Opinion: A new APS chief can’t vanquish ghosts of city’s racial divide

A guest columnist notes that by the time Atlanta Public Schools chooses a new leader, the district will have been led by four different superintendents in four years, all of whom arrived with stellar qualifications amidst grand fanfare and soaring expectations, including Meria Carstarphen, left, and Lisa Herring, right.

Credit: AJC File Photo

Credit: AJC File Photo

A guest columnist notes that by the time Atlanta Public Schools chooses a new leader, the district will have been led by four different superintendents in four years, all of whom arrived with stellar qualifications amidst grand fanfare and soaring expectations, including Meria Carstarphen, left, and Lisa Herring, right.

Atlanta Public Schools is conducting a search for its next superintendent. The most recent superintendent, Lisa Herring, like her predecessor, Meria Carstarphen, was dismissed by the Atlanta Board of Education. By the time the next one is chosen, the district will have been led by four different superintendents in four years, all of whom arrived with stellar qualifications amidst grand fanfare and soaring expectations.

While the search will be conducted by a reputable agency that will surely exercise rigorous inquiry into the qualities and contextual understanding the district needs in a leader, the question remains – what exactly is the APS superintendent expected to do?

We are expecting them to fight American ghosts and win. It is not a fair fight.

We are in a season where many of the foundational pillars of modern American life have been upended. A woman’s right to choose has been taken away. Affirmative action in higher education has been taken away. The right to vote is again under attack. Books are being banned in schools, and teachers fired for exploring the fullness of human complexity. Proposals are being considered to arm teachers such that they might shoot people – even their own students – that they perceive to be threats.

In such a season, it is necessary to step away from educational platitudes and nice sounding slogans that wrap reality in specious hope. We need to confront the truth unvarnished. Atlanta is one of the most segregated cities in the United States. As of the 2020 census, the population of the city is approximately 50% Black and 40% white. Black and white people in the city, however, live in near absolute segregation – Black people in the south and west, white people in the north and east.

Kamau Bobb

Credit: Courtesy

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Credit: Courtesy

The schools reflect that segregation. In APS, there are 10 traditional high schools. As of October 2022, seven did not have a single white student. Without a single exception, all of the white high school students in the system largely attend only three of the traditional schools – Maynard Jackson, Midtown and North Atlanta.

The 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education decision desegregating schools is sacrosanct in Democratic enclaves like Atlanta. Seventy years on, however, it is clear integration of public schools in Atlanta is not going to happen. Hence, we have a permanent state of schools separated by race. Even in the three schools that white students attend, they are cloistered in marquee programs – International Baccalaureate, Advanced Placement, honors and gifted.

At Maynard Jackson, my daughter’s alma mater, the school population is 73% Black and 16% white. Within the International Baccalaureate Class of 2023, 20% of students were Black and 63% were white – a 52% underrepresentation of Black students, and a 44% overrepresentation of white students.

To the extent the schools where white students attend are diverse, the racial populations are migratory groups on different paths. They are merely passing each other by as the gentrification of neighborhoods displaces Black families to make room for newly arrived white ones. When we choose to acknowledge segregation, we often attribute it to reasonable variables that deflect responsibility to intractable societal forces – housing patterns, class, historical inertia, zoning, academic preferences – but the American narrative affirms massive resistance by white people to have their children educated alongside Black children. On this point, the APS enrollment data is irrefutable.

In his 2002 book, “Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project,” Robert Moses makes the case that algebra is the fluency of modernity. The ability to handle the abstraction of variables as meaningful representations of earthly factors is not only the key to higher education, but a critical portal for Black children emerging from a fraught educational past into a technology-driven future.

On the 2022 Georgia Milestones, 12% of Black students in APS were proficient in Algebra I, while 76% of white students were proficient or better. In Moses’ language, the gate to citizenship in the technical era is closed.

We are in a time where states like Florida have enshrined into law educational standards that suggest, “slaves developed skills, which in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.” The Georgia Professional Standards Commission banned the words “diversity,” “equity” and “inclusion” in all teacher prep programs. The veil covering galling racism is wearing thin. In an environment like this, there are surely people who think Black students’ educational underachievement is because they are Black. Hostility toward Black academic achievement is real, whether acknowledged or not. Such is the environment lying in wait for the APS superintendent.

Racial integration in APS schools is not, nor can it be, the solution. It is not going to happen. Additionally, many Black people are adamant that the attempt to desegregate schools was the undoing of the best of the Black educational enterprise in the mid to late 20th century. They think it was a bad idea from the outstart. Making racially separate schools equal was the better route, but that is incommensurate with the American ideal of a multiethnic, multiracial democratic society. The nuance here is that the goal is not to segregate schools, but to operate on the premise that they are.

So what then is an APS superintendent expected to do?

Under circumstances of schools separated by race, there is no path to real success however heroic the superintendent may be. In some ways the superintendent is merely the face of a cultural salve that allows public comfort in a modern myth – that public education offers equal opportunity for Atlanta’s Black and white students. It gives us someone to blame for the perennial outcomes which continually affirm that the myth is just that, a myth.

Racial segregation is an American ghost. It has a venomous history and it fights. It scares us so much; we struggle to call it by name for fear of what it would reveal of us in the city too busy to hate. The superintendent cannot equalize the outcomes for Black and white students alone. Segregation, the concentration of Black poverty and social immobility are a scourge and render the task too tall for the school system by itself. No major urban center in the country has solved this problem. It is a problem that has to be reimagined.

Making Black schools equal to white schools is a far more comprehensive task than simply applying universal standards and expectations to unequal schools and hoping for equal outcomes. It will require a more far-reaching approach that rests on a new problem frame. Comprehensive neighborhood transformation is central. New governance and funding structures will be required to bolster the educational enterprise, especially that focus on concentrations of Black students and communities attempting to break generational chains to underperforming schools.

As a matter of civic convenance, the responsibility has to be distributed. Above all, we have to change our expectations. Pendular focus on literacy, or numeracy, or social emotional health is not enough to exorcise the system of its ghost of segregation. Making our separate schools equal is the only way, it has to be the Atlanta way.

Kamau Bobb is the senior director of the Constellations Center for Equity in Computing at Georgia Tech and serves as an alternate on the APS community superintendent search panel.