My daughter was playing pretend. Guess what I am, mommy! Flapping her arms and skipping around. A galloping horse? No. She was a flying bird. Now who am I? She’s opening her mouth dramatically, clearly a singer. “I’m Marian Anderson!”
My daughter at age six knows much more about Black History than I did at her age. She knows that Marian Anderson was a great opera singer who, because of her race, was denied the right to sing at Washington’s famed Constitution Hall during the FDR administration. She knows that Eleanor Roosevelt helped arrange for Anderson to sing at the Lincoln Memorial instead. She knows about the Montgomery bus boycott, the March on Washington, slavery. She knows that Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed by a white man. She asks me questions like: Do white people still treat other people badly? Were all white people unfair to Black people? And she says: “I’m glad I can be friends with everyone now.”
I see her education as a citizen as one of the benefits of her attending city schools. She’s had, at age 6, the seeds of social awareness firmly planted in her mind by her teachers, peers and the school curriculum. In a “first grader way,” she’s conscious of oppression and aware of some of the complexities of our nation’s racial history. I’m certain that students in suburban schools learn Black History, too, but I suspect that attending a predominantly African American school, led by African American staff, is a different sort of formative experience.
Richmond Public Schools get a lot of flak, only some of it deserved. Many of its problems have to do with the district’s socioeconomic segregation and its degree of concentrated poverty – root problems that I wish we as a region would do a better job of confronting and addressing.
Children need exposure to diversity. This is a prime requirement of democracy and the possibility of a peaceful future. While having schools that are perfectly balanced by race, ethnicity and class is unrealistic, it is not unrealistic to expect that our public schools have a much greater degree of socioeconomic and racial diversity than they currently do.
Here’s what I’ve observed about our daughter’s experience attending a school that is overwhelmingly but not entirely African American, where 71 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch:
She really likes to go to school. She has lots of friends. She has fun. The curriculum is rigorous and she’s learning a tremendous amount. Last night’s homework involved bar graphs and complicated math word problems. Her reading has improved so much this year, she’s reading chapter books. The school has strong programs in art and music. Teaching quality overall is high. (And in early elementary, everything comes down to teacher quality.)
And when she educates me about African American history, I’m reminded that her city school gives my child an education as a future U.S. citizen whose value isn’t necessarily captured in the school’s test scores or regional ranking. It’s an education appropriate for a fast-arriving future in which no single racial group will be the majority of America.
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