I taught in NYC public schools. After completing undergrad, I went to the NYC Board of Education to apply for a job. They needed teachers—as long as you had a bachelors degree in anything, you could be hired! I was put in a classroom the very same day I went to the school. I had no time to prep. I taught one one class I was qualified to teach (science) and two others I wasn’t (math and technology). We didn’t have books the first half of the year! We never got materials for science lab or computers for technology class. When I complained, I was told to teach the kids about pulleys and levers because after all that’s technology too. Even with that, I still had no technology manipulatives or textbooks. The classes were severely overcrowded—32 to 35 kids each—and each made up entirely of kids with behavioral problems and diagnosed learning issues. I wasn’t licensed for that either. I shouldn’t have been placed in those classrooms. Sure I cared about those students, but they needed a qualified, experienced teacher. They also deserved access to at least the basic materials for education just like any other children in America.
I have a couple of white friends who used to rail about how everyone has equal access in America and a level playing field… until I told them my teaching experiences. Of course, these things happened at a school with all Black and Hispanic students in the South Bronx. I next moved to a wealthier school district in Manhattan. I had only two classes, just 15 kids each. Any teaching aids I wanted or needed were delivered to my classroom by the start of the school day the next morning. They also had a mentor teacher program to help young teachers. People need to stop believing that the way things are where they live is how it is all over America. We are still separate and very unequal.
I reflected on these experiences as I listened to an episode of This American Life entitled, “The problem we all live with” after Rockwell’s painting. The show recalled the accounts of students in the Normandy school district in Missouri—the same school district attended by Ferguson’s Mike Brown. Throughout its schools, the district was understaffed and students had sub par educational materials. Normandy was eventually stripped of its accreditation triggering a state law allowing students from the underresourced Normandy district to transfer to the more affluent—and more white—Francis Howell district. Audio recordings from a town hall meeting at the new district that took place before the transfer revealed angry parents using discriminatory rhetoric and thinly veiled racism. White parents threatened to pull their students out and even move from the area if the minority students were bussed in. Kids who simply wanted an adequate education were being demonized by bigoted citizens.
All over the country, schools like those in District 7 in NYC & the Normandy District in Missouri are failing to educate children. I wondered what Adventist schools could possibly do. Could we find ways to open our doors to communities to provide quality opportunities for students? Could we explore ways to make Christian education accessible to kids in dire need of something better than their public offerings? People would welcome that. I know my parents did.
Although my parents were not Adventist, and we lived across the street from a public school, my attending the local public school was not even an option for my family. They initially wanted to put me in Catholic school. I often joke that except for one of the teachers leaving a bad impression with my mother (she accidentally attempted to release a random child into my mother’s care mistakenly believing she was the student’s parent) I could very well have grown up to be a Catholic nun instead of an Adventist pastor! My family was not wealthy, but they made it a priority to find a way to send me to RT Hudson Elementary School and we counted it a blessing that I was able to attend.
But there are a few roadblocks to our system making an impact in this way. One is our peculiar brand of prejudice. I’ve sat on several Adventist school boards. Whenever we discuss the recruitment of community children, concerns are always raised about having too many of “them,” “them” being non-Adventists. We fear our children being somehow contaminated and our schools becoming “diluted” with the presence of too many unbelievers. Nevermind the fact that there are multiple safeguards against any form of “dilution” on the elementary and secondary school levels. And regardless of the fact that we are called to be witnesses. We would rather not expose our students to worldly kids. There’s a problem with that.
Additionally, while our sectarian prejudices are unique to our faith, we are not in short supply of the tried and true forms of discrimination as well. Thanks to a recent Pew Research Center report, American Adventists can proudly boast that we are the #1 religious group in terms of ethnic diversity. I remain unimpressed since this only measures membership numbers, not actual integration. We may have different ethnic groups, but they don’t necessarily interact on any genuine basis in greater numbers than those in less diverse faiths do. Furthermore, we often see reactions similar to that of the Frances Howell school district when our schools become too brown. A great example is the white flight seen at Atlantic Union College, which closed its doors a few years ago. A more recent example can be seen in the fate of the Crossroads School in Baltimore.
The constituent members for Crossroads were predominantly white but the students and faculty were prominently black. Crossroads will not be open for the upcoming school year. Unlike several other shuttered academies, it isn’t for lack of enrollment or funding. Student numbers were exceptional. However, there were several issues of racial tension between the faculty and the supporting constituents. Depending on who you ask, the sequence of events may be debatable, but based on confidential conversations I’ve had with several individuals close to the situation, along with a note from the Baltimore First Church, which oversees the school, the following points are clear: there were tensions at the school, teachers decidedly found employment elsewhere, and replacement faculty were not found for the upcoming year. In June, parents had yet to be informed that Crossroads would not be open in 2015-16. After rumors of closing abounded, parents sought answers. Their inquiries were answered with a letter in mid-June announcing that the school would close. In conjunction with past slights, the late notice given, and the nonreplacement of faculty to ensure that the school could remain open next year, many parents were left with the distinct impression that there was no heartache of the predominently white church about closing the predominently minority school. It was widely perceived that this wouldn’t have been the way events unfolded if the demographics of the students matched that of the constituent congregants.
For its part, the church stated it only discovered in June that the teachers sought other employment. The church said it wouldn’t have time to hire replacements for the Fall and therefore decided to close the doors. Was enough notice given by the teachers? Was enough effort put forth to finding more faculty? Again, different stories come from different places. There is likely a good deal of blame to share with various parties. But it’s indisputable that parents and students were the ones who got the short end of the stick. Like the Normandy families, they found themselves casualties of cultural politics. In this regard, our institutions aren’t doing much better than “the world.”
How do we change things? How do we ensure that parents and students of all backgrounds feel valued and welcomed at all of our institutions? First, let’s begin with acknowledging that there’s a problem and digging down into the reasons for that. What biases have we allowed to fester in our Adventist communities? What are we afraid of if we integrate? Let’s openly talk about concerns, address the valid ones head on and dismantle the ones that have no merit. Let’s have diversity among our administrators, but more importantly include administrators that are sensitive to the needs and intentional about recruiting students of all backgrounds—including white students.
I won’t pretend to have all the answers. But I’m not content to have this be a problem that we all simply live with.
Courtney Ray is a pastor in the Southern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.