Black People < Dogs, Trees, & Bikes

It is much easier to give advice and make recommendations to others than it is to wage war and apply your values to your own life circumstances. So is the case with trying to make a decision about school choice. This may be your opportunity to weigh in and make some recommendations.

Over the weekend, I attended the WE Con Austin (Women’s Empowerment Conference) presented by the Women’s Community Center of Central Texas. Pervading my mind, I thought about my son’s (Esteban) high school choice options during the Race & Gender panel discussion. Esteban’s options are something that have confounded me for a few months. Bare with me. I’m going to be color brave here.

While sitting in my car, I looked up the schools’ demographics prior to entering the panel discussion on Race & Gender. On paper my cell phone, Austin and McCallum High Schools, Esteban’s choices, ranked as academically acceptable, received a Great Schools rating of 7 out of 10, and had notable academic and extracurricular programs. However, they had dissimilar numbers of African American students enrolled.

Austin High School had approximately 7% (165) African American students while McCallum High School doubled (19%, 333) it with a smaller overall enrollment. Proportionately, McCallum had a higher overall percentage of African American students, which was also higher than the average number of African Americans living across the State of Texas(12%) and the City of Austin (8%).

Although my son will have friends at both schools, Esteban made it clear that he would like to attend Austin High’s global studies program, where there are fewer African Americans. In the Advanced Placement classes Esteban will attend, he would be one of very few African American students. My concern about my son attending Austin High is that he will have fewer opportunities to connect with other African Americans: new friends, dating options, teachers, etc.

To put it bluntly, I am not concerned so much about Esteban dating a White person as much as I am concerned that he would have a paucity of African American dating options. He would also have fewer African American social outlets to shape how and what he sees in the world. While I expect that Esteban would continue to develop friendships with White, Latin@, and Asian students, which have been enriching and meaningful to him, I am concerned that fewer chances to connect with other African Americans are diminished as the high school reflects the latent racial segregation rampant in the city.

During the panel discussion, there were some other criteria that floated through my mind. Esteban identifies with being African American as much as he is also Puerto Rican, enjoys history, reading, science, robotics, fantasy games (i.e., Dungeons & Dragons), sports, and a collection of other activities. Both high schools have similar proportions of White students at around 42%. Although Austin High has a higher percentage of Hispanic students, Hispanics made up 33% of the McCallum High campus.

My mind began to come back to the panel discussion. As I attempted to push my racing thoughts aside, I struggled trying to tease out my own fears and interests apart from what my son desired most. As the panel responded to questions from the moderator, one panelist’s response reminded me of a familiar discussion I previously had with friends, community members, and neighbors.

Without rehashing the dialogue, a panelist commented that people act like they valued dogs more than people of color. It was a familiar refrain among some East Austin residents that White people were more concerned with conserving trees, creating more bike lanes for bicycle traffic, and caring for their dogs than responding to the needs of Black and Brown people.

Upon reflection, the panelist’s comments reminded me of several conversations about changes to our side of town. For one thing, my neighborhood had quickly gentrified over the last ten years from one with many Black and Latin@ families to one with increasingly more affluent, White people, several with no children. In addition, the city planners came in and painted bike lanes throughout the historically Black and Latin@ neighborhood to encourage greater bicycle use. Overall, Austin maintained its well-deserved reputation as an eco-green, environmentally friendly, city with its parks, rock climbing, and the Barton Creek Greenbelt Hike and Bike trails formed out of public lands.

The City of Austin and its residents have a long legacy of committing huge financial resources and sweat equity to maintain and acquire land to promote an outdoor lifestyle. According to Bicycling.com, Austin ranks thirteenth in the nation among bike friendly cities. Concerning man’s best friend, Austin is considered fourth among American cities to be better suited for dogs according to Pawnation. And, yes, you guessed it. Austin, Texas, is rated one of the ten best cities for urban forests in the country. With ten miles of off road trails, an average temperature of 68 degrees, 300 sunshine days, a three-acre natural spring-fed swimming hole, and live wild bats emerging at sundown each night, Austin is one of the leaders in urban forests with 36 acres of park per one thousand people living in the city.

Let’s be clear. Parks and trees are good for everyone (with the exception for those suffering from Cedar Fever). In contrast, I lived in cities dealing with urban sprawl and it does not benefit anyone in the long run. There is nothing like fresh air, places to have long walks, live music, family picnics, and water for swimming and other sports. Dogs and other pets have several clear health, social, and psychological perks that help the pet and their owners to prosper. Despite those who fear monger about the all-powerful bicycle conspiracy, the potential for cost savings and improved health make urban cycling a plus for many people.

Here is the connection with schools. It is not a mistake or serendipity that financial investment into bike lanes, hike and bike trails, parks and other recreational outlets, and growth of a dog friendly atmosphere happen by mere luck. These are qualities and attributes that are intentionally honed, invested in, promoted and advertised, and benefited by many. However, when we look at our educational system, we are confronted with an institution that struggles to provide adequate resources and a high quality education to all students regardless of their background.

US News & World Reports annually ranks high schools according to their performance on state proficiency standards and students’ readiness for college. Of the Austin Independent School District (AISD) high schools, the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA) received a gold medal, while McCallum, Bowie, and Anderson High Schools received silver medals ranking them among the best in the country. (Notice that Austin High did not receive a medal or national ranking.) None of the other AISD high schools were nationally ranked. In the past, too many high schools located in East Austin under-performed or did not meet state proficiency standards.

Of course, the issue is complicated. The politics around the educational system involves the state and federal machines whereas city parks, bike trails, and trees arguably tend to be local matters. However, I am speaking to the perception that African and Latin@ American’s interests and needs are overlooked and ignored, again. Through whatever mechanisms in place that ensure that we have well-manicured parks, newly painted bike lanes, and dog-friendly restaurants, there should be local and regional systems in place to guarantee high quality education for all children.

The legacy of education throughout East Austin is rife with stories of substandard schools with teachers and administrators failing their students and families for decades. Part of the reason why my family even has to consider which high school to send my son to is primarily because our neighborhood high school has a long track record of not meeting state academic standards. Although there is evidence of a turn-around in recent years, it does not make up for decades-long failures with East Austin high schools testing lower in science and math, nearly 25 percentage points lower, than Austin and McCallum High Schools.

I certainly do not believe Black or Latin@ children are less valuable than dogs, trees, and bikes, but they are far more vulnerable to the whims of the political winds that blow to and fro by the waves of indifference and disinterest in the next generation’s future. It is not a choice among an environmentally friendly city, dogs suited for urban living, or a quality education. Each is required to move us forward.

The talk with Esteban is forthcoming to consider his high school choice. We are not alone here in Austin or across the country trying to make these hard choices about their future. It will not be the last conversation either.

Do you have any insights, suggestions, or recommendations? Tell us what you think.

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Originally published at jelaniaustin.com on March 25, 2014.

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