Edison Public Schools (EPS) is failing its students. More specifically, EPS, like most American systems, is not explicitly anti-racist. Merely a glance at the Instagram account @racism.inedisonschools demonstrates the impact of the school system on students’ psychological well-being. The Instagram account has published over 100 testimonies from current and former students, sharing lived experiences with other students and administrators who have not been held accountable for racist acts on school grounds. Furthermore, the effects of this racist system are perpetuated by a disconnect between the diversity of the student body and EPS’ administrators.
Edison High School has a student body with 73.6% students of color, and John P. Stevens High School has a student body with 89.1% students of color. However, the certified staff of the school district, including educators, support system, and administrators, are 89.1% White. This difference has created deep cultural misunderstandings and consequent mistrust between students, teachers and administrators.
This mistrust further worsens existing issues within EPS, such as the minimal curricula on the legacy of systemic racism and the history of people of color in the United States, as well as the overrepresentation of Black and Latinx students in disciplinary action.
As a result of these experiences and effects, students leave Edison Public Schools with no understanding of what structural racism and systemic oppression are, with no adequate ability to discuss racial injustice in the United States and the world, and have limited understanding of effective responses to racism.
We, alumni and students of Edison Public Schools, recognize the unique harms and experiences by our school system that cannot be defined by a simple black and white binary. We have identified six key issues that we want Edison Township school district and the Board of Education to address by Dec. 1:
- Faculty diversity and staff training
- Punitive punishment
- Class-level tracking
- Ethnic studies
- The name change of schools
- Mental health
Faculty Diversity and Staff Training: By the time students of color graduate, they are traumatized by incidents in which White teachers, guidance counselors and administrators are ignorant and dismissive of their culture and racial identity. Teachers and administrators turn a blind eye to incidences of racism amongst students, and both the staff and the students are almost never required to go through racial awareness training. In addition, there are many examples of racist teachers who should be terminated, especially given the repetition of certain names (which were not publicly disclosed) in testimonies submitted to the @racism.inedisonschools account by different students of different class years, ranging from alumni who graduated in the 2000s to current students.
Punitive Punishment: The suspension statistics in Edison show that Black American students are overrepresented in Edison suspensions by 400%, yet are underrepresented in honors-level classes such as calculus, which only less than 1% of Black American students in Edison ever get to take.
Yet it is highly unlikely that Black students are more prone to punishment – rather, Black Americans, including Edison Black Americans, are impacted by the historical effects of slavery, which continue to affect their achievement and wealth accumulation. Years of segregation and unequal school access from before and after the Civil Rights movement have made it more difficult for Black Americans to achieve their academic goals.
Furthermore, lingering unconscious racial bias associating Black students with violence has led to teachers and administrators also being more likely to punish Black students as opposed to other students. The racial breakdown of suspension statistics in Edison demonstrates that Edison teachers and administrators are not free of implicit racial bias.
Tracking: Edison schools rigidly segregate students early on based on class level, known in education policy as tracking. Tracking is the system by which students’ achievement benchmarks are determined in order to place them in academic levels starting in elementary school, and this has very real effects on students’ ideas about racial identity and intelligence. Asian Americans are overrepresented in advanced classes and underrepresented in punitive discipline statistics. As a result of tracking and punitive discipline, the perceptions of Asian overachievement and Black underachievement perpetuate unsubstantiated assumptions about intellectual superiority. Without a historical understanding of race and power in the United States, this myth seems too logical. Thus, many students graduate from the school believing in Asian American intellectual supremacy, and the inferiority of Black Americans.
Ethnic Studies: Students would have an easier time understanding racism if they understood ethnic studies, which is the interdisciplinary study of race and ethnicity, as understood through the perspectives of major underrepresented racial groups in the United States. The achievement gap in EPS is not a product of intellectual superiority, but rather a product of historical events and policies that have led to inequality.
In this way, Edison Public Schools demonstrate the model minority myth, yet do nothing to explain why this is a myth. The model minority is a myth that Asians are somehow more intelligent than other races, when in fact, highly educated Asian Americans were cherry-picked to immigrate to the United States by the government. Prior to 1965, Asian immigrants were extremely limited in their ability to immigrate to this country due to strict quota laws.
The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act created two preference pathways for immigration: one for close relatives of U.S. citizens and the other for high-achieving scientists and engineers. As a result, many high-achieving Asian Americans were able to immigrate to the United States and settle into towns such as Edison because of New Jersey’s pharmaceutical industries, as well as its proximity to New York’s technology companies. Studies have shown that highly educated parents with advanced degrees, in turn, have academically successful children, which explains Asian American educational achievement in Edison.
Yet these important formative historical events are brushed past or are entirely ignored in Edison Public Schools’ United States history classes, and their importance to our current moment is not emphasized.
Name change of schools: Almost all the schools in EPS are named after White American presidents. Given the above breakdown of the diversity of Edison students, our town’s students of color cannot possibly feel that their identities are valued by the district. As such, all schools that are named after U.S. presidents should be changed, given their participation in and perpetuation of the U.S. settler-colonial project, and their complicity in the genocide of indigenous peoples here in the U.S. and abroad.
Mental Health: The mental health of students in EPS inherently involves race, due to the fact that students of color overwhelmingly report a higher need for mental health services. As a result of the majority-White counseling department, students feel uncomfortable and gaslighted when talking to their school counselors about their experiences. They feel that their school counselors don’t understand their concerns with their family and teachers, which causes a disconnect between counselor and student. School counselors and PATH clinicians are also quick to place blame on the parents based on a student’s race and ignore the student’s actual concerns. Administrators have Asian American stereotypes of “strict tiger parents” and thus blame the strict parents for student academic stress, instead of creating ways to bridge the cultural divide between administrators and parents.
This is not an exhaustive list. The commitment to anti-racist schools is not a checklist endeavor to pursue, but rather a lifelong incorporation of narratives of color into the predominantly white and Euro-centric canon of academic materials that are currently in our schools. Addressing these six key areas is simply a first step in making our town and our schools anti-racist, providing comprehensive education to our students, and developing moral and just citizens. We look forward to working with the Edison Board of Education and wait for their comprehensive plan by Dec. 1.