Increasingly, African-Americans Take Flight to Private Schools
The New York Times, May 19, 2004
by Samuel G. Freedman

Early on weekday mornings, as Lesley-Anne Jones implores her three sons to button their shirts and knot their ties and tie their dress shoes, they ask why they can't attend her school. If Ms. Jones wanted to be factual about it, she could say that the family lives just outside the boundary for Public School 158 in the East New York section of Brooklyn, where she teaches fifth grade. Instead, she tells them the deeper truth. ''I'm your mother, and I know what's good for you,'' she explains. ''And the public school won't be.''

Then she drives the children to a nearby private school, the Trey Whitfield School. Every month, she and her husband send the school a check for $900, the equivalent of almost two weeks' take-home pay from her job. They make the sacrifice because Trey Whitfield offers their children a demonstrably safer and better education than what is available at either P.S. 158 or their local school, Public School 149.

There is nothing effete about the private education at the Whitfield School. Its campus consists of three cinder-block barracks tucked behind a Baptist church. The curriculum eschews the fashionable pedagogies of whole language and constructivist math. From pre-kindergarten to eighth grade, every pupil wears a uniform. And not a single child in a student body of 470 is white.

In her decision to enroll her children there, Ms. Jones has plenty of company among the Whitfield School parents. Probation officers, nurse's aides, office managers, subway conductors, these are the overlooked legions of the black working class. A vast majority serve actively in their churches and hold a strain of social conservatism alongside political liberalism. Their departure from urban school systems, not only in New York but also across the nation, represents one of the most significant and little-noticed trends in public education.

When white families pull their children out of big-city public schools, everybody pays attention and debates whether the cause is educational failure, racial bias or some other factor. When African-American parents do the same thing, hardly anyone seems to care or comment, as if blacks are just supposed to accept whatever the neighborhood school dishes up -- good, mediocre or abysmal.

To put the myopia in statistical terms, the database LexisNexis finds more than 2,500 newspaper and magazine articles using the phrases "white flight" and "public schools." With the term "black flight" substituted, the number of citations plummets to fewer than 100. Not even an organization devoted to helping African-American parents with school choice, the Black Alliance for Educational Options, based in Washington, D.C., has firm statistics on the black migration out of public schools.

Still, some indications of the scope of that migration exist. Black enrollment in Catholic schools stands at about 200,000 students nationally, and minority enrollment has risen from one-tenth in 1970 to more than one-quarter in 2004, according to the National Catholic Educational Association. Some 400 historically black independent schools operate around the country, serving 52,000 pupils, the educator Gail Foster reported in 2000 in the anthology "City Schools" (Johns Hopkins University Press). Voucher programs in Florida, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Washington, D.C., affect 33,000 pupils, the overwhelming number of them minorities.

Measured against more than eight million blacks of school age, of course, the size of black flight can seem picayune. But on the evidence of a place like the Trey Whitfield School, leaders in public education would be wise to pay attention to why a stable, devout, upwardly mobile segment of the African-American population is deserting.

"As an educator, I realized my children needed consistency," Ms. Jones said. "And in the public schools there's no consistency. It's who's in charge and what program they like. We've had math programs come and go, and as soon as I master one, they go to another. And if I'm not mastering it, how am I teaching it?"

Like the Catholic schools favored by many black parents, the Whitfield School has stuck to instruction in basic skills. The other day, the blackboard in Louise Browne-Jackson's first-grade classroom was equally divided into sections about phonics (sh, en), grammar (contractions) and mathematics (place value in three-digit numbers). Classes routinely recite aloud. Every pupil in pre-kindergarten is required to learn to read.

Such methods defy the favored approaches of many public school systems, including New York's, which downplay or altogether omit drilling and memorization. The traditional style appeals strongly, however, to A.B. Whitfield, who taught in public schools for 17 years before founding Trey Whitfield (named for his late son) in 1983. And the curriculum has helped him attract a corps of experienced immigrant teachers, many of them products of the British-style schools in the Caribbean basin, for salaries one-third lower than those in public schools.

Nobody can argue with the results. On fourth-grade math and reading tests, more than 90 percent of Trey Whitfield students meet state standards, while barely one-third do so in the nearby public schools. Graduates go on to boarding, Catholic and elite public high schools, often having won scholarships. While in eighth grade, all Whitfield students are required to collect information about colleges. The assumption, not the hope, is that they will attend.

For a parent like Elisa Helligar-Lewis, the emphasis on achievement meshed with an overall sense of safety. She had worried that her two bookish sons would be "used like mops'' by bullies in her neighborhood public school. At Trey Whitfield, nobody mocks them for doing their homework, participating in class or speaking in standard English rather than street slang. "The whole environment," she said, "is conducive to study."

Whether by design or as a side effect, charter schools have addressed some of the desire among black parents for alternatives within the public system. Still, if the Whitfield School provides any indication, huge needs remain unmet. It has a waiting list of nearly 100 children. And every family that manages to depart its neighborhood school leaves behind deepening problems for those who cannot escape.

"Many of the most empowered parents and families are removing their children," said Dr. Foster, who has studied black independent schools. "What's left, in even working-class communities, are schools filled with the least empowered families. Families with the least parent involvement to offer, families with the least help with homework to offer. There's been a continual outflow for at least 10 years, and it isn't stopping now."

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