50 Years After the Civil Rights Act

We're not facing angry mobs and jail time, but I like to think that our work is furthering the hopes and dreams of the brave kids who marched in the streets of Birmingham.
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This month, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of the most far-reaching legislative victories in U.S. history: the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Looking around any public school classroom today, it's hard to imagine that barely two generations ago, more than 1,000 black schoolchildren in Birmingham faced down police dogs and fire hoses while demonstrating peacefully for an end to segregated schools and lunch counters.

The "Children's Crusade" of 1963 riveted the nation's attention, and within weeks, President John F. Kennedy submitted his landmark bill to Congress. It would take a year of debate -- and the assassination of a president -- before the bill was signed into law on July 3, 1964.

Fifty years later, this anniversary offers the perfect opportunity to consider how far we've come in the struggle for educational equality in this country -- and how far we still have to go. When black students in Birmingham were being carted off to jail, the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference famously said, "Negro children will get a better education in five days in jail than in five months in a segregated school."

That's a stinging indictment, indeed, but it's worth considering whether an end to segregation has brought about the improved education that parents in Birmingham so desperately wished for.

The reality is that today's education landscape is anything but equal. The achievement gap between white and African American or Hispanic students remains stark. Minority students are more racially and socioeconomically isolated today than at any time since public data has been recorded. And even though 80 percent of our students are graduating, that leaves 20 percent or more than 1 million students -- disproportionately African American and Hispanic -- with no cap, no gown and no opportunity.

Each year, many of them will join a group of 7 million young adults aged 16 to 24 who find themselves disconnected from both school and the labor market. What becomes of all these kids? Statistically, we know they are much more likely to live in poverty, bear children out of wedlock, face chronic health issues and wrangle with the criminal justice system. Compared to their graduating peers, they will need to rely more on welfare, food stamps and other safety net programs over the course of their adult lives. Their chances of finding gainful employment are doubtful at best. In addition to the personal costs, those 7 million young adults cost society an estimated $250 billion annually "in lost revenue, earnings and increased social services."

That's not a very pretty picture, and it's no wonder that we tend to look away. But ignoring the problem only pushes our struggling students of color further to the margins of society. Until we take a long, hard look at the invisible 20 percent who drop out, we can never make good on the promise of equal opportunity for all.

Poor children often lack a variety of non-academic supports that their more affluent peers take for granted such as eyeglasses, medical care, food, clothing, shelter or even a caring adult in their lives. The lack of basic necessities can make it impossible for students to focus on the academic subjects required for graduation and a productive adulthood.

Community-based programs that provide integrated supports have been proven effective in increasing retention rates and achievement among children, particularly minority and low-income students. Integrated support programs mobilize existing community resources to deliver needed support so that students can focus on learning. Across America, nine evidence-based nonprofits are currently providing these supports to 1.5 million students in thousands of public schools. Recently, Child Trends evaluated 11 separate studies and concluded that integrated supports offered a "promising approach for helping more disadvantaged children and youth improve in school and have a brighter path in life."

I'm proud that Communities In Schools is a national leader in this effort. We're not facing angry mobs and jail time, but I like to think that our work is furthering the hopes and dreams of the brave kids who marched in the streets of Birmingham.

The marchers have long since grown up, of course, and most now have grandchildren of their own. If those kids end up dropping out of school, joining the underclass, and missing out on the American Dream, then we as a society have failed to make good on the promise of the Children's Crusade and the Civil Rights Act.

For the sake of all those who sacrificed so much in the name of equal opportunity, I hope we won't let that happen.

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