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What Every Long Islander Should Know - September 3, 2010

Changing the Odds for Our Students

Everyone loves a success story. A man or woman, better yet a child, with heart afire overcomes all obstacles and beats the odds. We love to be reminded of the heights that human beings can scale.

I saw a video recently, a kind of success story, but one that left me with a different feeling.

It was about two boys: both black, seniors in high school, popular and successful at school, sons of single moms, and holding down part-time jobs. One big difference: their high schools. Owen attended Rockville Centre’s South Side High School; David went to Wyandanch Memorial.

That’s a big difference, all right:

• In Rockville Centre 11 percent of students qualify for free lunch; in Wyandanch, 46 percent.

• In Rockville Centre 77 percent of students are white and 8 percent black. In Wyandanch 80 percent are black; none are white.

• In Rockville Center 89 percent of students go on to four-year colleges; in Wyandanch 21 percent.

The video was produced by the Long Island not-for-profit ERASE Racism and is designed to be shown in group venues, where people can share their reactions and start to dialogue (eraseracismny.org)

Both young men were successful. Owen graduated from South Side and went on to prestigious New York University. David went to Mercy College. Coming from a high school where barely one graduate in five attends a four-year college, is that perhaps even more impressive?

I’m delighted for these two young men. But what lesson does their story teach?

Someone succeeds, and you hear folks say, “If he can do it, everyone can.” The same when we hear about some poor, minority school succeeding. But these triumphs are stunning precisely because they’re unusual. The fundamental reality—on Long Island and in every city in America—is the glaring and persistent education gap between middle class and poor, between white and black.

True, it’s possible for a child to beat the odds. But that’s not enough. The odds shouldn’t be against kids in the first place.

We need to change the odds for poor and minority children. Why aren’t we?

We try. Decade after decade we grasp at fix after fix. The corpse of the last failed effort—No Child Left Behind—is not quite cold, and already we’re on to the next “reform.”

All the while, we ignore the source of the problem, recognized half a century ago by the U.S. Supreme Court. Separate schools are inherently unequal.

Separate the poor minority population from the middle class majority, and you create the achievement gap. Once we take the kids with the highest needs and put them all in one school, we have—however unwittingly—stacked the deck against them.

No, the odds are not impossible, but they’re way too high.

High enough to thwart kids’ hopes and blight their future. To rob us of the talent we need to power our economy and solve our problems. High enough to wound our conscience.

High enough, surely, to demand that we finally start addressing the inequity, at its source.

Nancy Rauch Douzinas is president of the Rauch Foundation and convener of the Long Island Index. The Index provides data about the Long Island region, in order to promote informed public debate and sound policy making. For more information visit www.longislandindex.org.