The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote a memorable letter to fellow clergymen from a Birmingham jail on April 16, 1963, decrying the injustices heaped upon "Negroes" in the South. Fifty-one years later, as a black educator who has toiled for more than 16 years in Hempstead public schools, I write a letter from Hempstead. My tenure bears striking resemblance to King's time. The era may have changed, but the problems are similar.
Segregation is not dead. It has just moved from public accommodations, or de jure segregation (the past Southern struggle), to residential segregation, or de facto (the new Northern struggle). How else can one explain the economic and educational isolation found in communities such as Hempstead? The community is mostly poor, immigrant and of color.
This segregation has led to an educational inequality undergirded by income inequality. It adversely affects students in communities that have ample resources and those that do not. The lack of diversity portends political (health care) and societal (hate crimes) problems and scars members of both communities. Students from different races and cultures are at a disadvantage if they don't interact and learn from each other.
Civil and economic unrest in Central America have profoundly affected Hempstead schools: 40 percent of students are classified as homeless by the federal government, 95 percent qualify for free lunch and 33 percent are learning English as a second language. Of more than 3,000 students newly registered for pre-K or kindergarten, 600 are immigrants and 1,000 are children of immigrants whose housing options are very limited or nonexistent.
While Hempstead does not face the brutal conditions of Jim Crow, the district suffers through obstacles created by limited tax resources and space, overburdened faculty and staff, and schools in disrepair. Hempstead has become the new Birmingham. As if this weren't enough, Hempstead is then judged through published statewide educational data against affluent, largely white communities unimpaired by a dissimilar student body.
Rev. King appealed to everyone to respond to the conditions forced upon "Negroes." Nearly 50 years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, I am appealing to everyone to respond to the inequality and segregation that affect Hempstead students. The University of California, Los Angeles released a study last month that found "New York has the most segregated schools in the country."
Citizens must be involved, and educators must be equally skilled and given appropriate resources based on students' needs and not on a one-size-fits-all formula. It's not just about per-student expenditures, but additional resources for building labs, parent education and after-school initiatives, to mention a few. Elected officials must advocate for all students regardless of which district scores higher on statewide tests. The media must stop blaming the victim and go beyond graduation rates, test results and Hempstead school board politics. Find affirming activities and people: Perhaps the recent Hempstead High graduate and Jamaican immigrant who is completing his first year at MIT?
Hempstead and communities like it cannot be expected to be the Ellis Islands for the rest of Long Island. We must all act as if each child were our own and demand the same education and assistance. Given the level of segregation in New York schools, any action that would allow students to interact and learn about each other would help. I am urging those who may have never thought about Hempstead's problems to spend some time exploring actions they should take to help.
I leave you with this:
"Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?' "-- The Rev. Martin
Luther King Jr.