and draws a greater distinction between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” It also enforces the idea that social segregation is acceptable, even normal. It teaches, perhaps even forces, the students to place the people in their lives into categories according to what they have and what they don’t have—whether it be based on money, intelligence, or skin color. Although, because they live in America, they would likely learn this concept eventually, the fact that they’re exposed to it in a more obvious way at a younger age makes it that much more damaging to their socialization. The fact that they’ll learn more quickly to associate Whites with “haves” and Blacks and Latinos with “have-nots” before most would, means those concepts will have a firmer root in their minds and thus be much harder to change.
In his book, “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” Carter G. Woodson, drives home this point by saying: “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”
Although Woodson is referring more to the curriculum that a student may learn, his idea can surely be applied to the subconscious things that students learn as well—some of which may be more powerful than the written material. And not all of a child’s learning takes place in schools. Actually, what children learn outside of school either serves to weaken or to reinforce their formal education.
Perhaps more than anything else, parental involvement is paramount in their child’s educational process. If the parents are not actively involved in their child’s school work, striving to create environments that nurture good study habits and foster creative thinking, no institution, no matter how incredible and innovative, can overcome that. When parents are not critically concerned with and invested in the educational experience that their child is receiving—either financially or voluntarily—the child is the one that suffers.
One way to gauge parental involvement is by a school’s Parent Teacher Association. In the case of Straus and Lower Lab, there’s a massive contrast. In his Village Voice article Thrasher brings attention to the fact that, “The Straus PTA is described as ‘almost nonexistent,’ ‘not much to talk about,’ and ‘well-meaning, but not very powerful’ by several people. One parent (incorrectly) thought Straus didn’t even have a PTA.” On the other hand, Lower Lab’s PTA held a fundraising auction for the 2006–2007 school year which brought in over $165,000. The same year, parents and other individuals donated more than a quarter of a million dollars and the Lower Lab PTA reported over $400,000 in total assets.
While Lower Lab’s PTA may have more money in the bank, are they using it for the benefit of the students? Absolutely. The same article cites a concerned parent noted (of the Lower Lab’s PTA) that they were, “able to hire more personnel [teaching assistants]. That’s circumventing Board of Ed rules. And in the Board of Ed, they are aware of this. But because the people on our PTA are powerful people, they are able to go out there and get these funds, and got what they wanted.” This increase in personnel allows for a lower student-teacher ratios and in turn gives the teachers more time for personal attention to their students. In contrast, Straus has one teacher in each classroom of 30 children—30 children who are receiving less attention than those in Lower Lab’s classrooms.
As the parent mentioned, the Lower Lab’s PTA has several members who hold much clout within the educational system. For example, Lower Lab PTA member Patrick Sullivan is a member of the Panel for Education Policy, the governing body of the Department of Education. He casts one of 13 votes which will impact all 1.1 million children in the New York City school system.
Sullivan sees the differences between Lower Lab and Straus as more than racial. (Or perhaps he chooses to avoid the racial issues and instead focuses on the economic ones.) He says, “[Lower Lab] is a gifted and talented program, and [Straus] isn’t. The gifted and talented criteria is a standardized test that, I believe—and I believe many other people believe—unfairly draws from higher-income children and families, because they are better able to prepare for that test.”
In addition to the tests being allegedly (and likely) unfairly drawn with a bias towards upper and middle class children, it’s entirely possible that they, like most standardized tests used in America, have an inherent racial bias (towards white students) as well.
It’s imperative that we understand, as Sullivan mentioned, those higher-income families may prepare their children differently than those who don’t have the resources. And economics and social class play a large role in that. Those families with lower incomes are less likely to place a high value on education, likely because the parents haven’t achieved a higher education. The reverse is also true. Those who have higher annual incomes—middle and upper class families—because chances are good that they have more than a high school, or even a Bachelors degree, will put more emphasis on their child’s education. But a family’s socioeconomic status is not an excuse for their lack of, or over involvement in their child’s education. However, it is important to understand that there are often more issues at play than what we may originally observe.
To look at this issue from a strictly racial perspective would be problematic. The issue, while encompassing race, runs so much deeper. It’s likely that, while the reasons behind dividing the school are likely more economic and political, even academic, the students may not understand that.
When it comes to Straus and Lower Lab and the children attending those schools, race is not the primary differentiating factor. It’s socioeconomic status. As we mentioned before, race and socioeconomic status go hand in hand. This has been true ever since the days of slavery and will likely continue to be true as long as the American government structure and bureaucracy continues to perpetuate the systems and cycles that involve institutionalized racism.
What do you think about this whole situation between Lower Lab and Straus? Is the motivation purely racial? If not, how much, if any, of the situation is cause by or exaggerated by race?