HARRIET LUDWIG: Black history vital

Published: Monday, January 14, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 14, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

The 130 people, including 76 Alachua County teachers, who were in the Dec. 1 Anti-Racist Coalition Workshop audience, have important company in their call for more dialogue about race in education.

Take Beverly Tatum, Ph.D, president of Spelman College, and the Simmons College/Beacon Press series on Race, Education and Democracy. Lectures by Tatum, a clinical psychologist, on her work with low-achieving black students, opened that series in Boston in the spring of 2006.

Those lectures document the need for black history to tell both students and teachers the story of the black race. They affirm the identity of minority students and the importance of their own racial history. And I would think white students and teachers also need to know that Africa is now recognized as the home of human history.

Tatum's lectures are the basis for her new book, "Can We Talk about Race? And Other Conversations in an Era of School Resegregation." It is well written and packed with information on the workings of desegregation planners. A major point is her evidence that eliminating black history from the curriculum created serious psychological blocks for many black students.

This new look at race in education reveals the lack of black history in the K-12 curriculum and in teacher education as major causes of the current resegregation of many American schools.

Tatum questions those who concentrate on "closing the achievement gap." Her reply: "You have to help them (schools) see how unexamined racial attitudes can negatively impact student performance, and how a willingness to break the silence about the impact of race in schools . . . can improve achievement."

Having mentored a young welfare mother for a number of years, I understood Tatum's examples of students who approach tests with "stereotype fear." Her people had been told by society for over 300 years that their race was inferior. Many students believe this to the point that they can't perform to their real ability.

Tatum found, however, that if she changed the instructions given before a test to say it was not their ability that was being tested, but an interest in their ideas, the student performance went up. Mentors, preferably with training, are badly needed to provide the encouragement and moral support for struggling students.

"Most teachers are not consciously racist," Tatum writes, "but they need to understand race better than most do. There are many warm, friendly teachers, but that is not enough. Schools need to do more professional training. None of us can teach what we haven't learned ourselves."

That training, she says, would show teachers how to affirm the identity of the student, respect that student and connect with the student's community. "We envision the public schools as a training ground for a multiracial, multicultural democracy."

Segregated housing is the reality that means segregated schools, Tatum says. So schools must find ways to overcome racial barriers and educate low-income children, white as well as children of color. Democracy needs an educated citizenry and the information/technology age needs more effective schools.

Tatum tells of a forward-thinking school board in Wake County, N.C. In 2000, realizing that resegregation was coming, that board adopted a plan that assigns students by family income and student achievement level. They set limits of no more than 40 percent low-income and low-achievement students to one school. By maintaining a majority of middle-class students in the class they preserved a more effective learning situation.

Alachua County has a number of mostly-black, mostly-poverty-level schools. This creates a very poor learning environment, educators have told me.

For students scoring below grade level, the limit in one school was 25 percent, averaged over a two-year period. Since 2000, the low-income children's achievement levels have risen in both reading and math in the new situation.

A Sun editorial last September, headlined "Programmed for failure," described the tragic scenario of minority children being passed through years of school failure. Most probably drop out along the way. They are local children, but Tatum speaks for them all. Currently, black people are protesting what local schools are doing and not doing for their children.

It's happening to white children, too, and I am wondering where are the white parents? Whites still control the community establishments, although the minority populations are growing.

Can we talk about race?

Harriet Ludwig is a retired journalist living in Gainesville.

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