In reading this week’s edition of the Metroland at Little Buddha Tea this week, I was shocked to see the Capital District YMCA’s after-school programs were threatened to be cut from the Albany City School District’s budget (http://metroland.net/2013/03/27/close-call/). The Y runs after-school programs at five of the city’s elementary schools, serving 300 children. In launching my own career in after-school child care, I’ve met and received invaluable professional guidance from some of the Y’s youth development professionals working in this program. As I continued to read about the budget negotiation, between the City School District, the Y, and parents, I was even more shocked and then offended to read there is disagreement among those in the education field as to “the value” of after-school programs. McGrath writes, “A 2008 study by the Harvard Family Research Project at the Harvard School of Education said that well-run programs can be helpful, especially to disadvantaged students, but research and evaluation studies do not always show clear-cut benefits.”
This brings up a whole host of issues for me. One, the non-profit industrial complex – the idea that we must be able to quantify the benefits we provide to the quality of life through direct human services. No clear-cut benefits? The smile on my children’s faces when they walk through our doors is enough to prove to me there is a benefit. Watching them try and then enjoy fresh fruits and veggies on a daily basis is a huge benefit to their little bodies and minds, too often deprived of these essential nutrients in their processed, salty, “disgusting” by their account, school lunches and the food deserts that are their neighborhoods. The smiles and laughter and gratitude of parents and family members when they see their children happy, homework done, when they pick them up is clearly a benefit to their family. Providing a safe, engaging, fun, and kid-centered environment for 60 families is a benefit to our community. We engage in community service, we read, we eat sugar snap peas and starfruit, we run and play, we learn, but most importantly, we smile, laugh, and genuinely enjoy getting to know and spending time with one another. These are benefits of the heart, the soul, for children and adults alike, and cannot be quantified by a 0 or a 1. Sure, we could (and do) track each child that comes into the program, note their grades, graduation rates, and physical and social health as compared to those who don’t attend after-school programs. We could get testimonies from them 5, 10, 20 years after leaving the after-school program to see if the mere 3 hours spent in these programs had any sort of effect on their lives. The reality of it is, most of these non-profits have a hard enough of a time meeting the day-to-day demands of operational management on top of the gamut of emotions and needs individual children and families bring. And the reality of it is, unless you grow up to become Denzel Washington, your story and the impact your after-school program provided, in most likelihood, won’t be heard.
Two, who exactly does McGrath mean by “disadvantaged students?” Disadvantaged in what way? Earlier in the paragraph he writes regarding after-school programs, “There’s also a debate on how to get more children to enroll in them—a concern that has always affected the federally funded free and reduced-price school breakfast and lunch programs, as well.” I’m left without a clear understanding of the relationship between the two. I’m left to assume and read between the lines that by disadvantaged he means children that come from low-income households. Here’s the thing about low-income households – they’re in low-income neighborhoods. And how do public school districts receive funding? Through school-taxes paid by those who live in the city it serves. So what’s my point? What am I getting at? Stay with me.
Two days after getting all riled up over this article, I visited the Pine Hills branch of the Albany Public Library. I stumbled upon Jonathan Kozol’s, “The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America” (2005). It was Kozol’s, “Savage Inequalities” (1991), given to me by Mr. Spear in my 10th grade sociology class, that first opened my privileged, white-girl eyes to the world of public housing, public schools, and a myriad of social injustice happening just a few hours south of where I lived in a neighborhood called Mott Haven in the Bronx. Needless to say, Kozol has been deeply influential in the path my life and passion for social justice has taken since then. As I begin reading “The Shame of the Nation,” detailing how black and brown children in nearly 99% black school districts feel “hidden” (28) and are reinforced to believe their academic success is ”up to them” (35), I can’t help but see the children I carry in my heart who attend Thomas O’Brien Academy of Science and Technology (TOAST) here in the City of Albany. According to TOAST’s website (http://toast.albany.k12.ny.us/whatmakestoastspecial2.htm), they’re not as segregated as the schools Kozol details, having a student body that is 89% black, hispanic, and Asian-Pacific and 11% white, however the point Kozol is trying to make is perfectly clear in TOAST’s student makeup.
Kozol’s premise is that while the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, made incredibly beneficial gains in integrating segregated schools across the nation in the 1960s and 1970s, racial segregation in public education has all but returned to levels seen prior to the Civil Rights era. How does this go unnoticed? Accepted?
Regarding the Supreme Courts ruling he writes: ”Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other ‘tangible’ factors may be equal,” asked the court in 1954, “deprive the children of the minority race of equal educational opportunities? We believe it does.” To separate black children from white children of their age and qualifications on the basis of their race, the court went on, “generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone. . . . In the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. . . . Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal” (29).
I’m left wondering, how have my children been engrained to accept their social segregation? I know I’m not naieve enough, and I hope you’re not, to assume they simply don’t notice. While since picking up that book in the 10th grade, I’ve been a social justice academic, advocate, and activist, things just got incredibly personal for me. If you believe everything in your life has brought you to this exact moment, then I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be and everything I’ve learned, read, and been enraged over for the last 10 years has presented me with a where-there-rubber-hits-the-road moment. I wish I could say I’m feeling incredibly empowered and aptly positioned to make change in my community, to address housing and educational racial segregation within the confines of what I now call my city, but I don’t.
I’ve always been struck at how drastically racially segregated Albany is. How come it took stumbling upon another Kozol book to open my eyes to this same segregation in our schools? And how do I fight for education policy change for my kids while devoting what seems like all my heart and energy to caring for them every day after school? How do I teach Saaniyah and Quavar to question the structures that provide their education and housing while also helping them navigate their way through their math homework and increasingly complex social and emotional needs and questions. How do I navigate my own educational and white privilege as an advocate for my 99% black after-school program. And why does McGrath use the ambiguous term “disadvantaged” when talking about a specific portion of our students? In an post-Civil Rights era of covert racism, how do we talk about racial integration in our schools and neighborhoods in a new way?