In his whirlwind tour of Atlanta Monday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan seemed to have the most fun with the students at Grady High School. (See earlier blog on his session with educators and community leaders.)
The session was short but lively as the teens talked about bridging the racial divide at their midtown high school
Duncan joined 23 members of Grady’s Social Diversity Club. The education secretary listened far more than he talked, but was impressed with the students’ insightful comments about why teens tend to socialize with classmates who are similar to them. Some kids felt the racial divide had its roots in elementary and middle schools that were largely segregated due to Atlanta housing patterns.
Because of segregated neighborhood schools, students arrive at high school with tightly formed social circles already in place. A few students also felt the early sorting of kids by academic abilities created rifts and perhaps the practice of tracking should be rethought.
That led another student to say, “You can’t punish people for being intelligent.”
In noting their candor, Duncan asked Grady students why they were able to talk openly about sensitive topics like race. The students credited the accepting atmosphere of Grady and the school’s own willingness to air tough issues.
As a communications magnet, Grady has long been noted for its school newspaper, literary magazine and debate and mock trial programs. Kids come there who love language and who want to communicate. On top of that, the school draws the sons and daughters of Atlanta’s legal elite; kids whose parents are attorneys and judges are often strong debaters.
Before Duncan arrived at the classroom, one of his staff talked to the students about the visit and quizzed them. Likely unaware of Grady’s strong academic reputation, the guy began to explain the branches of government to the class. It took him about six seconds to figure out that these kids knew all about the branches of government and could tell him how many people were in the Cabinet.
Because Duncan was running late, the students had time to discuss a new cafeteria policy that many felt furthered class divides. Under the policy, students who buy the school lunch sit in a different area than peers who bring lunch from home. According to the students, middle-class white kids are more likely to bring lunch and lower-income minority kids are more apt to get the school lunch, thus creating a social divide.
(Duncan heard a quick recap of the policy when he came to the class, as did Grady officials who pledged to look into the unintended consequences.)
Anyone worried about the quality of public education would have left Grady as Duncan did, very impressed.