What Segregation Teaches Our Kids and Society

“Education is possibility set in motion…just as important as the practical argument is the civic one…Education teaches us compassion and kindness, connection to others. Education doesn’t just make us smarter. It makes us whole.” – Dr. Jill Biden, former Second Lady and teacher

In my last blog post, I wrote about the Peace Circle, a tool that I used in my classroom to foster empathy, problem-solving, and emotional resilience. In the Peace Circle, my students practiced how to listen and act with respect to the needs and rights of their peers. You may be surprised, but Kindergarteners are apt to explore important democratic issues such as individual rights and fairness (e.g., “You broke my crayon and now I feel angry!”; or, “You were distracting me at the carpet by pulling my shoelaces, which disrupted my learning!”). While at school, my students were not just learning the sound the letter “s” makes, or how to add and subtract; they were also learning how to live in community with one another.

"Our schooling system does not just shape individual lives – it also fosters social possibility, or the ways in which we live well together and co-create a more just, fair, and free world (or work against it)."

Our schooling system does not just shape individual lives – it also fosters social possibility, or the ways in which we live well together and co-create a more just, fair, and free world (or work against it). However, our rhetoric around school places a hyper-focus on the individual and individual learning (think personalized learning or virtual charter schools). This increased focus on the individual has blinded us from this essential truth:

Schooling, as our major socializing institution, is simultaneously developing individuals and communities. If we are not intentional about the kinds of communities we want to create, then we lose out on the power of schooling and may end up undermining our ability to live well together.

An example from my own schooling experience brings this reality to life in a disturbing way:

When considering choices for high school, my parents and I decided that I would apply to the prestigious International Baccalaureate (IB) program at my neighborhood school. IB programs are heralded globally for their rigorous curricula and track record of elite college acceptances. However, my neighborhood school in Tampa, Florida – King High School – was not seen as prestigious in the community. A school with a high percentage of students living in poverty, mostly students of color, King High had a notorious reputation in the area as “underperforming” and even “dangerous.” And as is common in most American high schools, you could tell the IB classes from the “traditional” classes by simply scanning the demographics of the class: IB classes were almost entirely white, while “traditional” classes were almost entirely students of color.

 Lady Lions of King High School — we won the regional championships this year.

Lady Lions of King High School — we won the regional championships this year.

Sports were one of the few places that traditional and IB students co-mingled, and many of my close friends in high school were from my basketball family. Working hard toward a common goal, basketball united us, young women from different backgrounds and with different perspectives, to pursue something greater than our individual interest. On the court, our differences did not divide us – they united us and made us stronger.

As the years passed by at King High, IB students became increasingly more segregated from “traditional” students. First, it was the bell schedule. IB students were on a block schedule and “traditional” students were on a seven-period schedule; so, I stopped seeing my basketball friends in the hallway. Then, our lunch periods were changed; so, I stopped eating lunch with those friends. Finally, our classrooms were separated and IB students were siloed to their own elite wing of the school; so, I stopped seeing my basketball friends, or any students outside of IB for that matter, during the school day.

All of these structural changes occurred in response to IB parents who were concerned with their students mingling with “traditional” students, a disturbing sentiment that is all too common in our country. They were afraid that there would be fights, or drugs…or a host of other concerns rooted in problematic stereotypes and biases of young people of color. Regardless of the intention, the result was the same – students of color and white students were segregated at King High School. Amidst all of this, white students were sent a particular message – you are exceptional and you must be protected. And our school community suffered as a result: in a place where diversity could have been honored and leveraged for deeper empathy and respect, it was used as a tool to divide us.

 At the lunch table with my teammates.

At the lunch table with my teammates.

"Amidst all of this, white students were sent a particular message – you are exceptional and you must be protected. And our school community suffered as a result: in a place where diversity could have been honored and leveraged for deeper empathy and respect, it was used as a tool to divide us."

While I was an IB student, I took over a dozen AP courses, earned an entire year of college credit, and gained access to elite colleges. If we consider only narrowly defined individual benefits, the IB program served students well. Yet, just like my Kindergarteners weren’t only learning letter sounds in school, I wasn’t only learning how to take tests and get college credit. Like those 5- and 6- year olds, I was also learning how to be in community with others. But what did King High teach us about living together?

Schools are always creating community, whether we are intentional about it or not. If we are not intentional about the types of communities we want to create, then we end up with a King High School at the micro level – a school community in which it’s implicitly taught that some students are more worthy than others and that segregation is key towards to student success. At the macro-level we end up recreating institutions that perpetuate those values.

"In a world where we see increased division, and where people from different backgrounds can’t seem to understand one another, how do our policies of segregating students at the micro level affect our ability to relate to one another at the macro level? If we want our society to reflect our democratic values of justice, fairness, and innate rights, then our schooling environments should be designed for that collective purpose."

 The famous photo of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the “Little Rock Nine.” Schools are simultaneously a place where we develop as individuals, and come together as a community. What kind of community do we want to create?

The famous photo of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the “Little Rock Nine.” Schools are simultaneously a place where we develop as individuals, and come together as a community. What kind of community do we want to create?

In a world where we see increased division, and where people from different backgrounds can’t seem to understand one another, how do our policies of segregating students at the micro level affect our ability to relate to one another at the macro level? If we want our society to reflect our democratic values of justice, fairness, and innate rights, then our schooling environments should be designed for that collective purpose. 

In the Zulu language, there is a word Ubuntu, which means “I am because of you,” or “I am because of who we all are.” Albeit a simple phrase, Ubuntu so beautifully represents the universal concept of shared humanity – the idea that we, as humans, are inherently tied to one another. I am because we are. I love the idea of Ubuntu because it hits at a fundamental truth that has always been the case, but is even more prevalent in our increasingly global and connected world: we are more than the sum of our parts.

Schools play an important role in facilitating this process of shared humanity.  It is not just about individual learning, or individual mobility – how we do school influences the kind of society we create. We should ensure our schools reflect our most idealistic vision for the society we want to create, and how we want to live in that society with others.