As a young, black, college-educated male from Buffalo’s East Side who is an educator in the Buffalo School District, I find the proposed closing – or “relaunching” – of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Multicultural Institute where I teach tragically ironic and illustrative of the larger problem our city has with education.
The average student in our district under-performs on a wide range of academic tasks – most notably on state-mandated “high-stakes testing.” As a citizen, I can understand the seeming logic of the argument: “If our students are failing, then we must change the staff in the school building.”
However, as a social studies teacher, I can see how truly erroneous this argument is.
It is my responsibility to develop as a professional, to the benefit of my students. However, placing the focus so squarely on the professional development of teachers makes it impossible to productively address the much larger and more influential research-based factors that cause groups of students to under-perform: poverty, socioeconomic status and the structure of our society at large.
I do not claim to have “the answer” to the educational plight of Buffalo youth. However, I do have, at least, the beginning of the answer: community. We as citizens must work collaboratively to build a society in which each child has a true opportunity to excel academically. The first steps are to build “mental communities” (that is, we must begin to think of ourselves not as segregated citizens but as a network of people whose well-being is interdependent and interconnected) and “physical communities” (that is, we must begin to take full advantage of physical spaces where we can practice working collaboratively for the collective good). An investment in community-building promises a high return on investment for every single stakeholder in Buffalo.
At my school, we are whole-heartedly dedicated to, and diligently engaged in, the community-building process. It is apparent in our school’s creed, vision statement and myriad of programs aimed at explicitly teaching the importance of positive team-based interactions among our students. Our engagement in this process is also evidenced in the large group of my colleagues and administrative staff who dedicated last summer to attending professional development workshops, even with the prolonged absence of pay. It is certainly a step in the wrong direction to disband this group, which understands and is actively engaged in the process of community building.
To relaunch schools by simply shuffling teachers within a broken societal system, without fixing the system itself, is counterproductive to meaningful progress for our students. Failing to expand our focus to identify the largest and most influential factors contributing to our broken system will cause us to neglect analyzing the bigger questions, such as: Why are our schools more segregated today than before the Civil Rights Movement, and how does this impact student achievement?
Ignored questions about the lack of community, such as the persistence of school segregation and poverty (things that King was dedicated to, and ultimately died for), in the presence of closing Martin Luther King Multicultural Institute are tragically ironic. This is certainly not the dream; however, we can build his dream again – but we must do it together.