April 14, 2008

Busing Programs…are they worth the trip?

As creator of Social Light, I felt it appropriate to inaugurate the site by sharing my personal experience with social programs.

In 1979, I was chosen to participate in Project Concern, one of many desegregation social experiments implemented during the sweeping idealism of the 1960s. Based in Connecticut, Project Concern was a program that bused minority students living in impoverished inner cities to wealthy communities in the suburbs. From the third to the 12th grade of my education, I was bused nearly 25 miles from the city of Bridgeport, CT to what seemed like a completely different world–the affluent town of Westport, CT. Even today, the disparity between Bridgeport and Westport remains the same; by 1991 Bridgeport was listed as 5th in the nation for cities with the highest homicide rate per capita while Westport remains one of the wealthiest communities in the United States. It was my experience in Project Concern that taught me the true meaning of “the other side of the tracks”.

Today, researchers and scholars’ evaluations of Project Concern suggest a number of positive outcomes. Program participants pursue higher education at higher rates, perceive less discrimination, and feel more comfortable in predominately white environments. (Check out the following links for more expected outcomes: “ Finding Niches: Desegregated Students Sixteen Years Later” and “School Desegregation and Black Occupational Attainments: Results from a Long-Term Experiment”)

In many ways, I am a living testament of these positive outcomes. Nearly 20 years after I was bused daily from Bridgeport to Westport, I am an entrepreneur, motivational speaker and graduate of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. I certainly recognize the significant contributions Project Concern played in my ability to achieve key milestones in my life.

With all the positive outcomes of Project Concern, you would think that I would be a fervent endorser of the program. Ironically, this is not the case. When asked whether programs like Project Concern should be replicated in urban cities across the country, my answer is always a hesitant “I’m not so sure?” Why? Simply put, with the benefits come the tradeoffs…and the unresolved question in my mind is always, “was it worth the trip?”

In the example of Project Concern, the city of Bridgeport funded the buses to transport inner-city children to schools in Westport but did not monetarily contribute to the Westport school system. Despite the busing program, Westport schools remained financed solely by the taxpayers of Westport. Needless to say, Westport parents expressed a little more than frustration over having to spend their tax dollars to have their children socialize with inner-city kids. Let’s just say that they had strong views on the subject.

Besides backlash from the “receiving” communities of busing programs, programs such as Project Concern have other problems as well:

  • Logistics: Imagine yourself as an 8 year old Project Concern kid catching the bus to go to school in Westport, CT. You arrive at the bus stop a little after 6 a.m. to catch the 6:15 school bus. Once on board, your bus then takes approximately 60 minutes to pick up the other Project Concern kids. At 7:15 a.m. you begin the 25-mile journey to Westport, which takes approximately 40 to 45 minutes in rush hour traffic. At 3:00 p.m., the process is reversed and you arrive back at the original bus stop around 4:30 p.m. (traffic’s a little bit better in the afternoon). Oh, and don’t ask what happens if you miss the bus because you arrived at the bus stop at 6:20 a.m.
  • Participation in extracurricular activities: Since there was no funding for a “late” bus to provide transportation back to Bridgeport, participating in extracurricular activities was nearly impossible for Project Concern kids. Limited extracurricular opportunities and lack of time to socialize with fellow classmates amplified the differences between Project Concern kids and the kids resident to Westport.
  • Lack of strong advisors: The presence of mentors or counselors to help Project Concern kids and Westport resident students deal with cultural differences was nearly nonexistent. While coordinators were available periodically, I personally do not recall a strong support structure to deal with adjustment issues. Survival skills were acquired over time, and the experience was more difficult for some than others.
  • Alienation from home community: Arriving home at 4:30 pm (best case scenario) didn’t facilitate the bond between the Project Concern kids and the Bridgeport community. There was always a sense of being between two communities but belonging to neither.
  • Being a desegregation pioneer: Very difficult stuff. Given.

Regardless of these tradeoffs, my experience with Project Concern has shaped who I am. “Crossing the tracks” on a daily basis for 10 years provided me with a broad comfort zone socially, lead to excellent educational opportunities, and allowed me to navigate within different racial and socioeconomic worlds with ease—an invaluable skill that I am glad to possess.

So the question I pose to this community is what’s your opinion of busing programs? Do the long-term outcomes of busing and similar social experiments outweigh the short-term sacrifices? Are busing programs really worth the trip? Please leave a comment and answer our brief, three question survey by clicking the following:

Surveymonkey: What’s Your Opinon Of Busing Programs

13 Comments »

  1. jam donaldson's comment says

    Great post. I think you make some great points–one would look at your academic and professional success and think that it is a no-brainer that these types of programs are beneficial but you’ve really caused us to look at what is loss in addition to what is gained. But its such a hard concept to grasp because the social costs are soooo intangible. How does one measure the opportunity costs when we are talking about socialization, self-esteem, world view? But one thing is certain, you’ve given us a lot to think about and I thank you for that. Welcome to the blogosphere, your voice is a welcome one.

    On April 14, 2008 @ 11:38 am

  2. Eneida's comment says

    This experience opens our eyes to the positives and negatives of such programs that are ever present in the educational community. Educators are constantly looking for new ways to close the achievement gaps among minority students. I’ve had first-hand experience of being bused 15 miles daily to and from school across racial and cultural lines. I grew up in a West Indian/Hispanic dominated community in Panama and my k-12 education was at Department of Defense Schools on U.S. territories overseas. Talk about cultural awareness!! I remember the unconscious change of our West Indian English dialect change to the “Standard” American English dialect as we arrived at school. This experience enhanced my level of comfort to interact with different cultures with ease, throughout my social, college and professional experiences. It has been invaluable and the positives certainly outweighs the negatives. Creating a close circle of childhood friendships and close-knit family relationships helped me remain true to the uniqueness of my diversity. I certainly think my busing experience was worth the trip.

    On April 16, 2008 @ 9:45 pm

  3. Zulei Thomas's comment says

    This article was very interesting. I think what has captured my attention was the limited extracurricular activities after school due to lack of busing programs. Going to school in Panama there were not many busing programs for after school activities. It was required for the student to have their parent or guardian to pick their child up. However, it became a challenge for some parents/guardians because it meant they would have to sacrifice their time at work to get off early and try to beat traffic. Sometimes the parents may have other errands or prior engagements that needs to be taken care of. There were some parents who were clearly not supportive of the idea of coming after school to pick up their child which then created another problem. The student becomes discouraged wanting to participate in an activity but they couldn’t because of their parents priorities or other prior engagements.

    After school programs allowed some students to interact other students of all different of cultures and race. As a student they can develop social skills and awareness. You become more of a “people’s person,” stepping outside of the box, relating to the community, and seeing another part of the world that you don’t only have to dream about, but you can be a part of. As student who was once bused from 15-20 miles from home, with a community of majority Hispanics to a school where the majority were whites, I would say that busing programs are important and worth the trip.

    On April 19, 2008 @ 8:33 pm

  4. JOE BROWN's comment says

    I WAS A STUDENT WHO EXPERIENCED THIS BUSING SYSTEM. THEIR WERE A LOT OF THINGS WE AS INNER-CITY STUDENTS HAD TO DEAL WITH WHILE IN THIS PROJECT CONCERN PROGRAM. FOR ONE; WE WERE PUT IN AN ENVIRONMENT THAT WAS VERY DIFFERENT THAN WHAT WE WERE USED TO. WE HAD NO WAY TO PREPARE FOR THIS SO WE HAD TO ADJUST. FOR ME, I FELT GRATEFUL FOR GETTING THE OPPORTUNITY IN HIGHER LEARNING. BUT AFTER SCHOOL, I FELT OUT OF PLACE IN MY OWN NEIGHBORHOOD BECAUSE I DIDN’T KNOW ANYONE WHO I COULD RELATE TO. BY THE TIME I GOT BUSED BACK TO BRIDGEPORT FROM WESTPORT, MUCH TIME ELASPED FROM THE TRIP AND LEFT LITTLE TIME FOR SOCILIZING AT LEAST WITH MY PROJECT CONCERN PEIRS.
    AGAIN, I AM THANKFUL FOR BEING A PART OF A HIGHER LEARNING PROGAM.I FEEL THAT I POSSESS GREAT PERSONAL SKILLS AND AN IDENTITY THAT HELPS ME COMMUNICATE AND INTERACT WITH ALL WALKS OF LIFE ON AN INTELLECTUAL LEVEL.

    I JUST BELIEVE THAT PROGRAMS LIKE PROJECT CONCERN SHOULD STRENGTHEN THEIR FOCUS ON HELPING THE STUDENTS PREPARE FOR OR ADJUST TO THE CULTURAL DIFFERENCES THEY MAY FACE WHILE IN THESE PROGRAMS.

    On May 7, 2008 @ 11:01 am

  5. sara's comment says

    I was one of the students from Westport that went to school with Jim. For me the program started in the 1st grade. I have to admit that years later I realized how hard the program must have been for the students from Bridgeport. I know my family and I discussed it and felt badly years later that it hadn’t occurred to us to offer rides to my friends for things like birthday parties and other activities. It certainly wasn’t intentional because I was good friends (or at least I thought) with two of the girls in my class. But I would also like to add that the Westport students were exposed us to a culture we would not have otherwise experienced. Westport was (and is) a very homogenous town. I’m really grateful for that and for not seeing people as different but as people.

    On August 27, 2008 @ 6:06 pm

  6. Phillip Cuffey's comment says

    I had a similar experience to Jim’s as I attended Gilman School, an all boys private schools in B’more in the 70s (for 6 years). I took 2 transit buses across town about an hour each way.
    It was a struggle and well worth it. The days were long as I did not return home until 5:30 or 6.
    I took the heat from the neighborhood fellas because I went to a “white boy fag school” but that’s how you get thick skin. To offset the feeling of living a double life as W.E.B. DuBois so accurately defines, I started a Black Awareness Club” for all students (yes, a couple of white guys joined). Our request for a black history class was approved- we felt good about it!
    The doors of Penn opened next as my commitment to mentoring at risk youth led me to recommend Big Brothers as my fraternal group’s community service project. My commitment to helping at risk youth transition to independent living with productive careers continues with the recent launch of Zoeza Institute (www.zoeza.org) I look forward to exploring any collaborative opportunities with KP scholars.

    On September 6, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

  7. Chantelle (Sykes) Hall's comment says

    I too am a Project Concern alumnus that rode the bus with Jim everyday. I attended Westport Schools from 2nd through 12th grades. I think we can all agree that the education we received was of the highest caliber. There is no way to deny that and for that I am truly grateful. The impact on our ability to socialize with peers is another story.
    While I do beleive the experiment (oops I mean experience) allowed me to hone the skill of adaptability at a very early age, I personally feel that the trade off was too great. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret having been a part of Project Concern. The woman that I am today is the sum of all my experiences and I wouldn’t change a thing. But as a mother I would not want my son to go through what I went through. It is important to me that my son develops into a well rounded man. Someone that is true to himself and sees the value in people from all walks of life. I want him to experience everything that each stage of his development brings as “normally” as possible. I don’t want him to ever feel like he lives in two opposite universes where he has to choose an alliance and that’s what it felt like for me at times when I was going to school in Westport.
    The need for peer relationships is vital to the social development of a child. So imagine the obstacles you face when you don’t fit in at home or school. Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t find any of the children from Westport to be cruel. They didn’t exclude me or make fun of me, they just could not relate to me so for the most part I felt invisible. For me, it was the children and some adults in my neighborhood in Bridgeport that were mean spirited and hurtful. They were the ones that would repeatedly ask me, “why you go to that fancy white school, what you think you better than me?” or my personal favorite, “why you talk like you think you white?” They too were focused on what made me different. Most of my friends were the other Project Concern children. Due to our long commute, I spent more time with them than I did with my family. Plus no one else understood what we were going through. We could comepletely relate to one another because we were all in the same boat. Heck, we were all each other had. If I did manage to make a friend at home it was usually during the summer, but it was short lived once we returned to school. Because we no longer shared a parallel experience during the day we would soon run out of things to talk about and my friend would eventually find a new BFF in school to share things with.
    We were children that lived in two very different worlds, and for me I never felt truly “at home” in either. Right now on Facebook our high school class is planning our 20th reunion and I still feel like there are two worlds. There is a part of me that would love to see everyone because school is such an essential part of your life but the other part wonders. Does it really matter? Do they even remember me? Will we have anything to talk about now, or will I still be invisible?

    On September 6, 2008 @ 11:44 pm

  8. Sherrie's comment says

    This article is interesting. I have a different perspective. I was not a part of project concern but had 3 cousins (2 female and 1 male) who were. My parents moved from Hartford to East Hartford in 1975 where I wound up being 1 of only 2 black kids in the school so therefore I didn’t get bused anywhere but experienced a much better education. Back to my cousins. All 3 were from Hartford, 2 attended schools in Simsbury and 1 in Canton. All 3 suffered humiliation from thier own communities for talking like “white kids”. This severely affected 1 of my cousins. To the point that she felt she had to “keep it real”. She even made fun of me and the way I talked even though we both went to school in the suburbs. She clearly suffered an identity crisis as she chose not to go to college and got a job, got pregnant a year later, married the baby’s father 5 years later who was a huge drug dealer, divorced the father after he decided to stop selling drugs and is now shacking with a drug dealer 15 years younger than her. My other 2 cousins became very successful, obtaining advanced college degrees and have successful lives. They did not care what anyone said about them and took advantage of the opportunities presented to them.

    Overall, I would say success depends on the person. I lived in my suburban community so it was easy to build friendships with the kids I went to school with. To this day, I have several white friends who I am very close with. This comfortable level with people outside of my own race has helped me progress in business.

    These programs are great for those who were picked, but I feel we need to do more within our inner cities to teach education responsibility to avoid the cycle of poverty for the next generation.

    On October 14, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

  9. Jim's comment says

    Hi Sherrie…thanks for the post and your perspective. You emphasize the dilemma that i attempted to highlight, “Busing…is it worth the trip?”

    I think we all want our youth to go to the best schools possible, but the consequence of busing to external communities to achieve this goal is the essence of my question? Does the end justify the means?

    The outcomes you mentioned for your one cousin isn’t unique–many students in my program fell victim to similar circumstances. How much of this is attributable to feeling isolated, humiliated or simply a result of their existing inner city environments–i don’t know. But i do believe that being a part of the community that you receive your education is a critical success factor and is something that I advocate as we continue to seek innovative ways to deliver quality education to youth who reside in the inner city.

    On October 15, 2008 @ 6:57 pm

  10. Jenna Gonzalez's comment says

    Jim,
    I am inspired by all that you have accomplished, but not at all surprised. You have become an amazing man, with an amazing mission.
    I do understand being plucked out of your environment and dropped into a “brave new world” as it were. I lived at Project Return. I left the streets of NYC and found a comfy bed in Westport. Yes advantages abound; For someone that knows how to live that way. I did not. at least not immediately.
    I did graduate and went on to attend Yale, but as a HS student had no social life outside of what the Project return life had to offer. I didnt get to experience the full education that the other kids in westport did. Sports, social groups..that kind of thing.
    That was the systems fault. The program, from what I understand has changed significantly. but then offered little in terms of support.
    My program dealt with other issues as you well know.. so I suppose it had its proverbial hands full. But I think that I was… as were many of the alumni from my time, shortchanged in the end.
    I agree you are a pioneer… in so many more ways than you have credited yourself.

    On February 3, 2010 @ 9:05 am

  11. Marcus Giles's comment says

    Wow. I just happened to be at work and Project Concern somehow graced my thoughts. I am also a Project Concern graduate. As I read Jim’s comments, it all began to make sense. I never really thought about it like that. However, he hit the nail on the head. I attended Our Lady of Fatima and Wilton High School…all 12 years. As I looked back, I remember thinking that I wanted to be a successful businessman so the ‘I knew that n*gger wasn’t going to be sh*t’ wouldn’t cross my classmates mind. I graduated from Wilton HS in 1990. I think my education was well worth the personal sacrifices of commuting over 30 miles away. Remember, Wilton is much farther than Wesport (Staples).

    On February 1, 2011 @ 1:35 pm

  12. Reba's comment says

    Jim,

    Thank you for raising this question. I also grew up in Westport - 5th generation in the town. My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all supported Project Concern and the School Board’s decision. I have clear memories of the Project Concern counselor, Ms. Moss, who started the Gospel Choir at Coleytown, and my parents explaining busing to me. No one ever helped us understand the complications of busing when it comes to extracurricular activities and deepening friendships. I was raised to be “color blind” rather than multiculturally competent, which left me friendly, accepting, polite, and clueless.

    Living in the Boston suburbs there is a similar program -METCO - which does a much better job of preparing children and parents in both communities, offering support systems and accessibility to extracurriculars, as well as having host families. I believe that without early programs such as Project Concern, the current programs would not be possible. I just wish that all of us involved would have been given the skills to build better bridges between the two communities and two very different worlds.

    I found your website when I googled Project Concern. I found myself humming a song that Ms. Moss taught us -the refrain of which is “You don’t know how blessed you really are.” I feel blessed that I got a wonderful education in the Westport schools system, and that I am continuing to learn about what that experience was like for others.

    On February 23, 2012 @ 11:35 pm

  13. busingwoes's comment says

    bumping this survey…from a different perspective: I attended public school in an affluent neighborhood in the 70’s, and the busing program made my school life hell, due to me being bullied by the kids bused in from other parts of the city. I almost failed one grade because I refused to go to school due to being scared half to death I was going to get beaten up again. There were no zero-tolerance bullying policies in place back then, I was pretty much on my own. Forty years later, I still have flashbacks to what was done to me.

    In my opinion, you should go to the schools in your own neighborhood, period.

    On June 22, 2013 @ 3:48 pm

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