by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
‘Ebony’ is spending her vacation attending summer school.
If all goes well, she hopes to bring her grades and academic proficiency up enough so she can attend high school this fall.
Given her current age, that means with a little luck and remedial assistance she’ll be able to celebrate her high school graduation at the 311 Club, legally old enough to consume champagne.
That may sound sensationalistic, but it’s sadly close to the truth.
And what’s worse is Ebony isn’t attending the summer school transition alone. She has plenty of company, students her age and with the same circumstance– almost old enough to join the military, to vote, or be tried as an adult in every court in the country.
What’s even more remarkable is it’s not necessarily their fault.
Ebony and her colleagues are essentially good kids—potentially exceptional students–who have been victimized by a culture of social promotions that almost always catch up with them.
In most cases, the Ebony’s of the world either dropout and join the list of statistics, graduate from high school ill prepared for life’s challenges or, if they are lucky, end up in a remedial program that serves as a gateway to opportunity.
How they got into this predicament is what should be reason for outrage. But apparently isn’t.
As explained to me recently by a freshman school principal, there are literally thousands of ‘Ebonys’ who are victims of social promotions, a process in which they are advanced through school based not on merit, but either because they are ‘nice kids’ who are rewarded by teachers for their conduct and personalities, or are given passing grades because the system doesn’t want them lingering in elementary school.
The new principal spoke to me at length about his shock and frustration over a vastly under examined elementary school culture, and of battles waged with both teachers and parents to exorcise this neo-racist status quo.
I won’t divulge the principal’s name or school, but you may identify him or her by the following profile:
Principal X believes social promotions at the elementary grade level are rooted in low expectations, paternalism, and/or teachers pressured to promote their charges without regard to their level of academic progress.
Principal X would not discount racism—albeit of the missionary sort—as an underlying reason for this accepted culture.
Principal X has first hand knowledge that when challenged and met with high expectations, all children can learn on a equal playing field, despite the so-called handicaps of poverty and cultural dysfunctionality.
Principal X believes the culture of social promotions is pervasive, entrenched and widely accepted, not only among teachers, but also by parents. Additionally, given the immense pressure on schools to “perform,” nearly all stakeholders turn their backs on the phenomena, considering social promotions an acceptable alternative to political and civic ridicule.
That said, Principal X was shocked not so much by recent revelations that Milwaukee hosts the lowest reading proficiency rate for Black fourth graders in the United States, but that the blame was placed on poverty, curriculum, poorly paid teachers and the Tooth Fairy (who I assumed pulls only Black children’s’ wisdom teeth) instead of its true sources.
So, how did Ebony get to this transitional point?
If Principal X is correct, she was probably originally promoted in the third or fourth grade, even though she couldn’t read or write a coherent sentence. Because of her bubbly personality and bright smile, her third or fourth grade teacher paid more attention to her scribble than her syntax.
That process continued throughout Ebony’s elementary school tenure, with teacher after teacher not only giving her passing grades, but in many cases giving her ‘A’s’ or ‘B’s.’
(It took me awhile, but I finally figured out that in the new lexicon, ‘A’ isn’t for excellent, but instead for African American. You can guess what the ‘B’ represents.)
It’s hard to believe that literally thousands of Black children are similarly passed along. One would have to assume that at some point, more dedicated teachers and principals would cry foul!
But according to Principal X, Ebony is a victim of a self-fulfilling prophesy, where the next teacher in the cycle either fears they will be judged based on prior failures and disregard. (Those teachers make up a minority of the local teaching corps, he said, but enough to greatly influence the status quo.)
In far too many cases, these teachers think they are doing the Ebony’s of Milwaukee a favor. Little do they realize they are contributing to a culture of low expectations for Black children that reinforce racist stereotypes and perpetuate the remnants of educational apartheid.
You can’t put all of the blame on teachers, however.
After encountering this culture, Principal X’s first response was to call a staff meeting, followed by meetings with parent(s).
If he was frustrated by the excuses of staff, he was equally dismayed at the response of most parents.
“Hell no, not my child. You’re not going to hold back my baby! My child can read better than me! It’s a conspiracy!”
Getting parents to accept the reality that their children would be better served by holding them back or placing them in remedial programs turned out to be a Herculean undertaking, he said.
Far too many Black parent(s) didn’t understand the far-reaching ramifications of their child(ren) being victimized by the social promotion phenomena. They instead, he said, focus on the superficial.
And that mindset illuminated another point few in our community are willing to acknowledge: That disengaged parents are themselves part of the blame, as are the community stakeholders who continue to put their heads in the sand, thinking it is better for teachers to “love” our children than teach them.
As a result, literally thousands of Black children are victimized by a culture that remains in place largely unchallenged because most of us have our heads in the sand. Or worse, it is a manifestation of a tacit acceptance by most Black Milwaukeeans that our children are genetically inferior.
Think that latter assessment is farfetched?
Let’s be honest. You’ve all read the damning statistics, not only of our ranking for reading proficiency, of the consistent gap between White and Black academic achievement, and of Milwaukee hosting one of the highest Black high school drop out rates in the country.
Chances are you’ve also read that among those who do graduate from high school and enroll in UWM and MATC, over 70% are forced to take remedial courses.
Those stats have been hammered in our brains so much that the few of us concerned about the state of Black America have made Walgreen’s rich from our purchases of aspirin.
Yet, while some of us have been screaming until our voices have grown hoarse, little has changed but the rhetorical response from politicians and cries for more money and resources.
Which leads me to a couple conclusions: Either those of us who care are politically and culturally impotent, or that the majority subconsciously accept the premise that our children can’t achieve or compete; that the racists are correct and Black children can’t do any better than the sad status quo.
Since I’m not among that group, here I go again.
There were social promotions when I went to school. The Black high school drop out rate was high even back in those caveman days. But the correlation between those two maladies was not linked as they are today.
I’m not wasting my time pointing fingers, or delving into the roots of this phenomenon today as much as I’m seeking to wake up folks to a reality that it is as insidious and far reaching as the pre-desegregation era when a legal system of educational apartheid prevailed in Milwaukee.
In fact, there are those who believe we were better off while under the shadow of apartheid. Teachers seemed more committed, Black parents (yeah, believe it or not, most Black families had two parents back then) saw the value in education, and the community was…well…a community, a village that saw its children as a valued resource to be protected and nurtured. That driving philosophy was why we sacrificed fought and bled; so our children could fulfill the promise of American opportunism. My parents, and their parents before them believed education was the passport.
There’s evidence that some elements of that culture still exists today, but it is but a shadow of its former self. The sad reality is that far too many members of the Black family have stepped off the Freedom Train and back into the shadow of slavery.
Why they got off at the wrong station is the subject for another article. Suffice it to say if we can’t get them back on board, illiterates will write the destiny of the Black community.
August 19, 2012 //
Question of the week: "Recently two former Negro Baseball League stars were honored by the Milwa...
August 19, 2012 //
Question of the Week: “Do you know on August 14 there is a primary election? Do you think there ...