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Looking at Diversity Through a Different Lens

Published in ChicagoNow, February 5, 2015

My youngest daughter was part of the last cohort of half-day kindergarteners in my community of Evanston, Illinois. To put this in the context of the times, it was 1983 and very few schools offered full-day kindergarten. So when full-day kindergarten was first proposed, my friends and I fought it. And we won – for one year. By 1984, full-day kindergarten arrived.

Why did we oppose this change? We were stay-at-home moms. Our kids walked to school and ate lunch at home. And we thought that 2 ½ hours of formal schooling was enough for 5-year-olds.

In our defense, the kindergarten teacher at my children’s school was pretty ineffective and old-fashioned. She reminded us of Miss Francis from the 50s kiddy show Ding Dong School. The classes were huge and relied heavily on parent volunteers to manage things. When my son attended, two teachers theoretically team-taught over 60 kids in a noisy space with an accordion door dividing it into two rooms. By the time daughter #1 attended two years later, each class was self-contained, but there were 35 kids with one teacher in her class. Having volunteered until January when an aide was finally hired, I was convinced that more than a half-session would be bad for daughter #2.

Here’s what I never considered:

  • Half-day kindergarten was unfair to moms who worked outside the home. Their children had to transition to daycare to make it possible for them to work.

  • Half-day kindergarten was racist. Although our schools had been integrated in the 1960’s, the black children rode the buses. These children could not walk home for lunch and usually needed childcare. Thus, the morning kindergarten group mostly consisted of children who brought lunch to school and stayed for childcare, and the afternoon group mostly consisted of white children who lived near the school and walked there after lunch.

Friends Disappear by Mary Barr, a book about the history of the integration of schools in Evanston, Illinois, opened my eyes to the race and class divides that were not apparent to me as a young parent. Like our friends, my husband and I chose to live in Evanston because of its reputation for diversity and its college atmosphere as home to Northwestern University. We wanted our kids to grow up going to school and becoming friends with children of color. We were pretty naïve.

Reading Barr’s book was a real eye opener. What I always believed was an integrated school system was really a desegregated one. There’s a big difference. There was no provision for lunchrooms or supervision when the school desegregation plan was implemented. Black children riding buses brought sack lunches and ate in make shift lunchrooms, often lacking adequate tables and chairs. I was unaware of this issue. I never thought about how the segregated housing and the sense of white privilege in Evanston made true integration impossible. I was just happy to see diversity when I visited my children’s school.

Barr makes the point that it was only at middle school that true integration occurred. She is talking about an era in which students were grouped on “teams” of sixth through eighth graders and classes were not ability grouped. Thus, kids made true friendships across racial and class barriers. The fact that they were old enough to be on their own after school to socialize, and the fact that they ate lunch together furthered these friendships.

Middle school had changed by the time my first child entered, probably eight or so years later. His experience was quite different from Barr’s. The eighth grade boys on his “team” intimidated my small sixth grade son. The curriculum that was one-size-fits-all didn’t fit him. And he had to repeat the exact same curriculum the next year as the school phased out the team approach. Also, times had changed and most kids I knew were in structured activities after school. So those true friendships that spanned race and class were rare. By the time my youngest daughter went to middle school, it was totally different from Barr’s era. She did have some friendships with students of different races, but there were few opportunities to socialize. In fact, it wasn’t until she ran track in high school that she experienced a truly diverse group of friends.

Evanston Township High School (ETHS) was integrated because it was the only high school in town. But by the time my kids went there, I was no longer so naïve. Academic tracking upon entering high school tended to divide students by race and class. Kids in honors and AP classes were not very diverse. The “Chem-Phys” program for the serious math/science students was not even diverse by gender. My children received excellent educations at ETHS by virtue of taking these classes. But they were no longer part of a desegregated school experience, let alone an integrated one. My son was a Mathlete, which was mostly a white boys club. My daughters did meet a wider range of students, but only through activities like Show Choir or track.

ETHS Girls Track Team

It will not be easy to change this outcome in my community. Housing remains for the most part segregated. There is still a huge gap between the top 2% and everyone else. In fact, the shrinking middle class of the past decade has probably served to make things even worse. And Barr makes a valid point that kids who comes from families with means tend to turn out well in the end, even if they don’t do well in school or spend a few years doing menial jobs while finding themselves. Sadly, there are more kids out there who do not have a safety net to catch them when they need help. These kids rarely have the opportunity to find themselves.

There may be a glimmer of hope, however. In an article that touts one solution at the high school level, ETHS Superintendent Eric Witherspoon noted that a school with great diversity (43% white, 31% black, 17% Hispanic, 4% Asian, and 40% low-income families) had classrooms that often did not reflect these statistics. Academic tracking beginning freshman year resulted in AP classes that were predominantly white. To access these classes, students had to come up through the honors track. So why not give all incoming students the opportunity to earn honors credit in mixed-ability humanities classes? Witherspoon believes “all students can learn and grow,” and statistics seem to prove him to be correct. For the class of 2014, 88% of white graduates took at least one AP exam. So did 82% of Asian graduates, 60% of Hispanic graduates, and 44% of African-American graduates. The gap described in Barr’s book and experienced by my children at ETHS still exists, but it is perhaps it is getting smaller.

I still HEART Evanston. There is nowhere else I would want to live. But while my community has made many commendable strides toward celebrating diversity and providing opportunity, there is still much work to be done.

Looking back at myself as a 30-something mother of three kids who walked to school and ate lunch at home, I wish I had understood more back then about what life was like for others in my community.


by Laurie Levy
Laurie Levy  (83 of 127).jpg
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