“To be educated in my Baltimore mostly meant always packing an extra number 2 pencil and working quietly,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in his recent work, Between the World and Me. “Educated children walked in single file and on the right side of the hallway, raised their hands to use the lavatory, and carried the lavatory pass when en route. Educated children never offered excuses – certainly not childhood itself. The world had no time for the childhoods of black boys and girls. How could the schools?”
Coates’ work, amounts to a long rueful, cautionary love letter to his son, describing his own upbringing in West Baltimore, coming of age at The Mecca (aka Howard University in Washington, D.C.), and adulthood in New York all intertwined with the nation’s fraught racial history and Coates’ experiences with it. Though hardly an optimistic tale, at one point he advises his son to “be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world”, it gets at the heart of many truths about growing up black in late twentieth and early twenty-first America. Deserving of a post unto itself, ToM writer Adam Gallagher named it his favorite work of last year, Between the World and Me is destined to be a central part of any discussion regarding race in the United States for years to come.
For our purposes today however, in part III of our celebration of Black History Month, we’ve chosen to highlight Coates’ observations about America’s schools, particularly those that serve African American communities. “Why, precisely, was I sitting in this classroom,” he asks. “The question was never answered. I was a curious boy, but the schools were not concerned with curiosity. They were concerned with compliance. I loved a few of my teachers but I cannot say that I truly ever believed any of them.” Undoubtedly, Coates draws upon the troubled past of American education in his views and makes several good, if somewhat depressing points. Ironically, his book will undoubtedly grace syllabi across the nation’s colleges and high schools and perhaps, in ten or twenty years be entered into the canon of American literature.
Yet, however problematic, local schools, even when beset with controversy and dysfunction, remain a central part of communities. An examination of a city’s school system reveals the depth of its history, its contradictions, its struggles, its demographic changes, and hopefully on occasion its triumphs. In fact, Coates utilizes his West Baltimore experience to help outline his larger argument about the contours of African American life in the United States. Likewise, Compton’s schools tell its story from its inception as a working class whites only enclave to its position as Los Angeles’ “Black Beverly Hills” in the 1960s to the complexities of its modern day existence as it struggles with crime and the sometimes difficult relationship between its now predominantly Latino American residents and its significant, but shrinking African American population. Indeed, Compton, much as Coates’ West Baltimore counterpart does also, encapsulates some striking characteristics of our national history and its schools serve as a useful window into our twenty first century reality. Below we’ve provided an excerpt from an earlier piece on the Compton School system: “Educating Compton: Race, Taxes, and Schools in America’s Most Notorious Suburb”.’ If it piques your interest, click on the link at the bottom to read more.
Educating Compton: Race, Taxes, and Schools in America’s Most Notorious Suburb
“I want [my children] to have more success in life,” Ismenia Guzman told an L.A. Weekly journalist in 2010. “I want to change the cycle … I want them to have more than I have,” Guzman, mother of two, one a first grader at Compton’s McKinley Elementary and the other a student attending Watts Charter High School, succinctly summarized the goals of Parent Revolution as it attempted to reform Compton’s troubled grade school.
Parent Revolution, a product of the Los Angeles Parents Union, organized disgruntled Compton parents frustrated over McKinley’s poor performance. The school’s Academic Performance Index (API), a measure used by California to determine effectiveness and quality of instruction, scored a miserly 658, placing it in the bottom 10 percent of all California schools. Perhaps even worse, a 2010 state audit showed that less than 25 percent of its students met state reading and math standards.
The 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act set aside $100 billion for education reform, specifically earmarking $4.3 billion for the Obama administration’s controversial Race to the Top program. For states to receive those federal funds, they needed to demonstrate an expansion of “high stakes accountability policies including charter school conversions, and test based accountability,” notes Emily Straus, Freedonia University history professor and author of “Death of a Suburban Dream: Race and Schools in Compton, CA.” Largely as a result, Sacramento officials passed the California “parent trigger law” by the slimmest of margins — one vote — hoping ultimately to cash in on the federal bonanza of education reform dollars.
In essence, the law enables parents, based on the results from test scores, to pull the metaphorical “trigger” on their children’s schools, which then in theory enacts one of four outcomes: the establishment of a charter school, replacing staff and enabling parents to oversee aspects of budgeting and staffing, maintaining the school but replacing the principal, or closing the school all together thereby farming out its students to nearby educational facilities. 4 Parent Revolution and their supporters opted for door number one, and though their initial efforts failed, the 2010 Compton Parent Revolution/Parent Trigger controversy provides a valuable window into the city’s education history, the evolution of its Latino-African American relations, and the new political reality of today’s “City of Compton.”
 Ta Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015), 28.
 Coates, Between the World and Me, 108.
 Coates, Between the World and Me, 29
Also for other parts of our month long series see below: