Around the country, schools that initially impress observers with high overall test scores often lose their luster upon closer examination, when inequities in achievement by race and income become apparent. Here in Tulsa, Oklahoma, we see how this works by looking closely at Booker T. Washington High School.
Booker T. Washington is a historically Black high school that became integrated in the early 1970s when it became a magnet school. The decision to integrate by eliminating neighborhood boundaries and drawing students from all over Tulsa ensured Booker T. Washington had to be good enough for White people’s children to attend. This is a hard truth, compounded by the reality that Booker T. Washington’s overall achievement obscures racial disparities.
The Booker T. Washington Hornets received an overall grade of "A" on its 2019 state report card, making the school appear as one of Oklahoma's most exceptional high schools. The image is one of a top-performing school in a predominantly African American neighborhood that has seemingly integrated, and, to all appearances, is academically thriving.
"We are the only district in Tulsa County who has a high school with an A," a representative from Tulsa Public Schools (TPS) noted in an email.
To the general public, things are professedly well in the hive.
Nevertheless, as the saying goes, history has a way of repeating itself. When you begin peeling the layers of the onion, you start noticing the racial disparities in academic success at the magnet school. For example, while only 16% of White students at Booker T. Washington failed to meet academic targets, 39% of Black students missed the mark.
Meanwhile, across the district, an increasing number of schools received failing grades this year.
Why Are Black Students Still Underperforming?
If equality and excellence are the standards in TPS, why are so many Black students not performing to the likes of their White counterparts? Why is this happening in a city that has had so many racial tensions that it inspired a new HBO television series, “Watchmen?”
The district spokesperson with whom I connected had no answers. In response to the district’s' horrifying performance, the TPS representative wrote me:
We are the only district in Tulsa County who had high schools increase their grades. Overall we had 10 schools increase their grades include McLain! *SUPER EXCITING*. Only 7 of our schools went down a letter grade. So we had more schools improve their grade than decrease their grade.
By contrast, a teacher from a TPS school spoke truth to power and described how the district teachers and students of color are set up to fail, saying,
I literally feel like at TPS, we are set up for failure. I am complicit in this evil system of continually failing children of color, and quite frankly, the only thing I know to do is quit ... A few years in the public school system has left me depressed and feeling 20 years older than I actually am. If I am a trained educator who has had a passion for teaching for as long as I can remember, and I can’t hang on, who can?
It is okay to highlight the bright spots, but TPS and as well as other school districts need to acknowledge and take ownership of the fact that they are failing our Black students while burning out our most compassionate teachers.
Low Academic Performance Calls for Drastic Measures
Low academic performance in the other majority-Black TPS schools in north Tulsa shows why drastic measures need to take place. In North Tulsa, there are only two high schools for Black students if they don't get into Booker T. Washington, a magnet school: McLain and Central high schools—where the vast majority of both schools' Black students did not meet proficiency in Math or English.
Black families, in general, deserve options, not anti-charter school rhetoric from community leaders who don't have a vision or thorough understanding of how the continuity of White Supremacy works in the 21st century.
Perhaps the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) should have stayed at the state capital longer during their teacher walkout and ensured that there was sufficient funding to hire more thoroughly trained educators, so our disadvantaged communities—that are predominantly Black and Latinx—could implement smaller class sizes and therapists for our Black and Latinx students who tend to have higher ACEs scores.