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A New Film Explores How School Segregation Still Haunts America

A new film distributed by Ava DuVernay reveals that too many U.S. schools remain separate and unequal.

Bradley Poindexter knows what can happen when schools fail students. When he was still attending school in southeast Little Rock, Arkansas, he regularly encountered teachers who he says didn’t care he was struggling. Half a century later, his brother received a similarly subpar education — then, in 2008, he died. Poindexter started to wonder: Are young black Americans simply doomed to repeat this tragic history?

Teach Us All,” a new film that takes a look at modern-day school segregation in America, tries to answer that very question. Written and directed by Sonia Lowman and distributed by Ava DuVernay’s film collective Array — known for the Netflix powerhouse indictment of America’s prison system “13th” — the documentary is an alarming denunciation of the public education system, which continues to fail many students of color each year.

As Lowman told Colorlines, her new film reveals just how much “history eerily repeats itself.” Six decades after the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision that ruled that state-mandated segregated schools were illegal, our nation’s public schools remain painfully separate and unequal. According to the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, between 1990 and 2013, “segregated nonwhite schools with zero to 10% white enrollment have more than tripled” while many poor black and Latinx students find themselves doubly segregated along racial and economic lines. The result? Schools in poorer (and browner) neighborhoods are often underfunded, have crumbling infrastructure, are staffed by less qualified teachers, and perform lower on standardized tests than their more affluent counterparts.

The outcome for many students trapped in these school is devastating. It’s a problem that eventually affects everyone as Pedro Noguera, professor of education at UCLA, argues at the beginning of the film when he says, “The future of our country will be determined by what happens in schools.”

“We are setting millions of students up for a lifetime of being marginalized in this country, and that’s a huge civil rights and social justice issue,” adds Lowman in our wide-ranging conversation about her film and what it says about America. “It’s incredibly urgent. These are the front lines of social progress in this country.”

Below, find out more about what she’s learned about the education system in America and how she thinks we can change it.

You come from an activist and human rights background and not necessarily teaching; why did you want to explore this issue in a film?

It is a human rights issue. I did a lot of work on current global issues, and I sort of accidently fell into education. I was looking for a break from the international stuff and got a job with an educational organization.

But the more I started learning about education … I just really came to the appreciate the centrality of education to social progress in this country. All of these other issues that sometimes grab the headlines really start in the classroom. We haven’t really grasped, as a nation, that what happens in these classrooms is really creating the inequities we’re now dealing with on such a large scale — everything from poverty and income inequality to mass incarceration to political and racial division, I feel like it can all be traced back to the classroom.

You begin the first chapter of the film rooting it in history about the Little Rock Nine and Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Why did you want to start by talking about this particular history?

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]I really want young people to carry forth the legacy of the Little Rock Nine and fight for what they deserve.[/quote]

I work for [the Lowell Milken Center for Unsung Heroes], an educational nonprofit that focuses on history, and we do a lot of work with this story of the Little Rock Nine to talk to young people about discrimination and bias and how to stand up for what’s right. So I was already really pretty steeped in this story from a historical standpoint. We were working with a teacher from Little Rock, Arkansas, at Baseline Academy for our professional development program, and I started learning about the takeover of the school district and how racially charged that was and how divided the community was, so just thinking about the 60th anniversary of the school’s integration as a way to organize a movement that could elevate the discussion of school segregation and equality. There are a number of different points in our history that we could use to talk about the resegregation of our schools today, but this was just connecting all of these dots.

One of the things that gets talked about when we talk about education reform is charter schools; they’re sometimes pushed as the answer to the problems in public schools. But if we look at charters — whether it’s in New Orleans or Detroit and even school choice —the research doesn’t really bear that out. What did you discover about them while making the film?

With regards to charters, the research does show that they tend to be more segregated. School choice, as we see in the New York chapter in the film, they can also increase competitiveness, and the competition is really the crux of the problem. We have created a competitive, individualist system where parents are pitted against each other for the spots. And you can’t blame the parents for doing anything they can to get what’s best for their kid. But we’ve got to move to a spot where we can talk responsibility for the whole and that all students deserve a chance.

The film is relatively agnostic on the issue of charters because there are a lot of charters that aren’t great, and there are a lot that are great. So, it’s hard to make one sweeping comment. If you’re a parent trapped in a segregated neighborhood and you feel you don’t have a lot of good choices and there’s a great charter school down the street, you can’t deny that charter school might help their child. So, you can’t condemn charter schools across the board, but I do think the division over what system works best is really delaying the improvement of all public schools.

It’s complicated. One of the things that also comes up and contributes greatly to school segregation is housing policy. You address it in the film, but can you talk a little about that?

Residential segregation that occurred as a response to school integration has created patterns in communities that affect school competition, so this is how de facto segregation has taken root, especially in places like the Northeast. That’s challenging, and nobody’s going to come up with a solution to that overnight.

It’s going to require a new definition of integration in a way. One of the things I really liked about the New York group [IntegrateNYC] that I highlight in the film is that they define integration not as students in the Bronx and Harlem needed to get on a bus and travel two hours across the city to go to a good school, it’s why aren’t the schools right here in our neighborhoods good schools? They look at integration as a redistribution of resources.

When you start to look at it from a resource standpoint of fairly integrating the resources of a city, I think that’s far more actionable in the immediate future than looking at how we move where people live. We do need to move to where we have much more integrated neighborhoods because we don’t know each other in this country; the way we’ve arranged ourselves has kept us siloed from accessing the rich diversity of this country. But from a policy standpoint, addressing housing is much more challenging. What we can do is move the resources around and make sure they’re getting to where they need to be.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]These are real humans we’re talking about, and their lives are at stake.[/quote]

A lot of times, when we discuss these types of structural issues that continue to persist for generations, it can feel depressing. So what would you like people to take away from the film?

I really want people to take away that we should build up the leadership of students. Students are the most impacted by educational policy, so they need to be part of shaping the policies. So I really want young people to carry forth the legacy of the Little Rock Nine and fight for what they deserve. IntegrateNYC developed a really comprehensive curriculum for students about social action and leadership. It has all these different ways for students to understand their power as changemakers and their power to gather data and becoming experts in their own communities.

I was really cognizant about not wanting to make a film where you throw up your hands and get depressed. I really wanted say we can do something and we all have a part to play. I want to work with educators to create a generation of equity teachers leaders. I think it’s really about humanizing students. We talk about education policy and have all of these debates at the policy level, but they’re often removed from the schools, but we need to take the movement out of the echo chambers of the political debate and put it into the classroom where students can lead it with teachers.

These are real humans we’re talking about, and their lives are at stake. We need to be talking to them.

“Teach Us All” is currently streaming on Netflix.

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