Separate but not equal

Tomorrow marks the land mark supreme court decision Brown Versus the Board of education, which established that no segregated school could be equal it reversed Plessy V. Ferguson.  In that moment, the Supreme Court made an omission it was wrong, and it needed to right a wrong. We should remember this fact not as political flip flopping but as rationed and reasoned debate.

There have been a number of injustices across time which need their Brown moment in the United States. Under Johnson’s Great society, the ESEA act, or Elementary and Secondary Education Act created the Title I funding to try to alleviate poverty for students who were falling behind their wealthy peers. As Sean Reardon of Stanford University has pointed out, we have a multitude of school districts where the rich are clustered with the wealthy, and the poor are left to look at the better systems across the tracks. We have yet to meet the needs of our students in poor communities in the USA. Having served the NYSED office of school improvement for 7 years, I saw first hand in schools that would have made Kozol scream the injustices committed against children. The bathrooms didn’t work, there was no hand soap. Teachers struggled with students who spoke another language fluently and were trying to learn English. I saw promising programs and young promising teachers cut because of budget difficulties. I saw educators struggling with the overwhelming mental and emotional needs of children who lived in war zones.  When Millikan V. Bradley was handed down, the court essentially said that de facto segregation because of an invisible line was perfectly OK. Whoops. We didn’t even make it past the 1970s. There needs to be a change in education and it needs to happen in rural and urban schools. The eminent geographer  Mark Monmonier of Syracuse University covers these points in his works which include How to Lie with maps and No Dig, No Fly, No Go.  Lines are powerful, especially on maps. Just ask the Native Americans, the Africans, the South Asians, and East Asians.

In rural communities, we haven’t had our Brown moment yet. In my first year teaching, I was asked to teach 7,9,11, and 12th grade economics in a small school of 275 students total grades K-12. My Global Studies textbooks were paperback and missing the covers and the first chapter or two. I had limited resources so I begged NYSTROM for maps which they gave to the school. These gifts included an US and world map to the district. We had wall maps! (pre computer smart board days!) I had students who told me that they could not go to college because of family poverty. I had students who had never been to a bigger city than Buffalo NY. In rural communities across the US, the internet hasn’t quite reached them yet. In rural Delaware County, NY one school is isolated so much that there is no cellphone coverage. When I was teaching in my next job, I found myself wondering what would happen to our kids when they went away to college. Thankfully many did alright. I count as a blessing a State Trooper, small business owner, doctor, lawyer, and certified massage therapist among the graduates. One of the facts facing our rural schools is this: size does not nor should not equal dollars. Just as poverty takes more money to correct, rural poverty and rural isolation are difficult to correct. Just to make sure I don’t forget Paul Theobald’s and Mike Corbett’s requests to not dwell on the negative, rural areas are blossoming in terms of small business ventures, but organics and tourism can only go so far. Tech is needed in many communities and history proves that it can.

In Norwich NY, the Norwich aspirin company did some amazing STEM related activities. Then it was bought out by multinationals and poof there goes the good jobs.   Charles Dudley, a famous Chemist lived in Oxford NY. Sidney NY had a number of Air and space related companies in it. Rural can give you STEM, but we as a society must give it money, opportunity and a chance.

I would be negligent if I failed to mention the book Hidden Figures, which discusses the efforts of African-American female engineers at NASA. This is a wonderful book, and I think it is well worth the investment to read it with a class, as an individual or as a book to give a child for a gift. After all, ’tis graduation season!


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