November 20, 2008

Ithaca Schools Seek Reduction in Tension Lingering from Race Issues

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Students in Ithaca public schools have been historically divided along racial and socioeconomic lines, creating gaps in academic achievement and tension within the diverse demographic.
Last October, Amelia Kearney, a parent of a black female student at DeWitt Middle School, accused the Ithaca City School District of racism after her daughter complained of verbal and physical abuse by white peers on the school bus.
The incident incited a protest at Ithaca High School, and the district has since devoted significant effort to ensuring racial equity in the Ithaca school system.
“There is a long history here in Ithaca of racial division, some of which plays out at the high school and some of which plays out elsewhere,” Joseph Wilson, principal of Ithaca High School, said. “I think what we got out of our own introspection and listening to the community was that they wanted this repeated cycle to stop. We’ve gone at the root of the issues and hopefully we’re going to be successful. We seem to have started out well.” [img_assist|nid=33767|title=High schoolers|desc=Students at Ithaca High School roam in the school’s courtyard in between classes yesterday afternoon.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
According to Wilson, tensions have subsided.
“Students of all races and backgrounds are getting along well at IHS this year — especially compared to years in the past,” Wilson stated in an e-mail. “Among the reasons for this better atmosphere are that we at IHS and at ICSD took last year’s student demonstration and its aftermath as an opportunity to reflect and to improve.”
But according to former Ithaca High School students, the School Board blew the problem out of proportion. “The superintendent [Judith Pastel] handled it horribly,” Silviana Russo ’12, a graduate of Ithaca High School, said. “We ended up with students in the school who were paranoid about getting shot if they went to class, which is ridiculous! The whole situation was just blown way out of proportion. It was a small conflict between small groups of students and there was no reason for it to become about the entire school.”
For Tristan Owens ’11, who graduated from IHS a year prior to the incident, racism was never really an issue.
“I don’t think racism at IHS is as big a deal as some people make it out to be,” said Owens. “I think for the majority of students it isn’t necessarily relevant,” he said.
The ICSD and the Ithaca High School administration are making progress in their efforts to combat barriers to success surrounding racial and economic lines.
According to Wilson, last year disciplinary referrals of all students decreased by more than 30 percent, out-of-school suspensions went down by more than 60 percent and grades in 19 of 25 Regents level classes — in which the majority of academically and behaviorally challenged students are enrolled — went up. In the past three years, the student dropout rate has decreased by over 30 percent.
“The data show that we are making progress, but the truth is that we face a much greater challenge than in most high schools because we and the community have decided to meet each student’s needs in one building with one staff and one primary approach to academics.”
According to Wilson, Ithaca High School is one of about 30 high schools nationwide with exceptional economic and racial diversity. The IHS student population includes a large number of suburban, academically inclined students, “urban-influenced African American students” and rural students, often from families in financial distress.
The majority IHS students are white middle- and upper-class, many of whom are children of professors. A smaller number of students, many of whom are minorities, come from lower economic backgrounds and live in downtown Ithaca and surrounding rural areas.
Sean Eversley Bradwell is an assistant professor in the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity at Ithaca College. His research deals with social and historical foundations of education in Ithaca and focuses on the experiences of black students.
“The goal is to find a way to eliminate racial disparities. That’s the primary purpose of the project. That includes trying to get a sense of how long they’ve been in existence,” Bradwell said. “The data is pretty clear. If you look at the first and/or second annual school report card, you find clear racial differences. Suspension rates, graduation rates, school participation, school awards … the disproportionate numbers reflected that.”
The annual Equity Report card, first issued in 2005-2006, is a collaborative initiative that breaks down factors of achievement and participation by race and economic status.
“It’s my impression that the staff and faculty at IHS are committed to the district’s equity goals of eliminating race and class as predictors of student success,” Donna Fleming, a member of the Ithaca High School PTSA, stated in an email.
On Nov. 10 the PTSA hosted a meeting to learn the results of the second equity report card. “It was clear that everyone in the room — about 30 parents, several administrators, and the presenters — were very serious about helping all students succeed,” Fleming said.
Though this year showed improvement from the first annual report card, minorities and students from low-income families were vastly underrepresented in AP classes, extracurricular participation and school awards, among other areas.
“I think that kids who are involved in sports, as mine are, or in art or drama, feel engaged and have a broad range of friends. As I recall from the equity report card, it is the rural kids who are disproportionately not involved in those activities,” Fleming stated. “Ithaca has the resources to ensure that all students do well and we are working toward that goal.”
The racial and socioeconomic disparities in the Ithaca City School District are a characteristic problem of college and university towns. The Minority Students Achievement Network is an organization devoted to closing “achievement gaps” in 23 school districts including Princeton, N.J. and Cambridge, Mass., where data shows significant racial disparities in academic success.
“With strikingly similar and disturbing disaggregated achievement data, racial disparities on an array of achievement outcomes demonstrate wide gaps in performance between students of color and their white peers,” the organization’s website stated.