Divided We Fall: School Officials, Mayor Indicate That Middle School Lottery Has Brought out the Worst in Adult Community

August 17, 2011
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The middle school lottery over the last several years has never been an easy process, but administrators say it has become downright disturbing this year.

In the three lotteries staged over the last five years by the School Department, there have been tears from children, angry parents, arguments and harsh language.

The lottery has always been controversial because some feel they lose out on the “best” school for their kids. Because parents overwhelmingly choose the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) on the west side of the city and the Rumney Marsh Academy (RMA) in the central part of the city – and reject the Garfield Middle on the east side – a lottery drawing for seats in the overcrowded schools has to be conducted. Long-time established residents have often watched as their children were “beaten” out by children who had just rolled into town, sparking some measure of documented outrage.

This year, however, school officials said they feel it has brought a previously unspoken prejudice out into the open.

Superintendent Paul Dakin said that the administration has finished the middle school lottery appeals process this week, rejecting all 37 appeals, and it has left him with more than just a sour taste in his mouth.

It has left him with the awful smell of hatred.

“I’ve never had this so much before, but something in this community is coming to a boil,” said Dakin. “Some of  the parents have expressed themselves in a way that hints to me of an open prejudice. They are saying to me outright that there are too many minorities at the Garfield and they don’t want their kids with them. They don’t like the section of the city where the Garfield is and they are saying all this openly. There’s a prejudice I’m seeing here and it troubles me and saddens me.”

Mayor Tom Ambrosino felt similar frustrations, saying that the middle school desegregation plan helps kids get along better at high school.

“I agree with Dr. Dakin that sentiment exists and it is sad,” said the mayor. “We built these schools and got 90 percent funding from the state based on the fact that we said we were going to desegregate the schools in the city at the middle school level. We’ve done it now, and desegregation is not going to happen if we make these neighborhood schools now … That plan was conceived at the middle schools so that kids would interact with other kids early and by the time they get to the high school, we wouldn’t see the problems that are experienced in other communities. The high school isn’t perfect, but given the number of languages and nationalities that exist there, I think it runs very well.”

Ironically, the middle school problem only began once the new schools were built five years ago.

Before the SBA and RMA were built, there were only two middle schools and they were both on the east side of the city – the Beachmont and the Garfield.

As it happens, no one really complained about that situation at all, and it was never really an issue for parents that their kids were going to the Garfield. In fact, many parents were adamant to get their kids into the Garfield in order to participate in that school’s specialized math, science and technology programs.

It all changed with the new schools, with many parents on the west side of the city wanting their children to stay on the west side. Dakin said the lottery problem was always mostly about proximity, perhaps with a hint of prejudice in the underlying discussion.

Now, according to Dakin, that prejudice has come out in the open and it’s spreading rapidly amongst some.

“I’m getting it at the high school too,” he said.

Dakin said that a telephone message was accidentally sent out from RHS only in Spanish last week. It was supposed to go out in English and Spanish, as directed by state law.

The simple mistake spawned scores of angry calls.

A similar situation has also erupted with letters sent home from the schools that are translated into several different languages in addition to English.

“These things are done by law,” said Dakin. “If we want to keep receiving federal dollars we have to do that. We have the Office of Civil Rights in here helping us and showing us what we have to do. The community I grew up in is, in the year 2011, in the throws of not embracing diversity and it saddens me. Every generation of immigrants coming through here has ultimately acclimated to this country…It’s sad in this day and age that tolerance is headed in such a negative direction.”

Dakin added that many of the ideas about the Garfield Middle School aren’t even necessarily true, as it is only slightly more diverse economically and racially as the other middle schools, and probably less so than some elementary schools.

“This is more of an adult prejudice problem I’m seeing and not one that has to do with the kids,” said Dakin. “I have concerns when parents tell me they don’t want their kids to go to the Garfield because there are too many kids in poverty there and there might be too many minorities there. There’s major misconceptions based upon prejudice that are surfacing in the adult community and I’ve never felt it like this before.”

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