View African-American History Month through the prism of challenge 

Elsie McCabe Thompson, President of New York Mission Society | 3/1/2018, 11:09 a.m.
African-American History Month needs a 21st century upgrade.
African-American History Month Pixabay

African-American History Month needs a 21st century upgrade. It should not be seen simply as an opportunity to celebrate our achievements, our role models and our legacy. It needs to be viewed as well through the prism of challenges that still exist today, particularly at a time in our history when many people still feel disenfranchised and unable to achieve the equality expected in a democracy.

Sadly, one area where the gap between success and failure is blatantly apparent is in income and, by extension, education. In New York City, it appears that many African-American students are still not receiving the quality education that will help raise their academic performance and their aspirations.

An analysis unveiled recently by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School displayed a sizable achievement gap, showing how many low-income African-American and Latino students were attending schools with one another, whereas white students from richer families were learning in more diverse settings.

The intersection of race, income and achievement became abundantly clear when noting that the poorer students were, the lower their test scores were. The study noted how students from families with incomes under $30,000 were mostly Black and Hispanic, whereas those from families earning $80,000 or more were mostly white.

Another recent report, issued by the Independent Budget Office in December 2017, found in the 2008-2009 academic year a pattern of achievement gaps based on race and gender in the city’s schools, with white students outperforming African-American students on New York State tests in third grade reading and math, and African-American student performance deteriorating sharply compared with students of other races by eighth grade reading and seventh grade math. That same report also noted that 80 percent of elementary schools had students of one race despite the city’s racial diversity.

These disparities aren’t exclusive to New York City, and my frustration isn’t aimed at any one governing body or elected official. As the IBO said, “Achievement gaps—by race, gender and income—have been one of the most persistent and disquieting facts of K-12 education in the U.S.”

 While there has been some progress, it’s time to explore other mechanisms to not just narrow but close this educational disparity gap. I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, but I do have the passion and willpower to take a hard look at what is not working and what is working, and to find ways to help all the children and young adults that I can.

It’s why, for example, at the New York City Mission Society, when we looked back to our history, the common thread among all of our programming is education. Having served hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers over two centuries, we have decided that it’s not just about quantity of education, but quality.

Students from low-income communities should not be trapped in under-resourced classrooms learning rote instruction. Instead, we must identify innovative ways to explore the world through digital resources such as augmented and virtual reality, discover arts and culture with access to instrument libraries and arts instructors, and understand how diversity in our city, our country and the world shapes their lives.