Private school was my escape from racial tracking in my suburban district

School pushout of black students is endemic in public education.

In California, where I now live, many of the black students forced out of the classroom in recent years weren’t suspended for fighting or bringing weapons to school, but for the subjective behaviors that fall under the umbrella of “willful defiance.”

So many black students were disciplined for behaviors that don’t warrant removing them from class, that in 2013 the board of the Los Angeles Unified School District voted to ban willful defiance suspensions. The fact that even black preschool students are disciplined more severely than white preschoolers signals to me that teacher bias plays a significant role in the academic outcomes of black students, which is why I applaud District 65 for taking earnest steps to address it.

If I hadn’t genuinely enjoyed learning, hostile interactions with teachers may have led to my undoing in school. Instead, I excelled when I left Lincoln for Nichols Middle School. Nichols has been the subject of depressing write-ups about District 65’s achievement gap.

In Friends Disappear, Evanston native and sociologist Mary Barr describes how her black friends from the school mostly ended up dead or destitute, while white students like her ended up leading comfortable lives, even if they’d temporarily fallen off track.

For me, Nichols leveled the playing field in some ways. Parents weren’t perennially present in the halls like they were in elementary school, and teachers seemed more interested in my work as a student rather than how my parents earned a living. The school was also more racially diverse than Lincoln—among students and faculty alike.

By eighth grade, my standardized test scores were so high that my guidance counselor suggested I apply for a scholarship to attend private high school through an organization called A Better Chance. I won the scholarship, despite little desire to part from the classmates I’d known since kindergarten.

Although I’d thrived academically in middle school, it was clear that this transitional period served to deepen the divide between black and white students. One teacher remarked how middle school graduation would be the last graduation ceremony that some students would experience. Moreover, middle school performance was used to track students at Evanston Township High School.

Had I gone to ETHS rather than a nearby private school, I would have been enrolled in nearly all honors classes. But black students at ETHS largely wound up in lower tracks, while white students found themselves in advanced courses. So, although the school is one of the most racially diverse in the North Shore, students there have typically had wildly different experiences based on their ethnicity and socioeconomic background.

The fear of tracking was one of the reasons my parents said they wanted me to attend private school. But there I faced new challenges. I was one of few black students in the entire school, and interacting with classmates who found me to be a novelty led to a sense of alienation that persisted throughout my high school years.

Today, I remain skeptical of black parents who think they’re serving their children best by enrolling them in primarily white public or private schools. After all, the achievement gap, punitive discipline and racial bias follow students of color to these schools, leading to a host of socio-emotional problems.

The New York Times Magazine reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones recalled that when she attended schools in the mostly white section of her town, it gave her the opportunity to enter the homes of doctors and scientists. It led her to imagine a life for herself she didn’t think possible, since her family members all worked blue-collar jobs. But in the new PBS documentary, “And Still I Rise: Black America Since MLK,” she pointed out that nothing magical happens when black kids attend integrated schools.

“I think sometimes we get confused and we think that there’s something about sitting next to white kids that makes black kids smart,” she said. But, she asserts, it’s the resources predominantly white schools get that benefits black students. “There’s something about sitting next to white kids that allows black kids to get the same textbooks and to get the same instruction and to get physics in their high school, and that’s really it.”

For years, I questioned the motives of white, Christian parents who homeschool their children. I wondered if their primary reason for doing so was to prevent their children from interacting with kids who didn’t look like them or share their worldview. But I wholly understand the growing numbers of black parents who’ve turned to homeschooling because they’re disillusioned by their children’s treatment in school.

Of course, the solution to the racial achievement gap isn’t a mass exodus of black children from public schools. The remedy will require parents to hold teachers and school districts accountable, just as black parents in Evanston have done after years of an unwavering achievement gap.

As public schools have resegregated nationally, black families in diverse school districts can’t afford to let their children get an education that’s any less excellent than the education non-black children receive.

This means questioning punitive discipline, challenging learning disorder diagnoses, fighting tracking and shining a spotlight on teacher bias.

This means giving children of color the tools to negotiate school systems in which they’re rarely viewed as young, gifted and black.

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Nadra Nittle

Nadra Nittle

Nadra Kareem Nittle is a Los Angeles-based journalist. She’s reported on education for the Los Angeles News Group, the Atlantic, EdSource and others. She was raised in Evanston, attended public and private schools in the area, and graduated from Occidental College in Los Angeles with a bachelor's and master's degree in English.

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