Clarissa Fourman

Clarissa Nickerson Fourman during an appearance on 'A Penny for Your Thoughts.'

“We do not need to sacrifice our children’s wellbeing to achieve our diversity goals.” — Melissa Shungu, teacher, Kenwood Elementary

I read this quote, and I immediately had to stop and start writing.

One of the biggest failures to come out of Unit 4’s new diversity-driven pledges is the removal of the gifted program in elementary schools. It has said that not enough Black students tested into the program, so instead of educating Black students to a level that would enable some of them to test in, they just removed the program.

As a parent of a Black gifted student, I have a huge issue with this. And it alarms me about the future of elementary education for the families in our community who have no choice but to attend Unit 4.

The removal of something to challenge not only my own children, but all students, bothers me to my core. Why would you remove the ability for all students to be challenged and excel? It makes no logical sense that I can come up with.

But it goes to the heart of what Mrs. Shungu said in her impassioned plea before the school board at a recent meeting. We do not need to sacrifice the wellbeing of our children to meet diversity goals. We can create healthy educational experiences for Black and Brown students without giving up and saying, “Well, since they can’t meet this expectation, we will just remove it and everyone can be at the same level.” This is not OK.

How do I know that? Because I watched my son attend the gifted program at Kenwood. He was constantly challenged. There were frustrating times. It was not easy.

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But the young man before me recently earned an academic letter at Centennial for his grades, while taking AP classes, going to baseball practices and games, and finding time to practice his saxophone. Do I attribute his success to his hard work? Yes, absolutely. But I also attribute it to the challenges he experienced during the gifted program, the times he was pushed beyond his comfort level and powered through. He found a way to learn what he believed was unlearnable.

Where would my son be if he had not had the gifted program? When Black children are bored and uncomfortable in educational settings, they are often labeled as acting out or having discipline problems. How easily could my son have ended up on a completely different path if the gifted program had not existed? It doesn’t today.

It is not just about the gifted program, either. That is just one major example I could use to express the direction the board is taking.

The board is ambitious. But to say it wants to desegregate the community is extremely short-sighted and shows how far in the clouds it is. The board’s ambition lacks one thing — cooperation. You have to have a city willing to put the infrastructure in underperforming neighborhoods where underperforming schools are.

Because ultimately, what will happen is there will be students who are underperforming, they will attend an underperforming school in an underperforming neighborhood, and we will all be able to thank Unit 4 for their ambition to desegregate the community, when in reality they are just further traumatizing a group of students who are already starting out behind.

And because I read that the board, whose job it is to come up with solutions, wants the community to provide solutions, I did not come empty-handed.

Why hasn’t the built-in after-school program Kids Plus, offered at every elementary school, been used to test options for early intervention for literacy, math and writing? They have a set group of kids they know will be in their program from 2 to 6 p.m. Why not use that program to determine what impact different forms of early intervention can have in elementary-aged children?

This proposed plan is built on the backs of Black and Brown children, but in the end, if the board returns to neighborhood schools and removes balanced-calendar options, it will ultimately cause further educational segregation that will further divide a community already crippled by neighborhood and economic inequality and daily gun violence.

Clarissa Nickerson Fourman is a Garden Hills resident, former Champaign City Council member and occasional ‘Penny for Your Thoughts’ guest and News-Gazette columnist.

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