“You know what’s sad? Martin Luther King stood for non-violence. And I don’t care where you are in America, if you’re on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there’s some violence going down.” –Chris Rock
Many people in the U.S. have heard the comedy routine by Chris Rock talking about the violence on Martin Luther King Boulevard. Part of great comedy is the comedian’s ability to tap into the stereotypes and nuances of society, exaggerate them and laugh heartily. Chris Rock did exactly that. There is a fairly pervasive stereotype that locations named after Martin Luther King, Jr.(MLK) are in bad neighborhoods, substandard, and even violent. Focusing in on schools named for MLK, there is a wide belief that these schools should be avoided as they are under-performing institutions serving poor, minority children.
Naming schools in honor of MLK has continuously raised controversy. In the early 1970’s in Omaha, Nebraska, members of the Black community spoke out against putting a school named in honor of MLK in the heavily Black section of northern Omaha because they felt it would cause further segregation (School’s website). In 1998, a controversy arose in Riverside, CA over the plan to name a new high school after MLK in an area that was predominately White. Many parents expressed concerns that their children would be perceived as coming from a “Black” school and that perception would hurt the children’s college prospects. People also expressed concerns that MLK was not relevant to the area and should not have a school named for him (Alderman 2002). As recently as June 18, 2009, Dr. Ben Chavis, advisor emeritus and former principal of American Indian Public Charter School, on the Bill Handel Show on KFI 640 in Los Angeles, stated:
“I’m Indian. Why can’t something good be called American Indian? Most schools called American Indian or Cesar Chavez or Martin Luther King, they suck! If you want to check out a bad school, call it after a minority […]or the streets, Martin Luther King Way. Don’t hang out on Martin Luther King Way, you’ll get jumped.[…] They name these schools and we’re embarrassing our former leaders by doing that because Martin Luther King wouldn’t want all these losing schools after him.”
It isn’t just the perception of “Blackness” that stereotypes MLK schools, but their historically predominant inner-city locations and people’s perception of inner-city education. In 1998-99, MLK schools occupied central cities 74% of the time and 54% of students attending those schools received free or reduced price lunch based on low income guidelines (Alderman 2002). Giving voice to these perceptions a conservative Black radio show host, Ken Hamblin, appearing on the Montel Williams television show in 1998 to discuss the MLK naming controversy in Riverside asserted the following:
“People in Riverside believe that naming their majority White school after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would hinder their children’s chances for college because their middle-class kids – Black and White alike – would be perceived as having attended a low income, low achievement school with a majority of African-American students…. It’s one thing to start your life and struggle beyond the odds in an inner city school called Martin Luther King High School….It’s quite another thing to strap thousands of graduating seniors with the need to explain on college applications how “their Martin Luther King High School” was indeed mainstream and that their academic record from that school was on par with other mainstream schools.” (Hamblin, 1998; Alderman, 2002)
This stereotype where MLK schools are often perceived as being poor, inner-city schools with low academic performance inspired this research paper. While Dr. Alderman addressed the perception of MLK schools as being “Black schools” in his 2002 research published in Urban Geography, his focus is from the perspective of a cultural geographer with more of a focus on location and frequency. Alderman’s 2002 research also indicated that MLK schools in 1998-99, while not Black per se, “did not fully integrate Whites with African Americans or Whites with minorities in general”. Alderman also found that MLK schools are predominately found in the northern and western states and “disproportionately in the central cities of large and mid-size urban areas”. Another focus of Alderman’s research was school naming as a cultural arena. In discussing Merrett’s 1999 research, Alderman wrote that “U.S. public schools are often embroiled in cultural debates because of the strong institutional role they play in the socialization of students and the fact that local taxpayers claim a stake in the schools they help finance”. This role of public education in socializing the future citizens of the local communities may account for the controversy itinerant in choosing a name for a public school since the community expects the values represented by the namesake to represent the communities’ values.
The focus of the research herein is to directly address the concept of MLK schools churning out uneducated citizens more so than other neighborhood schools by answering the question “Are MLK schools underperforming academically when compared to other schools in the neighborhood?”. To address this issue, a sample of 75 MLK schools is examined as to academic performance in student categories of race, gender and students receiving free/reduced lunch or classed as “economically disadvantaged”. Academic performance will be determined by the percentage of students in each category who achieved “proficient or above” at each school. While the assessment tests vary by state, the No Child Left Behind act did provide for a set of nationwide academic standards that each state must test on and report back to the Federal government rendering the different tests comparable to one another.
To ensure all public MLK schools were located, the Common Core Data for 2007-08 was used to obtain a list of all King schools, including MLK schools. All King schools were assessed for a toponymic connection to MLK and included in the study if they were, in fact, named for MLK. Once the full sample was gathered, many schools were then excluded for various reasons. Part of the basis for the research herein was to determine whether MLK schools were underperforming and thus marginalizing the children who must attend them due to where the children reside. Therefore, any school that was not a typical “neighborhood” school where children are diverted to school by the location of their home was excluded. However, many public schools named for MLK have turned into magnet schools which use selective criteria to enroll students and were thus unfortunately eliminated from this research, as were any comparative magnet schools. Due to selective criteria and relative independence from school district oversight, private and charter schools were also eliminated from the MLK and comparative samples. Single sex schools and alternative, continuation, or special education schools were also excluded from MLK and comparative samples as they are not representative of schools in the “neighborhood” model described above. Any schools that did not have test assessment data available for the 2007-08 school year were also necessarily excluded from MLK and comparative samples.
Due to the varied locations and population sizes of the communities surrounding the MLK schools across the United States, the selection criteria for gathering a comparative sample is rather complex. First, the school must be public and house the same grade as was collected for its MLK counterpart. Data was collected in elementary schools for 4th grade, middle schools for 7th grade and 11th grade for high schools. If a school housed K-8, 4th grade was collected unless the school was identified twice in the Common Core of Data as both an elementary school and a middle school (which occurred only with one MLK school in Sacramento, CA). For the school twice listed, data was gathered for 4th and 7th grades and compared to an elementary group and middle school group of local schools. In rare instance of a combined 6-12 grade program, 7th grade data was used.
Comparison schools were required to be public, co-ed neighborhood-style schools housing the same grade as the MLK school in the area. The comparison schools were also to be within a 3-mile radius of the MLK school and in the same district to ensure similar administrative policies. The comparison sample size was to be a minimum of three schools and a maximum of eight schools per MLK school. If there were not three schools similarly situated to a MLK school to use as comparative schools, the three closest schools were used, regardless of district or distance. When more than eight schools were available to the comparison group, the eight schools closest in location to the MLK school were chosen.
While most of the data gathered across the nation comports with each other state, there is one generalized category where this is not the case. While the states did vary with how much data they had available, most at least had data available for the performance of all students in each school as a group, though a couple states did not have any data available at all and were thus excluded. For the states who had assessment data available by subgroup, the subgroups were consistent with the exception of Asian and Pacific Islander populations. California, for instance, has categories for Asian, Filipino, Tahitian, Samoan, Guamanian and others, whereas most states just had Asian and Pacific Islander, Asian/Pacific Islander, or Asian and Other. Since the data available is based on percentage of each subgroup scoring proficient or above, the diversity of presentation of Asian and Pacific Islander groups made it very difficult to collect reliable data for these populations. However, the Asian and Pacific Islander subgroups are not largely represented in the MLK sample. This research chose to use only Asian and Asian/Pacific Islander combined data in the samples since those categories were most commonly used. While some very broad ideas may come from use of that data, it is not a reliable foundation for accurate findings or use in future research in its current state.