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A right to an education

| Thursday, December 2, 2021

As I have noted in earlier columns, I am back on campus as part of the Inspired Leadership Initiative program (ILI). We study together as a group of Fellows and also take classes in a wide range of fields of study with undergrad and graduate students. Earlier this semester, in my wonderful sociology class — professor Amy Langenkamp’s “Social Inequality in American Education” — we learned about two rival school districts: one predominantly Black, under-funded and failing, the other majority white, with reasonable funding (no school district is ever well-funded), yet profoundly broken.

Our learning focused on the early reporting of Notre Dame alumna Nikole Hannah-Jones ’98 and Ira Glass in “The Problem We All Live With” — episode 562 of the This American Life podcast, published July 31, 2015. In this episode, through tapes of a local school board meeting recorded by the St. Louis Public Radio station, we hear a story of the extraordinary efforts of Black students and their families in the failing school as they attempt to continue their education despite the efforts of local politicians, educators and parents. I am grateful to Hannah-Jones for her work as a journalist in bringing attention to the problem of discrimination in education.

In short, the Normandy high school lost its state accreditation after many years of not meeting academic standards. The new designation — unaccredited — allowed Normandy students to transfer to Francis Howell. Francis Howell was neither a short bus ride to Normandy nor welcoming of the prospective transfer students. The podcast demonstrates in vivid language the perspectives and prejudices of the unwelcoming parents. They didn’t want their white children to suffer “violence” at the hands of the transfer students; and were concerned that their “award-winning school district” would suffer from what they called the lackluster academic performance of the incoming young people. Keep in mind that despite their strong opinions, not one of the parents on tape offered a single fact or statistic to support their claims.

Fortunately for the new transfer students, the Francis Howell teachers banded together and created a new student welcome program that allowed a number of them to succeed and even flourish at their new school.

Despite being allowed to transfer, having some students thrive and actually achieving the hope of integration, “the powers that be” were not finished. The Normandy parents had to go to court to protect their children’s right to an education at Francis Howell. These parents filed a lawsuit in defense of their children and, ultimately, their right to an education. And it is here, in court, that the second Notre Dame alumnus enters the picture. Judge Michael Burton ’82 was called on to determine if Normandy was still “unaccredited,” if the school district had properly followed its own procedure and, finally, if the students had the right to be at Francis Howell. Judge Burton — who is also a Fellow in the ILI program — ruled in favor of the former Normandy students. And, though the podcast format does a superior job of reflecting the animus of the Francis Howell parents, Burton’s written decision and the unsigned “love letter” he received after his decision are a perfect testimony to the students and their case. From Burton’s decision: “Plaintiffs (Normandy students) simply seek a decent education.” Every day a student attends an unaccredited school, the child could experience harm that cannot be repaired.

Earlier this week, Judge Burton joined us in Prof. Langenkamp’s class to share his role in this decision and to further defend the Normandy students. I am grateful to Judge Burton for his friendship, his work and to both him and Nikole Hannah-Jones as Notre Dame alumni for their central roles in this situation. They honor us in their fight for the educational rights of the Normandy students.

(Nikole Hannah-Jones watchers will note that her early work focused on racial segregation in America, particularly in education. She was recognized with a MacArthur Foundation fellowship — commonly called a “Genius Grant” — for that work.)

Mary Ellen Woods is a graduate of the Notre Dame class of 1980. She has returned to campus as a Fellow in the Inspired Leadership Initiative (ILI). As an undergraduate, she lived in Breen-Phillips and now lives off campus. Her columns appear every other Thursday. A longtime resident of Chicago, she can be reached at [email protected] or @MEWsmuses on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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