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Ed Talk: The Miseducation of Black Students in Arlington

Ed Talk is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Esther Cooper started the Arlington branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1940 to fight for educational equality of Black students in Arlington Public Schools (APS).

Under her leadership, the NAACP sued the school board challenging the inequalities in the county’s Black high schools. In Carter v. School Board of Arlington Co. (1950), the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, ruling that Arlington’s separate high schools constituted unlawful discrimination.

Today, 81 years after Ms. Cooper began her advocacy, 71 years after the Carter decision, and 67 years after Brown v. Board of Education, we still don’t have education parity for Black students, or fully integrated schools.

Over the decades, both the county and the school board have intentionally, through policies and boundaries, kept our neighborhoods and schools segregated. Consequently, Black students have been redlined out of education parity by neighborhood, by school, and by classroom.

Not surprisingly, the academic gap has not closed in decades. In fact, the literacy gap between Black and White students increased within the last decade. The fact is, we have Black students entering high school reading on a third grade level, or below. The inability to master all five pillars of reading (phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension) adversely impacts a student’s ability to access the curriculum in all other content areas, causing the gaps to widen as students “progress” through school.

Through a prolonged practice of social promotion and failing up, APS has a sordid history of graduating generations of Black students who are functionally illiterate. Many of these students grew up in Arlington, attended APS schools, and are now relegated to low-wage jobs — some in the very schools that failed them.

This is the school-to-poverty pipeline.

While there are many Black students who excel academically in APS, there are far too many others who do not. For the 13 years I have lived in Arlington, I haven’t heard any school board members or school board candidates acknowledge this problem, let alone commit to addressing it — not even the ones who purport to be “educators” or feign concern about “equity.” Instead, year-after-year, decade-after-decade, superintendent-after-superintendent, and school board-after-school board, APS continues to fail Black students with impunity.

This miseducation of Black students is the school-to-prison pipeline.

APS is miseducating Black students by under diagnosing learning disabilities and misidentifying them with emotional and intellectual disabilities;

APS is miseducating Black students by failing to utilize the most current and recommended psychological testing for accurate evaluations;

APS is miseducating Black students by under-identifying them for gifted and twice-exceptional (“2e”) services;

APS is miseducating Black students by underfunding training and procurement for evidence-based literacy instruction and intervention;

APS is miseducating Black students by tracking them into low-level courses in pursuit of standard versus advanced diplomas;

APS is miseducating Black students by allowing disparities in opportunities to persist;

APS is miseducating Black students by levying harsher discipline and disproportionate referrals to law enforcement;

APS is miseducating Black students by failing to sufficiently recruit and hire teachers that look like them;

APS is miseducating Black students by perpetuating a culture of low expectations and unchecked bias;

APS is miseducating Black students by downplaying or ignoring acts of racial violence perpetuated against them; and

APS is miseducating Black students by failing to talk about and recon with all of this.

In the 81 years since Esther Cooper commenced her fight for equality for Black students, APS and the school board have dodged accountability and maintained the status quo. How much longer must we wait for them to course correct? How many more generations of Black families will be lost to poverty or prisons in the meantime? APS deserves no more grace. The time for change is now.

Image courtesy of Project DAPS, Arlington Public Library, Community Archives

Symone Walker is an Arlington Public Schools parent and federal attorney. She is an At Large Executive Committee Member of the Arlington NAACP and Co-Chair of the Education Committee. She serves on the Arlington Special Education Advisory Committee, Superintendent’s Advisory Committee for Equity and Excellence, School Resource Officer Working Group, Destination 2027 Task Force, and the Commonwealth Attorney’s Community Advisory Board. She is a former candidate for the Arlington school board.

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