Today: Apr 23, 2024

Educational activist discusses segregation in public schools

Photo courtesy Sabina Walters
Jonathan Kozol spoke on various educational issues he wrote about in his book, “Shame of The Nation.”


It is not very often that Michael Sampson, Ph.D., the dean of the School of Education at Southern, introduces a guest speaker the way he did last week in the Adanti Student Center ballroom.

“This is going to be a very special evening,” Sampson said. “There will be some things said that will touch your heart, that will touch your soul and remain with you for the rest of your life.”

He was introducing author and educational activist Jonathan Kozol, who came to Southern to discuss the current problem of public school segregation described in his book, “Shame of The Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America.” Kozol, who Sampson called the “Albert Einstein and Michael Jordan of education,” gave a passionate lecture on the inequalities in public schools and shared stories of his own victories and battles as a classroom teacher in the Boston public school system.

In a deep voice, filled with passion, Kozol started on a somber note.

“My friends, today we stand at one of the most bitter and regressive moments in our nation’s recent history,” Kozol said. “The savage inequalities of funding in our public schools are unmistakable.”

According to Kozol, black and Hispanic children are more “isolated intellectually and segregated physically” than in any time since 1968.

He said that teachers, who he also referred to as his “heroes,” are forced to teach their classes in old smelly trailers with insufficient seating, and spend their own money to buy books because of a lack of funding from the government.

He spoke of poor conditions in the overcrowded inner-city schools, which are often compared to prisons and consist mostly of blacks and Hispanics.

He argued that minority children who are placed in the classrooms with 40 other students are most definitely at an educational disadvantage in comparison to kids from suburbs, where class sizes average from 13 to 15 students.

“I don’t think that there’s anything that matters as much as high spirit and good teaching abilities of the teachers, and the number of kids they have to teach,” Kozol said.

According to the reports from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Education obtained by the Connecticut Advisory Committee, Connecticut is one of the most segregated states in the country with the highest achievement gap between poor and non-poor students. The reports show that “African Americans are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school as non-Hispanic whites (13.5 percent versus 5 percent) and Latinos are more than five times as likely to drop out of high school as whites (27.4 percent).”

The achievement gap will keep growing, Kozol said, since there is very little individual time devoted to each student in poor neighborhoods.

This is directly connected to the gap between the powerless and the powerful because rich, private school graduates, who are empowered to interrogate reality, will have the necessary tools to shape future American society.

Kozol also spoke bitterly of the test score mania that has swept the nation and its negative effects on education.

He said the generic tests are written by people who have no respect for the legacy of great education scholars and who “disregard every single aspect of a child’s educational and psychological development, other than the narrow slice of items that can be reducible to the numbers on a test.”

Concerned mostly about numbers and scores, teachers discourage students to think creatively and reduce them to “obedient banality.”

“Once we lock a child’s spirit into silenced stone, that child may not ever dare to speak out in a voice of authenticity or pursue a curiosity into a secret place that technocrats of uniformity have never dreamed of,” Kozol said.

Kozol, a Harvard graduate, got emotional several times during his speech.

An avid civil rights activist, who got fired from the Boston public school system for reading a Langston Hughes poem to his students, fought tears when he spoke of the time they asked him to march with Martin Luther King Jr. himself, saying he remembered “his voice, his words and the passion in his eyes.”
He also spoke lovingly and respectfully of his friend, Fred Rogers, who he admired for his soft-spoken personality and educational advocacy and who he honored that evening by wearing sneakers.

Kozol concluded his speech, which was interrupted by applause several times, encouraging educators in the audience to keep bringing joy, justice, and inspiration to their daily work.

He urged teachers to give their kids opportunities to blossom and discover the joys of learning.

“The old trees and the innocence of children will outlive us all, my friends,” Kozol said. “Life goes so fast; use it well. God bless.”

Approximately 800 people came to listen to Kozol speak, and many of them were students. Among them, Nicole Shlomo, a graduate student studying school psychology, said she was moved by Kozol’s speech.

“I’ve actually read some of his work in our classes,” Shlomo said, “so it’s great to have him in person and inspire us with his anecdotal stories about his life experience.”

Ta’Marah Philpot, a professor of Critical Thinking at Southern, said she praises Kozol for speaking so candidly about problems that hit so close to home, since so many New Haven public high schools are not ready for the amount of students brought in and lack money for basic resources.

“Finally teachers get respect and no blame,” Philpot said. “It’s refreshing to hear somebody who understands, who is an advocate and who is respected in the community of education, speak about what needs to be done. We’re dis-servicing our young people today and we’re disabling our future tomorrow.”

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