Maryland's Segregated School System Demands Innovation

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By Jessica Ellis

For each of the 12 years I have been an elementary school teacher, I have read biographies of influential African Americans with my students during Black History Month. One of my favorite moments is when my students gather on the rug before me with a biography of Dr. King or Ruby Bridges or Thurgood Marshall, and I say to them, "In 1954, you would not have been allowed to go to school together." There follows a chorus of protests as they look at their friends of many colors and backgrounds and say, "What?! No way! That's impossible!" Then we all share a little pride for the progress we have made in this country over the past 60 years.

I recently began teaching in my neighborhood public school in Prince George's County, Maryland. This year, my usual line was met with confused silence. I looked out over my sea of 26 bright faces, each one a shade of brown, and I didn't know what to tell them. I do not have a single white child in my class.

In our school of over 700 students, nearly 90 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced meals, we have fewer than ten white non-Hispanic children. Most of our students speak Spanish as their first language. It's not that we do not have white or middle class children in our neighborhood. But at present, the majority of middle class families are choosing private schools, parochial schools, charters, magnets or homeschooling. They do everything to avoid sending their kids to the predominantly low-income local public school.

Our public education system suffers from de facto segregation. Senator Bill Ferguson of Baltimore City has written legislation to address this problem. SB910 proposes to establish Maryland Education Development Collaborative, or EDCo. EDCo endeavors to increase socioeconomic and demographic diversity in our public schools in the interest of closing the achievement gap and providing a high quality education for all students. Through research, public/private partnership development, grant coordination, and policy recommendations, EDCo will help usher our education system into the 21st century.

Many studies have shown that as our country is becoming more ethnically diverse, our schools have become more segregated. A 2010 report by the Civil Rights Project found that Maryland was the sixth-most-segregated state in the country for black students. In Prince George's County, where I live and work, nine out of 10 black students attended a school where at least 90 percent of students were minorities.

As early as the 1960s, we have understood that the two greatest predictors of student academic success are the socioeconomic status of the student's family, and the socioeconomic status of the student's peers. That is to say that low-income children who attend mixed income schools will achieve at higher rates. With a state as segregated as ours, it is no wonder that our achievement gap is also one of the greatest in the country. According to our 2013 NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores, the gap in average math scores between black and white fourth-graders in Maryland was the fifth-worst in the nation, and in reading the gap was the ninth-worst.

Public school systems are not well positioned to achieve true reform mainly because teachers, principals, and superintendents are consumed with the demands of delivering education in real time. We must address the immediate needs of the students sitting in our classrooms today, leaving us little time or energy to think clearly about policy. This is why it makes sense to invest in an organization that can provide perspective, make connections, and help us improve towards a better future. When we delay on educational reform, we lose a generation of children to failed policies.

We need nimble entities such as EDCo to pursue solutions, and to ensure that all of our children have access to the dream envisioned by Dr. King and Ruby Bridges and Thurgood Marshall over 50 years ago.

Jessica Ellis teaches literacy and social studies to 3rd and 4th graders at Thomas S. Stone Elementary School in Mount Rainier. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow.