Camden School Closures Send the Wrong Message to Black Students

Cross-posted from the Local Knowledge Blog. Promoted by Rosi.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting Rutgers PhD candidate Mark Weber’s analysis of the Camden school closures. Many of you know Mark as Jersey Jazzman, but he’s also doing work with Dr. Bruce Baker at Rutgers, New Brunswick. His policy brief on the school closures is an important document (and an important public work). It pokes holes in the District’s narrative that this was primarily about “struggling schools” (Mark’s regression shows that McGraw was the highest achieving school in the district given math scores). The district still hasn’t released its own analysis, and frankly, if the two were to disagree it would fuel the fire that such measures aren’t a reliable way to understand quality. But I want to focus on something more fundamental here. Mark’s analysis shows that the two schools with the highest percentage of African-American teachers are being closed, and that black teachers are 1.6 times more likely to be in these closing schools than white teachers. Teachers with 15 to 24 years of experience are more than 3 times more likely to “face an employment consequence.” Those numbers should give pause to those of us concerned about having a diverse, stable and experienced teaching contingent here in Camden. It also sends a dangerous message to students.

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As you can see in the graph above, McGraw Elementary and East Camden Middle School are the two schools in the district with the highest percentage of African-American staff (far right). On the other end of the graph (far left), is evidence that charter schools – which will ultimately be replacing 4 of the 5 closing schools – have much lower percentages. Now, these percentages are not specifically from the schools that East Camden and McGraw are being turned over too, but those schools don’t have much better records. One of the effects of these “turnarounds” is to dramatically lower the percentage of African-American staff.

There are a lot of reasons we should be concerned about this. We should be concerned about the justice of the broader employment community; why, when we’re spending so much money to increase jobs here in Camden, are we choosing schools which limit those opportunities for African-Americans? We should be concerned about the pedagogical loss of not having teachers who look like their students (#educolor is doing a great job of promoting this importance). And we should be concerned about the message it sends to students that to “fix” our education system here in Camden City, we need fewer black teachers and black staff.

That last point is one which resonates with me. When I teach my own class on Camden, I see that effect that guest speakers who are strong black leaders like Kelly Francis (Camden County NAACP) have on my African-American students. My students sit up straighter in their seats and are engaged. There is something powerful about a man (or woman) in front of a class that knows firsthand of their challenges and struggles. And there is something dangerous about limiting those opportunities.

In the Camden School District, each test question is meticulously counted; the district needs to hold itself to the same accountability on issues of race. The implicit message sent by these school closures is a scary one: that in order to improve education here in the city, we need to reduce the amount of African-American teachers. I’m reminded of the haunting scene in The Invisible Man that takes place in the Golden Day. There, an African-American vet explains to a white trustee, Mr. Norton, and the protagonist, a black college student, that his school was teaching the “great false wisdom taught slaves and pragmatists alike, that white is right.”

The scene is particularly poignant. It is about a college which depends on white benefactors like Mr. Norton. The vet accuses Mr. Norton of treating a black student (the protagonist) as not a person but “a mark upon the scorecard of your achievement.”

That accusation rings true now in Camden. Students are seen as scores, while basic humanity – such as putting faces in front of classrooms that look like their own – is ignored.

Let’s extend accountability beyond teachers and test scores to administrators and charter chains. The Camden School District should do the type of analysis done here by Mark Weber before considering school closures. The Urban Hope Act allows the district the ability to negotiate Community Benefit Agreements with Renaissance schools. These CBAs should include accountability measures on both local hires and minority teachers, and there should be consequences for failing to meet those measurements.

Local charters and renaissance schools similarly shouldn’t be let off the hook. Even without accountability measures by the district, these schools should hold themselves accountable and publicly set such hiring goals that specifically address minority hiring.

If the district and local charters/renaissance schools do not do so, then we must ask the question: do they believe we need to lower the percentage of African-American educators here in Camden to improve education, or is employing such educators not their priority?

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