I submitted the following commentary to the Startribune in hopes of getting it published. I hope that it was my amature writing that elicited the response email of “Thanks for your submission. We’ll pass this time, but please try us again” from Doug (D.J.) Tice the Commentary Editor. Here’s to the beauty of self publishing!
My name is Collin Cousins and I’m writing this letter out of admiration and respect for my mom, Carol Markham Cousins. I also want to illustrate my mother’s reassignment from Washburn high school through my own context as a Southwest high school graduate with an IB diploma.
My family lives just inside Edina, so my parents open-enrolled my brother and I into Minneapolis in order could have a more diverse educational experience. Ironically, Minneapolis changed its bussing policy while I was in grade school, so that by the time I graduated from high school, I had a very different experience than my parents intended. At Southwest, I quickly learned that the designation as “gifted” IB students had little to do with our innate abilities and everything to do with expectations set by our families, teachers, and community. Rare was the student that parents talk about who “yearned” for more challenging classes. I didn’t want to be bored high school, but I don’t remember many students begging for challenge. Kids are concerned with friends, having fun, and maybe getting into a good college. School is about learning how to be a person, a learner, and a citizen, and going to a school with tracking just reinforced our roles in this stratified society.
If anything, segregating students perpetuates arrogance, low self-esteem, and stratifications that public schools should be fighting against and not contributing towards. So how do we make sure that children don’t fall through the cracks because we’re too scared, selfish, or ignorant to change existing structures and expectations? We need to start by not just telling our grade-school students the story of Ruby Bridges, but confronting the present day realities regarding the legacies of racism and classism still affecting our country. Obviously there are a lot of things that need to be done, but we definitely need to change our education system, the kind of change that my mother was fighting for.
My mom is excellent at her job, intelligent, and passionately invested in her students. Anyone who knows her well will tell you that she puts her students above everything else, which is often tough politically. At a time where we are viscerally confronted with economic woes, I had to watch her publically fight for a rational and just allocation of the limited resources available to her school. Economically conscious people should consider this in the context of her former athletic director unilaterally deciding to purchase a hugely expensive scoreboard.
The other issue my mother fought against was tracking. She wanted to create heterogenous classrooms in order to foster sense of community at Washburn, an environment where students were not segregated by ability (blurred if not obscured altogether by language, culture, economics, and skin color), in order to create a school where all of her students had a good chance to succeed. She wanted classrooms with mixed “abilities” in order to set high expectations and deepen the educational experience for all of her students.
Some parents will say that it’s unfair to fight to lower the achievement gap at the expense of those at the top. I not only believe this is a false premise, but the assumption that children gain little or nothing by being in heterogenous classes makes me sick. Interpersonal interaction is not only important for developing empathy, but is also an essential skill in our economy. Furthermore, there is now ample evidence coming out of countries such as Finland substantiating the claims that heterogenous classrooms can benefit all learners.
However, striving to make a better society doesn’t start when our children graduate, it starts when people take the next step today. We are better than this, and I know that we want to be when I listen to the lip service paid to these ideals by members of the Minneapolis School board and district leaders. My mother’s public struggle against tracking with small-minded parents and a weak school district and is a shame and embarrassment to our city. I hope this letter begins a conversation while serving as a tribute to my incredible mother.