September-October 2008 | Parenting

Equal but Separate?

Are the benefits of diverse schools being wasted?

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Stephany Salazar, who moved to Silver Spring from Ecuador when she was in third grade, had “a bunch of Hispanic friends” at B-CC, “but two of my best friends are white. They live in Bethesda.” Now a freshman at New York University, Salazar says her cafeteria lunch table was “really diverse, but there are others definitely more separated. Sometimes kids go their separate ways. It depends on classes people take. If people don’t make an effort, you can fall apart.”

And if kids self-segregate, does diversity in a school matter? “There is value in coexisting in the same place,” muses Assistant Principal Henry in an e-mail. “It happens all the time in nature. Different species of flowers are able to bloom in the same soil.”

Notes Sean Bulson, who completed his fourth year as B-CC’s principal in June and is now a director of school performance for Montgomery County Public Schools: “Open lunch provides a whole range of different opportunities. While not sitting in the cafeteria, they’re spread around our building. You can see whatever you’re looking for, separated by race or completely mixed. Part of it has to do with the economics.” Immigrant children, Bulson says, “have that extra layer, their country of origin, which can influence it. The kids who can afford to go to certain places for lunch. Where does race leave off and economics pick up?”

Most of B-CC’s minority students live in the eastern end of the school district, close to downtown Silver Spring.  Latinos and blacks are concentrated there in apartments and single-family homes in the neighborhoods near Rosemary Hills Primary School. Compared with Bethesda and Chevy Chase, where many of the white kids live, the homes and apartments are modest, and so are the incomes.

Danny Fersh, a 2008 WJ graduate, lives in a Bethesda census block that was 90 percent white, 4.1 percent Hispanic and 0 percent black in 2000. Corneila Poku, a Rockville High senior whose parents are from Ghana, lives in a census block that was 63.7 percent white, 10.3 percent Hispanic and 9.8 percent black in 2000. There is a wide disparity in the incomes between their neighborhoods, and both say they spend most of their time with people of the same race. “No one thinks of it as a race thing,” says Fersh, who is white. “They think of it as who they have classes with or who lives in their neighborhood.”

Says Poku, an Advanced Placement honors student: “We just blend in with the African Americans and hang out with them. It never happens on purpose, like no one intends to reject anyone. It’s just you end up where you feel comfortable. It bothers me, but because I can’t do anything about it, I’m just learning to accept it.” Weekend parties, however, are different. “I feel like a house party is more of a relaxed environment,” she says. “It gets really integrated. It’s not separate, like in school.”

At Blair, students of African descent tend to sit together by nationality, and Dominican kids tend to find each other, according to Elena Gooray, who is of Indo-Caribbean descent and is co-editor-in-chief of the school paper, Silver Chips. “When I talk to kids about it, they always say it has to do with comfort. I do think it becomes a bigger deal in high school, because things become more cliquish.”

Academic Tracking

Tracking, which critics say fosters racial and ethnic divisions, starts in elementary school, when students who do not test “gifted and talented” receive less challenging instruction. It continues in middle school, when advanced students are assigned to “honors” classes. By high school, critics say, too many students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are academically left behind, reflecting racial and ethnic divisions. Thus, schools might appear “diverse” by the numbers, but the reality could be different.

Just by the numbers, B-CC ranks relatively high in diversity among Montgomery County public high schools. The enrollment in 2007-08 was 61.2 percent white (compared with 63.1 percent at WJ and 77.1 percent at Walt Whitman), 16.5 percent African-American, 14.7 percent Hispanic and 7.4 percent Asian. But what does that mean inside the school?

“At B-CC, they tout diversity,” says 2008 graduate Anna Van Hollen, who is white. “But there is still segregation. In [International Baccalaureate classes], the four African-American girls stick together, unless you go out of your way.”

Van Hollen produced a radio segment on self-segregation for WAMU-FM’s “Youth Voices” program. “I had a lot of [minority] students,” Van Hollen says, “who said their counselors, when they said they wanted to take IB classes, discouraged it, and the teachers were surprised when they were doing well. There were low expectations along racial lines.”

Says B-CC Principal Lockard: “We in Montgomery County are trying to fight the tracking. Here, IB is wide open. There are no gatekeepers.” While it is true, she says, that sometimes there’s only one minority student in an IB class, “we encourage kids of color to go into IB/AP classes. We offer support classes for them, so they will be successful.”

Nationally and locally, there is a push to narrow the so-called achievement gap between whites and minorities.  In Montgomery County, Superintendent of Schools Jerry Weast has sought to increase the number of non-white students in accelerated courses. But the emphasis is on improving scores, not on social integration. In the last school year, 60 percent of all county graduates took at least one Advanced Placement exam, including 34.2 percent of African Americans, 75.9 percent of Asian Americans, 47.4 percent of Hispanics and 70 percent of whites. Overall, 18 percent of African Americans, 34 percent of Hispanics, 60.6 percent of Asian Americans and 57.3 percent of white students scored high enough to receive college credit. At B-CC, 45.6 percent of African Americans took one or more AP test, and 32.4 scored high enough for AP credit; that compared with 68.2 percent and 54.3 percent for Asian Americans, 40 percent and 26.7 percent for Hispanics, and 82.2 percent and 72.3 percent for whites.

When 2008 B-CC graduates Bianca Davis, J’Nae White and Naya Misa, all black, enrolled in IB classes, Misa says, “We were forced to step out of our comfort zone.”  Adds Davis, “In IB English, I looked around and I was the only [black] person there.” Says Misa, “I saw Bianca in history, English and psychology, and I was like, wow, a black person in three classes!”

It is significant that the three young women are the children of immigrants. Misa’s parents are from Guinea in West Africa; Davis’ are from Liberia (her great-grandfather was the late President William Tubman); White’s parents emigrated from Panama, where their grandparents had come from Barbados and Jamaica to help build the Panama Canal.

These three first-generation Americans led the Black Student Union in 2007-08. 

However, ethnic distinctions exist just below the surface of the statistics that measure “black” and “white.” Though some students are first-generation Americans, they may carry with them the ethnic animosities of their parents and grandparents. For instance, students from African immigrant families don’t always get along with each other, much less sit together. Lockard, the new B-CC principal, notes that while she was at Springbrook, in the White Oak section of Silver Spring, some Eritrean and Ethiopian students barely spoke, a tension resulting from conflicts between the neighboring countries in Africa.

‘He used to be my friend’

The day after B-CC graduation in June, Alex Lamothe is not at his parents’ house on Sundale Drive in Silver Spring, a tree-lined street off East West Highway with mostly modest, postwar brick colonials and ramblers.

The Lamothe house, built in 1950, has a well-tended front yard. The parents immigrated from Haiti; the sons were born here. Alex’s older brother, Andrew Lamothe, 20, who graduated from B-CC in 2006, sits on the concrete front steps with a comic book. He says the family doesn’t know where Alex lives or how to reach him.

Andrew says he took only “regular classes” at B-CC. As for self-segregation, he says, “It happens, but it’s nothing like no racist situation where I don’t like you because you’re colored.” In the school cafeteria, he says, he sat with his girlfriend.

The Gwendolyn E. Coffield Community Center is a few blocks away, an appendage of the historically black community near Rosemary Hills that had unpaved streets and outdoor toilets well into the 1960s, around the time its children began attending newly desegregated B-CC.