Neither the City of Ithaca nor Tompkins County overlaps precisely with a single school district as can be seen on the map below. Our focus is on educational disparities within the Ithaca City School District (ICSD) which includes all of the City of Ithaca and significant portions of the overall Tompkins County population. All of the ICSD is within Tompkins County.
Graduation rate is one indication of the health of an educational system. In terms of structural racism, graduation rates are a significant educational statistic to consider because the credentials of a diploma or degree have been shown to substantially influence income. The table below shows national and ICSD graduation rates from 2012 through 2016.
5-year high school graduation rates have generally been increasing in ICSD, going from 81% of students graduating in 2012 to 92% in 2017. The graduation rate gap between white and black Ithaca high school students has significantly decreased from 20 percentage points in 2012 (84% vs. 64%) to 8 percentage points in 2017 (94% vs. 86%). [Note: The figure shows a dramatic drop in graduation rates for Latinx students in 2013, and then a rebound of the same magnitude in 2014. That large change in percentage of graduating students reflects the small number of Latinx students in ICSD. When a population is small, smaller numbers of people make up a larger percentage.]
Ithaca’s diminishing racial disparity in graduation rates might be explained by local initiatives aimed at supporting children of color and low income children to achieve better outcomes. An intense effort was undertaken by several community members to elect progressive activists to the Board of Education. These activists then sought out a school chancellor – Dr. Luvelle Brown – who many feel has brought in a number of policies and practices that have led to the recent improvements.
In addition, the Village at Ithaca – a local community-based group founded in 2002, that works towards equity in educational outcomes – has played a key role in monitoring and bringing community attention to the graduation rate race gap and to the need for energetic and sustained interventions to overcome it. Reducing this gap indicates that powerful community action can have some influence in diminishing the impact of systemic racism.
Achievement and Engagement
While the diminishing racial gap in graduation rates indicates some positive movement toward equity in the schools, other indicators show persistent disparities in various areas of achievement and school engagement.*
Suspension rates for for all students in the Ithaca City School District are under 15%, but Black students are still considerably more likely to be suspended than all other students. For example, in 6th through 12th grade, 13.8% of Black students and 1.4% of white students experienced suspensions in 2017, a more than 9:1 ratio.
Black and Latinx students are less likely to enroll in AP classes and to be involved in co-curricular (aka extra-curricular) activities than White and Asian students. The average percentage of black and Latinx students taking AP classes in 2017 was approximately 45%, compared with all students combined, which is 57%. And the average percentage of Black and Latinx students participating in co-curricular activities in 2017 was approximately 57%, compared with all students combined, which was approximately 68%
National evidence consistently suggests that disparities in suspension rates and tracking into AP classes and co-curricular activities are associated with teachers’ race-based assumptions about students. These enriching activities play a substantial role in college admissions, and in shaping students’ sense of themselves as engaged members of their communities.
* Data on suspension, AP classes, and co-curricular activities comes from the ICSD Equity Report Card, an interactive tool designed to provide transparency to the community on racial equity within the Ithaca schools on a number of indicators of achievement and engagement.
Case Example: Students United Ithaca
The disparities in student engagement likely result from a variety of factors. While the extent to which these disparities can be explained by systemic racism is unclear, a recent situation connected with students of color in the performing arts at Ithaca High School may provide some insight.
In January of 2018, the decision to cast a white student in the lead role for the Ithaca High School musical, a character who is described as a woman of color, led to student protest, the cancellation of the play (which was replaced by a new production under new leadership), and the formation of a student group called Students United Ithaca. The group has described a history of discrimination in the performing arts in ICSD that includes: “Nurturing and favoring white students, tokenizing a small group of students of color, telling white centered narratives, [and] casting people of color in stereotypical roles.” If this perspective is an indication of how students of color feel about certain co-curricular activities in ICSD, it is possible that their relative lack of participation in these activities is, in part, the result of feeling like those activities are not designed for them.
Ultimately, in this situation, the students led the community to a resolution that was experienced by many as a model for how to disrupt systemic racism by proceeding with integrity, centering the voices of those affected, and beginning a process of repair of the damage that racism does (specifics in the links below). From the Students United Ithaca Facebook page:
“No words can describe the feeling of joy we had this weekend either performing or watching the diverse cast come together joyfully and light up the stage. Thank you to everyone who believed in what we were trying to do for our community. Whether you liked what we were doing from the start or you changed your mind, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
Change is possible. There are happy endings. This was one of them. But this is just the beginning.”