By NICK CHILES
Educators have known for a long time what kind of environment children need to learn: They need to feel safe and supported. Without these two elements, they will never perform at their best, no matter how much we yell at them about the difficulties they will soon face in this high-tech economy. I say this because I saw two stories yesterday that, while seemingly unrelated, in my mind had a very clear connection.
The first story sounded an alarm about the woeful school performance of black and Latino students in high schools across the U.S. According to the story, which appeared on Black Voices, the academic levels of black and Latino students have not improved in the last 30 years. In fact, black and Latino high school seniors read and do math at the same level as white 13-year-olds. Yes, very sad, very troubling. It brings tears to my eyes to think about the world these students will face when they step off that stage clutching their useless diplomas.
The second story came out of Chicago, where the school system has become increasingly dependent on police officers patrolling the halls instead of the school security guards that most of us remember from our school days. The result? The cops are arresting black students at an alarmingly high rate for many offenses—cursing a teacher, shooting spitballs—that maybe would have resulted in suspension in an earlier era. Maybe. So what is now happening in Chicago is that black juveniles are being placed into the criminal justice system too easily and too early. A straight path from algebra to a courtroom somewhere. A Chicago youth advocacy group called Project NIA analyzed Chicago Police Department data and found that 20 percent of all juvenile arrests took place on school grounds. Algebra to a prison cell.
And this trend is being repeated in urban districts all over America—schools relying on police officers to patrol the halls, turning the school environment into a contentious war zone between the “po-po” and young black males. The streets have been replicated behind the school walls. When I covered education for a newspaper in New York City, this was an issue that would always result in a controversy somewhere in the city because the presence of cops instantly made situations escalate into violence.
I am no longer a black teenager, but I can guess that if the halls at my school were being stalked by glowering police officers, I wouldn’t feel very safe and supported. Learning would not be the thing foremost on my mind. I remember the way the police used to look at me when I was a young black teen. My teenage son gets pulled over by the police here in our Georgia suburb at least once a month when he’s home from college. He has never gotten a ticket; they just want to “talk.” So what’s all of that look like when placed in a school setting? If that menacing figure eyed me every time I skipped down the halls as if I were on the verge of committing a major crime, I would not step into English class with my mind in the optimal condition to learn.
The best schools manage to create loving, nurturing environments for their students. The kids feel like the teachers want them to do well, the administrators expect them to excel and to behave. Expectations. What a magical word. A police officer down every corridor tells me that you expect me to commit crimes, not to learn. So when my performance suffers, don’t stand over there sadly shaking your head, wondering what is wrong with me.
Replace those handcuffs with a hug, and I may start showing you what I can really do.
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