East Lansing should keep porch light on for school culture
DEDRIA HUMPHRIES BARKER
Usually I start my column with an experience teaching writing at Lansing Community College. This month, I think of myself when I was an East Lansing Public Schools parent.
I fondly remember my children’s Halloween costumes. One year my daughter was a leopard. His costume was a brown and black print bib sweater with an attached tail. His mask was brown sequined. Another year, she was the ace of hearts. His card suit was a cardboard sandwich board with red ink. We had a great time imagining, planning and making these costumes. And become part of its school culture.
My youngest son wouldn’t go for homemade, no matter how creative, so I bought him a costume of his choice: the creature from the black lagoon. I got my money’s worth there. He wore it three or four Halloweens in a row. It came with a plastic mask and a cheap cheesy green cloth jumpsuit. He happily pulled it on until it was so tight he looked like a Chippendale dancer.
It reassured David to wear his costume, to know what was to come year after year, and to be allowed to revisit the event in exactly the same way though, perhaps because he wasn’t the same. I’m sure other kids feel the same way.
The Halloween parade at their schools, Pinecrest (now Robert L. Green) and Donley, was enchanting. Dressed in their costumes, students lined up outside their school with their teachers while parents lined the sidewalk cheering and photographing our children and their classmates. We got to know each other. I’ll admit that part of my joy in the Halloween parade didn’t come from unhappy discussions about classroom performance, like at parent-teacher conferences. So, from my perspective, it’s a scary shame that the principals of four of East Lansing’s six elementary schools banned Halloween.
City Pulse reported EL School Board member Kath Edsall, explaining that one of the reasons was the “huge disparities” in income across the district. This must be limited to schools, because according to the census, this is not the history of the inhabitants.
The 2010 U.S. Census reported that the median home value in East Lansing was $186,700. The city was also 71% white; 11 percent whiter than the United States. African-American residents of EL made up only 8%. Surprisingly, in 2010, the number of students in public EL schools doubled, with 16.5% black students.
Still, the Halloween parade continued. It was not black people who condemned this event which is so much a part of EL school culture.
But diversity appears to be part of the mismanaged situation in the historically white and affluent neighborhood. Edsall said EL parents are poorer, too poor to buy Halloween costumes and masks for their children.
People are trying to work with the town of East Lansing on diversity issues, especially my church, All Saints Episcopal on Abbot Road. Recently my church asked me what I thought would help the town of East Lansing become more diverse. In other words, to attract residents like me. My suggestion was to help young families buy a home by offering tax breaks to lower the cost of ownership. Now I think we all have to back off.
More residents who are not white and professional is not the issue staring us in the face right now. The ELPS principals’ Halloween trick or treat brings out of the shadows how the school district is handling diversity right now. Educating all students on how to get along with those who dislike them is the test. The main ones failed.
Pulling out an event that is part of the school culture to appease another group does not set a good example for students and parents. What is needed are ways to embed different values into the culture of a public school district that previously educated only middle-class white students. On this point, the four directors need to study further.
When we enrolled our last child in kindergarten, we were offered to choose between Donley and Whitehills schools. The two schools were equidistant from our house. We chose Donley because of the principal. She was tough, and we liked that for our son. It was a matter of school culture.
It’s a shame that the four EL directors couldn’t come up with a more creative solution to the costume money problem. Some parents think Halloween represents the devil, and I respect, if not believe, that. Halloween means All Saints Eve and closely follows All Saints Day. It is a way of honoring our dead, our deceased, our ancestors. Mexicans call this day Dia de los Muertos. It’s a celebration of remembrance.
When we talk about Halloween as an issue in East Lansing Public Schools, we are talking about school culture. Yet culture offered a solution. Principals, take note:
East Lansing School Carnivals are parent productions that raise funds to benefit all students. For example, playground equipment and teacher appreciation events. Could parents’ associations not buy costumes or at least buy masks for families who want to, but can’t afford them? Most of us wear masks anyway.
But neither this solution nor any other was discussed aloud, in public. It’s not clear from the reports who filed the complaint or what process the directors used to make the decision they made. Instead, they slashed an event that, judging by the social media explosion, most of the school community liked. I know I did in my time in ELPS.
Banning a Halloween parade that has been going on for decades is a temporary approach to the problems that arise due to a diverse community. Problems do not tarnish diversity. It is a challenge that must be met. East Lansing Public Schools are facing more serious diversity issues than on Halloween. Let’s get to those.
ELPS needs to get rid of its superficial approach to diversity and talk to people.
Lansing resident Dedria Humphries Barker is the author of a book on raising girls, “Mother of Orphans: The True and Curious Story of Irish Alice, A Colored Man’s Widow.” His opinion column appears the last Wednesday of each month.
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