New Jersey High School “Shatters the Pillars of Equality and Freedom”

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Yesterday North Jersey’s Suburbanite News published an article about a new policy approved by the Englewood School Board: students at Dwight Morrow High School who score below a 50 during a marking period will still pass their class if they agree to a “performance improvement plan.”

Board member Carol Feinstein:

“At the high school, particularly freshmen year, students sometimes are overwhelmed by being in a new school, having a lot of work to do and they get a 32 the first marking period,” Feinstein said. “Our thought was – because the administration at the high school said – no matter what their grades are, they can never bring that up to a passing grade.”

On the one hand, this new policy seems compassionate: students who fail any of the first three marking periods enter “safe harbor” and are in no danger of falling behind  as they accumulate high school graduation credits. On the other hand, it seems appalling, the “soft bigotry of low expectations” sinking ever lower. Get a 32 for three out of four marking periods and  pass the course. Get to college or career – and then what?

But the students at Dwight Morrow High School have no “but.” They are trapped in a failing system.

What makes this story peculiar is that the students at DMHS share space with a top-notch public high school that was developed specifically to increase diversity and achievement. It hasn’t. Instead the students at DWHS are trapped. (There are no charter schools in Englewood, no free public school choice options.)

A little background. Dwight Morrow High School. has long been a  receiving high school for students from Englewood Cliffs, a Bergen County suburb that is almost all white and Asian, with a median household income of $138,051. In contrast, Englewood City is mostly minority and the median household income is $69,557. Historically and currently, families in the Cliffs opt out of Dwight Morrow and sent their kids to private schools.

In 2002, the superintendent of Bergen County Academies, that  fiercely competitive and exclusive set of magnet schools that always make the “top ten high schools’ lists, offered to set up a magnet on the campus of Dwight Morrow in order to coax in wealthy families from Englewood Cliffs and other wealthy suburbs.. The Board took him up on the offer and today Dwight Morrow High School shares space with [email protected], which has strict admissions requirements (not nearly as strict, though, as the other Bergen Academies) and an acceptance rate of about 30%. The Record reported in 2012 that the Academies is “an oasis of integration in a still-segregated district. The 500 students, half of whom live in Englewood and half in more than two dozen other communities, are a near-equal mix of whites, Asians, blacks and Hispanics.”

And Dwight Morrow? Ninety-seven percent black and Hispanic, with high numbers of kids who are economically-disadvantaged. (It’s hard to get exact figures because the N.J. Department of Education combines demographic information for Dwight Morrow and the [email protected]

Back in 2005, the N.J. D.O.E. issued a report on confirming the inequalities between Dwight Morrow and [email protected] Here’s an excerpt:

[email protected] students have access to increased instructional time through a longer school day, a rigorous and engaging core academic curriculum, technology, and other upgraded classroom materials and equipment not available to DMHS students, as well as an opportunity to participate in focused career prep “academies” with labs. The climate of the Academy programs reflect high expectations. Teachers are well prepared, classrooms are inviting, and instructional strategies are varied. Students are spirited and proud of their school and opportunities. 

At DMHS, a climate of high expectations, support, and standards is not evident. The belief that all students can achieve at high levels is wanting. There is lack of equipment and technology in classrooms, and virtually every room iss set-up in traditional rows. In many classes, students are either not engaged at all or engaged in fellow grade-level assignements. Students arrive late to school and to classes.

And the students at Dwight Morrow will now pass their academic coursework  with failing grades.

The district has made some valiant efforts to integrate its two high schools. Students no longer eat lunch separately and start and end the day at different times. They no longer play on separate sport teams or have separate graduations and proms. But these attempts don’t erase inequity.

Derrell Bradford, in his powerful essay up today at The74, quotes Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings about white moderates, those who nowadays “opt-out” of accountability and other facets of school reform. For Reverend King, those who lack what he once called “the fierce urgency of now” comprise the “dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” Bradford writes,

I have come to believe that the civil rights movement—a national policy change where the benefit was defined to the individual—was not about whether the government would make a water fountain for me where the water was as cold and crisp and clear as the one made for a white person next to me. It was about me being able to drink at that white person’s fountain without asking. Without shame or fear or worry. Without waiting. With no more reason than to quench my own thirst. And at a time of my own choosing including right now. Education should be the same but this seems lost on today’s white progressives—who should be allies in this change not opponents —and that is tragic for us all.

The students at DMHS don’t get to drink at the [email protected]’s fountain without asking. They don’t get to choose.  The academic expectations that administrators and school boards set for them are tragic, and they don’t get to opt-out of that perilously low bar. This new okay-to-fail policy is, at best, a concession that, until that “more convenient season,” segregation and inequity will prevail in Englewood City.

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