Children of color are drowning — in pools … and in schools

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Our children are drowning. The rate of drowning, in a literal sense, for children of color is three times that of white children in this country per Jeff Wiltse, author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. The rate of academic drowning is much the same.  Now New Haven has lost three more of its schools due to racial isolation standards. However, I can’t help but ask if districts that are predominantly white would also be forced to close due to their lack of minority student enrollment.

In Connecticut, the percentage of students of color who did not meet Level 1 on the English Language Arts portion of the Smarter Balanced assessment was 42.8 percent (Black or African American) and 41.7 percent (Hispanic) compared with 13.3 percent of White students.  In math, the statistics are similar with 51.9 percent of Black students and 46.9 percent of Hispanic students not meeting Level 1 and only 15.6 percent of White students.  In New Haven, the statistics are even more disparate with nearly 61.2 percent of Black, 50.5 percent of Hispanic students not meeting Level 1 on the math assessments and 28.4 percent of White students.

When we look at the percentage of students who met or exceeded Levels 3 and 4 on the Smarter Balanced Assessment, the figures are just as shocking.  In this case, nearly three times as many white students are meeting with success compared with students of color.  For example, when looking at the whole state in average, 19.8 percent of black students, 23.9 percent of Hispanic students met or exceeded levels 3 and 4 compared with 58.6 percent of white students. These statistics shockingly mirror those of drowning death gap across children of color and white children.

Some people might say that these achievement data statistics are not so startling as we know that Connecticut has one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation; however, we should be horrified!

A story featured on “Where We Live” regarding drowning rates of African Americans compared with those of whites exactly mirror those of achievement in this country with the historical implications of both being identical.  The book takes the reader on a journey of the contentious racial and social history of American pool usage; however, it is clearly a mirror of the achievement and opportunity gaps that we continue to see today.

Historian Jeff Wiltse explains the history of segregation in pools that began with gender segregation and bitterly ended with racial segregation. He explains through his study that when pools were desegregated after long hard battles for the right to access public space, a proliferation of private pools erupted, not unlike the proliferation of private and charter schools.

When large municipal pools were desegregated with private pools glittering on the suburban landscape, cities stopped investing in the large municipal pools leaving them to become dilapidated shells of their former selves, unmaintained and forgotten, leaving children of color in urban communities no opportunity or access to pools.

I ask the reader to replace the word “pools” in the former sentence with “schools” and think hard about the implications of what has become the re-segregation and problematization of our urban schools and then challenge us all to do something about it.

Think of the vast differences in resources from one community to the next and ask yourself how it is fair for our students to carry the lifelong burden of institutional and systemic inequity.

Our children are drowning in their schools not because of lack of heart or dreams on their part or the part of the educators who give their all every single day, but because of inequitable access. Our children are drowning because they have never been granted the opportunity to swim.

Danielle Rathey, Ph.D. is the founder of Connecticut AccessABLE.


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