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Underdog Success Stories on Black Valedictorians Persist… as Does the Racist Infrastructure that Makes Them “Newsworthy”

June 30, 2021

The NYTimes featured a Guest Essay from Samuel Getachew, the 2020 valedictorian of Oakland Technical High School, lamenting the sad reality that his accomplishment, like those of two of his predecessors at his school, were newsworthy because all three of them were Black. The essay describes the a “structure” that was available to the three high achieving blacks that were not available to his classmates– access to a “gifted track” that took the form of Paideia program that Mr. Getachew described as “a discussion-based humanities program“.

As one who sought to implement an enrichment based program for gifted students in the 1980s I recalled that the Paideia program as it was originally conceived by Mortimer Adler was NOT intended as a “gifted program” but rather an approach that would benefit all students and transform schooling away from siloed disciplines in the liberal arts area into a more holistic approach. A quick Google Search yielded this response to a question on the purpose of the paideia proposal, a response that validated my memory:

The purpose of the Paideia Proposal was to provide a system of liberal education for all children in the United States, not just those expected to attend college.

How an approach to schooling that was intended to be transformative and widely available to all students became a gifted program that sorted out Black students is a back story that was not clearly described…. but the results of the tracking were clear: racial segregation. Mr. Getachew’s closing paragraphs lament the reality that emerges from this segregation: 

The academic and societal circumstances that made Mr. Ahmad’s success so noteworthy years before Mr. Muhammad or I arrived on campus remained long after the reporters left and the dust settled. When the annual news cycle of underdog valedictorians fades, segregated classrooms endure. These heartwarming stories are a distraction from the reality of our education system.

I don’t want to see yet another “inner city” success story emerge from my community. I want these stories to be so common that they are unworthy of such coverage.

The irony is that as long as “exceptions to the rule” like Mr. Getachew emerge, there is no need to question the “the rule”, only an effort to identify the traits of those “exceptional students” and transmit them to more of his classmates. 

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