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.
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. "I believe that we're doing the right thing on behalf of students," Glassman says. "If it is challenged in the courts, then let the courts decide."
Although Ossining lies in affluent Westchester county, its demographics set it apart from its neighbors. About 30,000 people live there alongside the Hudson River; the classic gangster movie line "I'll send you up the river" refers to Ossining's infamous prison, Sing Sing. The local economy was vibrant in the days of boat trade up and down the Hudson, when streetcars transported shoppers from residential neighborhoods to Main Street. But today, like many post-industrial communities, Ossining can't seem to revive its downtown. Locally owned shops flounder. Palatial downtown Victorians have been split into low-income rental units inhabited mostly by African Americans and recent immigrants, while wealthier and whiter residents have fled to newer homes and subdivisions in the hills.
When I entered kindergarten in Ossining in 1989, about 60 percent of public school students were white and a quarter were black. But the district has undergone a profound demographic shift over the past 20 years, due mostly to an influx of immigrants from rural Ecuador. Today, white children account for 40 percent of students in the public schools and black children 16 percent, while the Latino population has grown from 15 percent to almost 40 percent. One-third of students qualify for reduced-price or free school lunches. Ten percent of Ossining students (and more in the lower grades) are English-language-learners, and a small ESL program has been supplemented by a few full-time bilingual classes in kindergarten through third grade.
Across America, fewer and fewer school districts are as diverse as Ossining's. Next door in Briarcliff Manor, 88 percent of public school students are white and less than 1 percent qualify for free lunch. Such homogenous schools are the norm nationwide. Two-thirds of black children attend schools that are "minority majority" and 40 percent attend schools that are between 90 percent and 100 percent black.
Pedagogical trends reinforce the segregationist standard: Current thinking suggests that poor children from unstable homes need rigorous, test-based standards taught through repetition, while privileged kids are free to enjoy the fun stuff -- science experiments, journal writing, and music lessons. That kind of thinking can make it seem natural that different kinds of children should learn in different classrooms.
But there's a problem with that argument: Research shows that students who attended racially and socioeconomically integrated schools have better life outcomes than their nonintegrated peers of similar socioeconomic status. Integrated kids of all classes and races grow up into more tolerant adults. And although integrated schools don't always do a better job of sending poor, nonwhite kids to college, studies have shown that black students are more likely to be successful in the workforce if they've attended integrated schools.
Ossining has long embraced the integrationist model in innovative ways. In 1974, after several years of racially motivated violence between white and black high school students, the board of education redrew the lines of the neighborhood elementary schools in order to lessen de facto segregation based on housing patterns. The district instituted an even more radical program in 1981, which came to be known nationally as the Ossining Plan. Each of three elementary schools would house every student in the district for two years: kindergarten and first grade in one building, second and third grade in another, and fourth and fifth grade in the last. Since then, all the town's children have moved together through these schools, and then on to middle school and high school. With these programs, the school district sidestepped controversies over busing while still pursuing integration.
When the former superintendent suggested last spring that the district consider moving back to K-5 elementary schools, in part because studies show that transitions from school to school can depress some students' achievement, the public outcry was enormous, mostly due to fears of re-segregation. "I think there's a feeling in the community that the Ossining Plan is sacrosanct, that it's one of those things you just don't touch," explains Superintendent Glassman.
Ossining is "one of the few remaining brave liberal social experiments," says Nancy Gutman, PTA president for two of the district's elementary schools and a part-time college professor. "The values of this district from the superintendent to the custodians are egalitarian."
One of the ways those values manifest is through Ossining Matters, a local nonprofit foundation founded by upper-middle-class parents in 2003. While parents across the country have established educational foundations to enrich their children's public schools, rarely do those organizations explicitly tackle the achievement gap. Ossining Matters, on the other hand, a group whose board of directors is largely white, has donated about $200,000 to the schools, much of it targeted toward programs for African American and Latino students. In essence, the group redistributes wealth in the district from the most to the least privileged.
In the high school, Ossining Matters supports Project Earthquake and writing workshops for Latino students, and donates thousands annually to a Guidance Discretionary Fund, which relieves poor kids of fees for college-level courses, the SAT or ACT exam, and college applications. At the middle school level, there's High Hopes and Expectations, which introduces African American boys and their families to college preparation. In the elementary schools, Ossining Matters helps fund literacy training for immigrant parents and field trips for targeted African American boys, those who wouldn't otherwise go to museums or professional athletic events on the weekends.
Ginny Loughlin, a stay-at-home mom of a ninth-grader, is the current president of Ossining Matters. Loughlin, who is white, used to live in Manhattan and work in the financial district. She still occasionally takes on freelance work, but today the foundation is her main project.
"It's not the responsibility of one group to deal with the achievement gap," Loughlin says at the local Starbucks, pausing frequently to wave hello to acquaintances she knows through volunteering. "If some students are walking away from the educational process with less than others, that's something we need to address together as a community."
Yet critics on both the left and right are skeptical of Ossining's attempt to close the achievement gap through programming that explicitly targets children for special opportunities according to their race. For one thing, this is exactly the logic the Supreme Court overturned in the Seattle integration case, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District. Already the conservative New York Civil Rights Coalition has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against Ossining's programs for African American and Latino boys.
Even some progressive education experts argue for a move away from race and toward class as a way of integrating schools and screening kids for special help -- a step that would help programs like Ossining's avoid legal pitfalls in an anti–affirmative action political atmosphere. Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is a pioneer in the class-based movement. "I'd be concerned about discrimination against girls," he says of Ossining's programming. "And I'd be concerned about political backlash. If these are all goodies that are being provided to students, and a big chunk are being excluded -- that is, all girls and all whites -- then you've taken on an unnecessary political problem."
Indeed, many Ossining parents agree that girls from low-income families and girls of color would also benefit from targeted support in preparing for college and, equally important, avoiding pregnancy. Nationwide, 42 percent of Latina students drop out of high school, and one-third of them cite pregnancy or marriage as the reason. African American girls have a 41 percent national high school dropout rate. In Ossining, Project Earthquake has inspired two sister organizations, Prestigious Ladies (for black female students) and Latina Power. But neither of these demographics receives the same intense attention or funding that the district reserves for boys of color.
There's also another concern heard around Ossining, one that's familiar across the country. Some parents of gifted students -- mostly affluent, white parents -- feel that the district has doubled down on enrichment for at-risk students while cutting back on instruction geared toward their own kids. Indeed, a once-a-week, full-day pull-out class for gifted elementary school students was cancelled in order to pursue a sort of achievement integration: The gifted kids and the struggling kids all learn together, the idea being to push all students to perform at the advanced level. Not all parents think it is working. "Gifted kids are getting tapped to be teaching assistants," says Gutman, the PTA president. And while she believes passionately in integrated schools, she also worries that the district could undermine the support of the upper-middle-class parents who make these programs financially possible.
The question, of course, is whether Ossining's strategy is working. And here the picture gets even murkier. The district is looking carefully at the impact of its enrichment programs; every black male elementary schooler has his progress tracked by teachers, counselors, and administrators. "Regrettably," says Superintendent Glassman, "we still have not cracked the code here."
Pedro Noguera is a New York University sociologist and nationally recognized expert on the achievement gap who has been working with Ossining administrators and teachers for two years. While some of the students participating in Ossining's social support programs are doing very well, Noguera advises caution in calling Ossining's race- and gender-targeted approach a model for other districts.
"What I give them credit for already is their willingness to do something and not sort of throw up their hands and blame kids and blame parents," Noguera says. "Now it's a question of getting them to focus on the kinds of activities that will give the best results. They're doing a lot of things, but it's not clear that they're working." He says the results of his research are forthcoming.
Not all of Ossining's programs have a racial component -- some are set up to cast a wider net and may turn out to be more effective simply by virtue of reaching more students. In the high school, all tenth- and eleventh-graders are now required to take the PSAT exam, which gets teenagers thinking about college earlier than many otherwise would. The district covers the test fee for all students, and on the day of the exam, freshmen and seniors have their choice of visiting one of 12 nearby college campuses. Additionally, the Guidance Discretionary Fund has written checks to more than 60 students who told their guidance counselors they could not afford test-prep courses, college application fees, and the like.
The school has also revised its curricula to lure a more diverse body of students into advanced courses. In addition to standard Advanced Placement classes, the high school now offers college-level courses affiliated with Syracuse University and the State University of New York. "Racism, Classism, Sexism" and "Black History," both SUNY classes, are team taught by two teachers, one black, one white. More personal and freewheeling than the test-driven and Eurocentric curriculum of AP United States History and AP English Literature, the classes draw primarily nonwhite students.
In October, students in the black history class discussed the Clark doll test, which found that in 1940s America, black children regarded white dolls as "prettier" and "nicer" than black dolls. The research, conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark, was presented as key evidence in Brown v. Board of Education to show that segregation depresses black children's self-esteem. In Racism, Classism, Sexism one day, students debated the extent to which adults push children toward traditional gender roles, and talked about the categories of gay, straight, masculine, feminine, and transgender. Posters displayed in the classroom in which both courses meet defined Marxist Criticism, Biographical Criticism, New Criticism, and Deconstruction, all important movements in the academic humanities, none of which are probed at any depth in Advanced Placement curricula.
Still, these SUNY classes aren't regarded as the most elite either within Ossining High School or by college admissions officials. Advanced Placement remains the gold standard, and AP classes, according to Ossining students, are still heavily white.
Ossining administrators say they're addressing the problem in part by training teachers and guidance counselors to hold students of color to higher expectations. But some students say they continue to feel judged by some of the adults around them. "When you, a black student, walk into class, they say, ‘It's great if he gets a B,'" explains senior Damian Gillespie, president of Project Earthquake. "But if the white student gets a B, it's, ‘You could do better, you gotta do better, don't settle for less.' That's what Earthquake is trying to do. We're trying to say to the black community, ‘don't just settle.'"
The fact that Project Earthquake needs to exist -- that a district as diverse as Ossining still struggles to guide African American boys toward graduation -- is a reminder that integrated school buildings aren't enough to improve the academic achievement of poor, minority kids. Indeed, the persistence of the achievement gap in Ossining echoes the national data available on race, class, and academic success in integrated schools. A study of about 1,200 children from poor families who relocated to subsidized housing in mixed-income areas during the late 1990s showed that the academic achievement of those children did not improve with the move. The findings were most discouraging for boys, who in some cases did even worse in integrated schools.
But that same study revealed other facts, facts that support Ossining's efforts to maintain diversity: While academically stagnant, those same poor children, when living in the suburbs, were healthier and less likely to get involved in drugs or gangs. For Project Earthquake member Jamal Rodney, a racially integrated education has proven to him that "even though somebody might be white or Hispanic, it doesn't necessarily mean they're going to act wrong towards me." Fellow Earthquake member Jonathan McRae says that because of the group, "I actually had a dream of going to Harvard. Harvard Law."
Whether Project Earthquake and race-specific programs like it can get McRae to Harvard remains to be seen. Since Ossining initiated its targeted programs in 2002, the percentage of students going on to college has risen only slightly. And due to the potential legal and political pitfalls of the programs, it's unclear how long the district will be able to continue its experimentation. What is clear is that without integration, Ossining wouldn't have either the will or the way to provide poor students of color with so many extras. There aren't very many suburban towns in America where white stay-at-home moms spend their time raising money for African American masculinity support groups.
On an overcast fall afternoon, two Ossining High School students walk home together from school, heading downtown in the direction of Sing Sing prison. One is Wesley Dyer, a black freshman in a baseball cap. His friend is Liz O'Hanlon, a white freshman wearing the hipster uniform of the day: leggings, ballet flats, a long shirt, and a wide belt.
"It's really diverse in our school, but I also heard that they're trying to break the elementary schools into neighborhoods again," O'Hanlon says, referring to the controversies of the previous year. "If you notice, there are some neighborhoods that are mostly black and some that are mostly white. Some are mostly Hispanic. If they broke it up into neighborhood schools, then you wouldn't really get a mix of people."
That O'Hanlon has gotten to know so many different kinds of people at her school sets her apart from the vast majority of suburban American 14-year-olds. She says integration is her favorite thing about Ossining. Dyer nods seriously in agreement. Neighborhood schools "would be like going back to segregation," he says. "It wouldn't make any sense to go back."