In May, we photograph high school students before the prom and marvel at these young adults, dressed in beautiful dresses and tuxes and posing against the green lawn and flowering trees of our yards. But what does the image we see through that lens tell us about education, racial progress and the march of history?
I had that thought this month as I watched my daughter and several of her friends being photographed at our house before the prom.
My wife and I listened to their banter. Like most high school seniors, they were comfortable, relaxed and talking excitedly about the prom and college in the fall. Yet in one very important respect, my daughter and her friends were atypical for high school students in many communities across this country. The young men and women being photographed were an unusually diverse group of black, white, Asian and Hispanic students.
Our daughter is lucky. She attends the Academy for Information, Technology & Engineering (AITE,) a regional magnet school in Stamford, Connecticut, that draws students from wealthy Greenwich to impoverished Bridgeport. The student body is as diverse as one finds on the streets of Broadway in nearby New York City. AITE students proudly identify themselves as black, white, Asian, Hispanic, mixed, gay, transgender, Native American, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, atheist or agnostic.
This embrace of multiplicity carries through virtually every aspect of the school. Walk into the cafeteria and you will find students fluidly socializing across tables, rather than choosing to segregate by race, as happens in so many American high schools. Bullying and teasing are, I am told, non-issues, and when they do infrequently occur, the students for the most part "police" themselves and challenge each other to embrace tolerance.
There is no academic tracking. Within the Common Core-required coursework, students can choose to take advanced-level courses such as pre-calculus, The College Board's Advanced Placement Program, and can select college-level courses with participating institutions of higher education. AITE has a 99.4 percent graduation rate. Our daughter will soon graduate to attend a college of her choice.
As the prom pictures were taken, I couldn't help but look at my daughter and her friends through the lens of the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. They represent the successes of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that desegregated public schools, and our community is so much richer for the example these children set for us today.
Yet rather than celebrate Brown and observe segregation as a closed chapter in our history, America is confronted with the reality that we are still separate and still unequal. Black and brown students are, in the main, learning in segregated schools with insufficient funding, ineffective teachers, and insufficient instructional material and textbooks.
Today, white students arguably are the most racially isolated student demographic in America, as Derek Black writes in his column for Education Week ("Why Integration Matters in Schools.") They go to beautiful schools with the latest technology, sculpted school grounds, ready access to expensive tutors and programs, and have ample opportunities to travel and study abroad -- all because they live in certain zip codes. Yet despite these resources, Black suggests that "...this isolation ill prepares them for the future. Major corporations make this point even more concretely in briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court. They attest that they want graduates who are prepared to work in multi-cultural environments. Integrated schools produce these students."
Wealth, it turns out, may not be everything. Students -- of all races -- who learn in segregated settings may not develop the cross-cultural and racial interpersonal skills needed to succeed in the global economy. As Black noted: "...white families [and for that matter all families] who are concerned about long-term competitiveness need integrated schools as much as anyone." Segregation, it turns out, may hinder the lifelong learning and career skills of students -- no matter where they go to school.
There may have been a time when racial isolation had a deleterious impact only on black and brown people. Those days are over. By 2042, whites no longer will be a majority in this country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. To better prepare for the future, all children ought to be exposed to people of all racial, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds -- and their parents ought to demand that this happen.
At the National Urban Alliance (NUA) for Effective Education, where I work, we know the powerful impact diverse learning circumstances can have on the cognitive experiences of students. Diverse learning opportunities foster belief in the capacity of all students to master rigorous coursework, develop hope in collaboration and cross-cultural teamwork, and lead to the determination, confidence, and critical and creative thinking necessary to face challenges. Data clearly suggest that students who learn in integrated school programs such as magnet schools develop the critical and creative thinking and the problem-solving skills needed to accelerate achievement -- both cognitive and interpersonal. It is one thing to do well on tests or master rigorous content, but quite another to learn how to build friendships and working relationships across socio-economic levels, cultures and races.
Students who are about to graduate from AITE are well prepared not only for diverse learning circumstances, but also for the demands of a global community. They will soon walk with confidence to receive their diplomas, to new experiences in college and to new career opportunities. More important, they likely will live life without the stereotypes that all too often color one's definition of beauty and intelligence and the choices one makes in friends, partners and spouses. The rich demographic tapestry of our nation is changing, and the beautiful mosaic it produces binds, as in an embrace, what it means to be American.
Eric J. Cooper is the founder and president of the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, a nonprofit professional development organization that provides student-focused professional development, advocacy and organizational guidance to accelerate student achievement. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.