A familiar image greeted me when I arrived at The Poynter Institute on Thursday: A teenage Dorothy Counts making the lonely walk to integrate Charlotte’s Harding High School in 1957, a throng of whites jeering her.
I joined almost 50 education journalists from around the country for a session on covering the future of public schools, titled “Separate – And Still Unequal.” Roy Peter Clark, who has coached and inspired generations of journalists, put a copy of that photo at each person’s place.
Sixty years later, tens of thousands of African-American students attend schools that, like those of Counts’ childhood, are isolated by race. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, about half of black and Hispanic students go to schools that are less than 10 percent white. Harding High is one of them.
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Students in those schools are more likely to be suspended, less likely to have experienced teachers and less likely to emerge with skills and contacts that help them thrive as adults. Clark says he has become absorbed by the question of how we let that happen – not just in the South but across America.
Right now, CMS is grappling with how far this community will go to change that situation. Some hope the coming months bring bold steps. Others pray that changes will be minor, protecting a delicate balance that keeps white and middle-class families happy with some of the district’s schools.
I knew the Poynter session would be good for me, but it strikes me that many of the takeaways for journalists could apply to everyone who cares about public education. Here are five things I’m still thinking about.
1. It’s about justice, not tests.
The most provocative talk came from Nikole Hannah-Jones, a New York Times magazine writer who got her start as an education reporter in the News & Observer’s Durham bureau. Her work on school integration has helped define the issue nationwide, from a 2015 two-part series on NPR’s “This American Life” to a recent essay on making tough choices for her own daughter.
Hannah-Jones said we too often fixate on test scores, noting that black and Hispanic students trail white counterparts in all types of schools. We end up talking about all sorts of ways to boost achievement without having to end the system that isolates poor, black and brown students, and in so doing we miss the point, she said.
No, black students don’t “magically get smarter” by sitting next to white ones, she said. But they do get access to better teachers and more accelerated classes. They make friends whose parents can open doors to college and internships and jobs.
“It’s about access to power and resources that integration brings,” she said. “It is about justice and equity for black and brown kids.”
2. Don’t accept excuses.
It’s not about race, it’s about poverty. Or culture. Majority-white schools are already diverse. It’s not politically practical to change the way things are.
Hannah-Jones says these are all excuses for accepting conditions that white people – including white journalists – would never allow for their own children. She says progressive white people who resign themselves to segregated schools need to ask themselves some tough questions.
“That is where equality gets personal,” she said. “This is where I have to share something that has advantaged my family. Do we really think that black kids are as smart as white kids?”
3. Know your history.
Clark says he keeps the photo of Counts by his writing station to inspire him. He opened the session by reading from the Brown v. Board of Education ruling, and the language remains inspiring today.
4. Be two kinds of dog.
Reporters like to talk about being watchdogs. But sometimes, Clark said, we need to shift to being guide dogs.
“One of them barks and bites,” he said. “The other protects, steers and guides.”
5. Go deep, get real.
Over and over, we heard about the need to spend time and learn the complex stories of real people.
I admit I was overwhelmed by the work that the Tampa Bay Times poured into its Pulitzer-winning “Failure Factories” series on resegregated schools. It is, after all, a newspaper that lists seven writers on its education team. Most newspapers, including the Observer, are lucky to have one.
Still, as CMS Superintendent Ann Clark likes to say, “This is our moment.”
And that means doing what’s hard.