Education forum keys on minority achievement gap

Pearl Wu

A public forum Saturday intended to be a discussion of the history of desegregated public schools in Evanston instead became a heated debate on the racial-achievement gap and the value of integration.

Presented by the History of Education Society, the Local Lessons roundtable included seven panelists and began with a presentation of Evanston’s history of school integration by moderator Thomas Mertz.

Panelist William Sampson, a professor at DePaul University, changed the discussion’s tone from a historical overview to a debate by bringing up integration’s poor track record with black students. He referenced an Evanston guideline that suggests no school have more than 60 percent of its students be of one race.

“We can keep debating 60-40,” he said, “but integration is not going to significantly improve education offered to blacks anywhere in the United States.”

Sampson, a former Evanston/Skokie School District 65 school board member, added that problems stem from the systems’ structure.

“The middle-class students do well if they’re black, white or polka dot,” he said, “because the schools are middle-class institutions.”

Panelist Bennett Johnson, former president of the Evanston-North Shore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said integration was never the issue for black parents in Evanston.

“Integration was not the priority,” Johnson said. “Quality education was the priority.”

Ald. Lionel Jean-Baptiste (2nd) said the problem of imbalance was rooted in the history of a “Euro-centric” America. The problem, he said, rests not in the schools but in society’s negative attitudes toward black people.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s 2003 or 1983 we’re talking about, we’re still talking about the same issue,” Jean-Baptiste said. “Black kids can’t access the maximum the school has to offer.”

Panelist Dolores Holmes — the recently retired director of Family Focus, an after-school youth tutoring program — echoed Jean-Baptiste’s sentiments about the longevity of the problem.

“We’re talking about the same issues today as 20, 30, 40 years ago,” Holmes said. “It speaks volumes about where we are as a community.”

The panel also included Northwestern Education Prof. Dan Lewis., as well as Prof. Davison Douglas of William and Mary School of Law and Prof. Jack Dougherty of Trinity College.

Despite the differences in opinions, Mertz did get the participants to agree on one thing.

“Evanston needs more forums like this,” he said.