Left Behind? Ossining, New York, Was at the Forefront of School Integration. but as American Law and Public Opinion Turn against Race-Based Programs, Can the Town Continue to Use Racial Targeting to Close the Achievement Gap?

Article excerpt

TEN AFRICAN AMERICAN TEENAGERS CLUSTER together in the center of a public high school classroom in Ossining, a northern suburb of New York City. School ended half an hour ago; in the hallway outside, janitors sweep the refuse of the day into neat piles. Some students head across the street for a slice of pizza; others are suiting up for sports practices. Downstairs in the auditorium, theater kids rehearse "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown."

But these 10 young men are, for just a moment, solemnly silent. They stand and bow their heads. Then they recite a pledge:

   As the black men of Ossining High School,
   We will be positive.
   We will strive to succeed.
   We will help one another.
   We will not allow anyone to interfere with us achieving
      our goals.
   Hashay!

The students are members of Project Earthquake, the flagship program of their school district's controversial effort to close the achievement gap by providing minority students--boys in particular--with social support and enrichment they may not get at home. At their Wednesday afternoon meetings, the Earthquakers discuss topics ranging from responsible fatherhood to interracial dating to long-term career planning. They fill out worksheets in which they're asked to imagine adult lives as intellectuals, entrepreneurs, artists, and family providers. If a student walks into the meeting late, he immediately drops to the floor, unasked, and does 15 push-ups.

"Some people are saying Earthquake is a cult," laughs sophomore Jamal Rodney. "I was never really a good student in eighth grade, but in ninth grade, everything turned around. I joined Earthquake, and now I'm making the high honor roll. I got chosen to be in the National Honor Society." He and the other club members proudly say that last year, all but one of Project Earthquake's seniors graduated and headed on to higher education.

The Earthquakers are wise to seek support; the odds for success in high school and beyond are against them. In Ossining in 2006, 93 percent of white public school students graduated high school within five years, compared to 48 percent of blacks and 54 percent of Hispanics. Nationwide, about half of black males drop out of high school. Of those who do make it to college, only 43 percent will graduate, compared with 63 percent of white students. More young black males are behind bars than in university lecture halls.

These statistics have penetrated deep into the consciousness of Ossining's school administrators, who for the past two years have declared it a foremost priority to combat them. Using earmarked funding--much of it donated by a nonprofit founded by upper-middle-class white parents in the district--Ossining is providing segregated enrichment activities to at-risk black and Hispanic boys in kindergarten through 12th grade, as well as parenting support for their caregivers.

The theory behind such programming is that poor minority kids need something different from their school experience than their affluent, white peers. But Ossining is swimming against the tide. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that Seattle's integration program--which considered race when assigning students to schools--was unconstitutional. Immediately, all public school programs that categorize students according to race became potentially illegal. On the legislative front, President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act mandates that schools close the academic achievement gaps among races and classes by 2014 or risk losing federal funding. But the menu of solutions NCLB funds mostly ignores the benefits of integration.

Still, Ossining is standing by its methods. Having committed itself decades ago to integration, it now depends on that integration--and the largesse of its wealthier families--for the resources to segregate and educate by race and gender. Superintendent Phyllis Glassman says that as an Ossining administrator since 1992, she's seen enough numbers to convince her that the district's focus on males of color makes sense. …