"Race doesn't dominate the surface of the student essays, but it fully undergirds them," says Jim Randels, who co-directs Students at the Center with Kalamu ya Salaam. "Most public schools in New Orleans are completely segregated by race. White folks fled the school system -- and the city -- in droves during the attempts at integration and true democracy that Brown represents. The sort of separation and privilege that the students describe is very much a strategy of institutionalized racism that's all through our society."
At Students at the Center, young writers wrestle with the historic roots of social problems and work to understand the links between personal and public issues. Many of the essayists report on the differences they have experienced in district schools such as Frederick A. Douglass Senior High and citywide access schools such as McDonogh 35 Senior High. Segregation, they discover, takes many forms. Another goal of Students at the Center, Randels says, is to "develop student writers as resources for their schools and communities." The role of the individual in a community is central to many of these essays. It also was at the heart of Brown vs. Board of Education.
12th Grade, McDonogh 35 Senior High School
I sat in class looking at the wide range of maroon and white shirts, khaki skirts and pants, and brown or black loafers. It was my first day at McDonogh 35, a selective admissions public school, and my fifth-period teacher was about to teach.
I remember thinking, "Man, I don't belong here. All these students look like they know what is about to happen. This teacher looks like she is going to be hard. Man, I can't do this. What have I gotten myself into? This school is way too much for a former Douglass student like me."
I closed my eyes and saw myself in my white shirt and blue pants from the year before, my 10th grade year.
I also recalled the first time I went from a district to a magnet school. That had to be the worst experience I ever had with school or education. The students didn't like me at the new school. And it seemed to me that no matter how smart I became, to those snobs I was always an underachiever. The worst part is that the students did so much to make me feel like an underachiever that I gave up. I began to feel like I had no place with them. And that was all they wanted, because they all thought that I didn't deserve to be at that school with them. And since then I thought all magnet schools were better and more advanced than district schools.
So why did I try again to move from a district to a magnet school after my 10th grade year? The answer is that my parents and family said they wanted me to be a part of a school with a "better chance for your success." But now when I think about Douglass, my old district school, I realize it helped me overcome the psychological pain left from my elementary magnet school and prepared me to deal with the stress and inferiority I was sure I would feel at McDonogh 35.
The students at Douglass may not be the hardest working group of people you will ever meet. But they inspired me to learn, to achieve. They brought an energy with them that says, "I know I am smart. But I still know there is room for improvement." And they never made me feel small.
To tell you the truth, my 10th grade year I had no school to go to. I had not taken the required admission tests and procedures for the citywide schools, and my family had just moved again. In the middle of the first semester, Douglass took me on as a student. The teachers taught me as much as I was willing to learn, and they and my classmates healed my psychological/academic wounds. The Douglass community brought me up to believe that I could achieve, which brings me back to that first day at McDonogh 35 with all the maroon and khaki clothes and the hard-looking fifth-period teacher about to begin class.
The first question she asked as she started to teach, I answered with my eyes closed. And my image of me in a white shirt and blue pants changed as the white shirt became khaki. I opened my eyes and answered another question, then more -- this time out loud.
As the stream of questions came to an end, someone asked me what school I came from. And I responded, "Douglass." It was then I began to feel like my humiliation at the hands of the "higher-achieving" magnet school students would begin again. Students who felt they were smarter than me would intimidate me again, make me feel that I didn't belong. After all, 35 claims to educate "the best and the brightest."
But my new classmates did not intimidate or humiliate me. Nobody seemed to care about that. I learned later, however, that they were surprised at my ability to answer the teacher's questions. I read an early draft of this essay, written a month before my graduation from 35, to the classmates in my writing class. Asia Brumfield recalled being in that fifth-period class and being shocked that a student from Douglass knew so much. Rather than intimidate me, she was impressed by me.
My first day in that fifth-period class was like my first day at Douglass. The only thing my classmates wanted to do was make the new guy feel welcome.
10th Grade, Frederick A. Douglass Senior High School
"Are schools still separate? How are students separated? Does this separation contribute to unequal education?" These are questions that many people fail to recognize or acknowledge. I lived in Baton Rouge for nine years of my public school experience. My parents didn't believe in Catholic schools, but they did make sure I enrolled in a magnet school. My experience in the magnet school was great. At Baton Rouge High, where I went for ninth grade, we didn't have to wear uniforms like the district students at that school did; our regular clothing immediately distinguished us from the "normies." Capitol Middle Magnet was also a school that had both district and magnet programs within it. If you met the requirements for the magnet program, you received admission. If you lived in the neighborhood, you went there also. I didn't live anywhere near Capitol Middle. In fact, if traffic was heavy, it would take an hour to get to my house from my school.
Teachers, counselors and even administrators would try to separate the magnet students from the neighborhood students. When assemblies were held, some of the magnet students would sit on the stage with staff members who were conducting the assembly. At lunch, we sat apart in the middle table with some of our teachers. Sometimes when teachers saw my friends and I talking to someone outside of the magnet, they would tell us later, "Don't be mediocre." It didn't take long before I agreed with what was being said.
My friends and I would walk in the hall in a group of five and occasionally eyeball anyone who wasn't a part of the so-called "smart" group. Girls would write unmentionable things about us in the bathroom and start all kinds of absurd rumors; the one that really brought it home to me was the one about my friend Faith being pregnant. I just shook it off, called them ignorant, and went on about my business. I always remember one teacher's final words to us on the last day of her class: "Don't be mediocre. You all are not the average students. Stick together. All of you will go to Baton Rouge High."
Just a few days ago a girl proposed a question to me. She asked, "Why do you think you're better than everybody else?"
I couldn't give her a reason -- well, not a good one. It's not that I think I'm better than everyone else. It's just that when you're immersed in a certain type of education and environment, it's hard to adapt to a new one. I'm used to being separated and set apart. I have had a hard time adjusting to Douglass kids smoking in the halls, walking the halls and not even attending school. It's not that these things are foreign to me. It's just that here at Douglass there's no magnet program to secure me from the problems and issues I have to encounter on a daily basis. Sometimes and often I wish I was somewhere else. Then I wouldn't have to deal with it. And other times I wish I had the strength or mentality to deal with it. I want so badly to break this cycle of separation -- and inequality -- but before I do, I'll have to search long and hard for the answer to the question, "Who am I?"
Ninth Grade, McDonogh 35 Senior High School
When I was in elementary school, we would sing this song:
Knowledge is power.
I know what I know.
The more you learn,
The further you go.
If you get an education,
You'll be taking a stand,
Because knowledge is power;
Grab it while you can.
Back then, I was just singing the song because it had a nice ring to it. Now I feel the song is only half true. Knowledge is power, and the more you learn the further you go. But black people can only go so far.
Growing up as a young black girl, I have come to realize that the public education system is not balanced equally. Dominant white schools get committed teachers and lots of resources. Blacks, on the other hand, get just the opposite. One way we keep an unequal education system is because policy-makers just pacify the situation rather than going to the root cause. They give us a few schools that attract the best students. They take care of the black "high achievers," and don't worry about the rest of the students.
This situation makes students like me feel hopeless. It belittles black people's futures -- not all but a lot of them. Career options become limited, because students get tired and don't want to go to college and further their educations. So they wind up working low-paying jobs.
I don't see many white people doing janitor work, cleaning rooms at hotels, washing dishes, or working in industrial laundries. Mostly people of color hold these jobs. Poor education causes this inequality. If black people were highly educated, then we wouldn't want or need these types of jobs. But the government systems clearly do not want to create equal schools for all citizens, so some of us end up cleaning up after the ones who went to good schools.
11th Grade, McDonogh 35 Senior High School
"It is only temporary. It shall not be long. It is only temporary." The words echoed through my head as I walked through the halls of Frederick Douglass for the first time. The walls were falling. The floor was coming up, and many of the windows had been broken. Puzzled, I marched toward my first period class in order to find a familiar face.
Frederick Douglass was not the most intellectually stimulating school or even the most fun. My years at Douglass can only be described as a reality check for my innocent mind. Douglass taught me that everything is not peaches and cream in the 'hood; it taught me how hard it is to survive. Yet this school, my district school, also showed me how to connect with others from my neighborhood at a greater level. My year at Douglass brought many smiles and many tears, yet in the midst of it all I still survived.
The books there were torn, written in and abused. I thought, "Who could learn without good books?" I wondered if adults in the community -- and people who make policies that affect our students -- knew about these conditions. I don't think they do.
I had my eyes opened and my mind filled in some classes there, despite the lack of books. In my Students at the Center (SAC) writing class, taught by Ms. Patterson, we learned about black people and community. One of the most memorable things she said was, "This is not a school but a learning community and in order to bring scores up, we must focus on community." The books we read, the essays we wrote, the critical thinking we developed were all part of movement and community building. My classmates and I wrote a play, Inhaling Brutality, Exhaling Peace, that we performed not only at our school and in a neighborhood church but also for teacher training workshops, a national conference on youth leadership and the arts held at Clemson University in South Carolina, and the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. We read essays and stories by writers such as James Baldwin and Edwidge Danticat. We wrote about these stories in relationship to our own lives and adapted them to the play we developed.
Although it may be a surprise to people who only look at test scores and the sensational stories in the media, I learned a lot at Douglass. The teachers taught me things ranging from how to survive in the streets to how to honor my culture. I applied this knowledge and skill to my life.
McDonogh 35, the citywide access school to which I earned admission as a 10th grade student, is quite different. This school doesn't have off-campus lunch or anything I would call fun. It is a lot of work. Getting into McDonogh 35 and staying there in my sophomore year was pretty easy. Now in my junior year I am learning the importance of knowledge. Most teachers are so busy preparing us for tests that they only teach us what to think. My English teacher, Mr. Ogle, is like Ms. Patterson; he teaches me how to think. He makes me question many things and gives me a deeper desire for learning. In his class, it isn't "learn this" or "learn that" but "realize this" and "confront that."
At McDonogh 35, however, I am also taught to stay away from the community. Our purpose is increasing our knowledge, not interacting with the community that surrounds the school. The only time we really spend in the neighborhood is during fire alarms or on our way in and out of school. Even though I have been attending McDonogh 35 for two years, I know none of the names or the faces of those who stay around the school. Ever since one of our McDonogh 35 students was injured in the leg, everyone has been too scared for us to even set foot in the neighborhood. I now wonder how things might have been different, if we had interacted more with the neighborhood residents, even started a community non-violence program together.
This situation reminds me of the section of Barbara Ransby's biography of Ella Baker that we just finished discussing as part of our study of the 50th anniversary of Brown and the 40th anniversary of the Freedom Schools in Mississippi. Shaw University, where Ella Baker attended high school and college, actually forbade its students from interacting with the black residents of Raleigh, N.C. This rule created a separation that Ella Baker later fought against in her civil rights and black power work.
I miss my community-based learning and home at Douglass. Yet I also love the education I receive at McDonogh 35. I feel stuck between the two. I do not want to go back to Douglass, but I don't want to stay at 35. Sometimes I wish the students and visions of the two schools were not so separate. I wish 35 was more like Douglass and Douglass was more like 35.
10th Grade, McDonogh 35 Senior High School
This year is the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education case that overturned the 1896 Plessy vs. Ferguson decision, which stated that public institutions could be separate but equal. This ruling forced schools to be desegregated. I often wonder if it helped here in the New Orleans public school system, because we are still separated. The poor or poorly educated students cannot go to schools with reputations for high achievers, which goes against the spirit of Brown.
Almost all of the white students left public schools for private and parochial schools. They moved out of New Orleans or they set up special public schools with selective admissions. The abandonment of public schools and the separation of students continue to grow.
The Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board is true: We can't have separate but equal public institutions. Public means for everyone. But what is also true is that the actual conditions that the Brown decision tried to change did not change. Brown makes sense; it just doesn't exist in the city where I live.
Sophomore, University of New Orleans
Graduate, McDonogh 35 Senior High School
As a senior in high school I had an after-school job teaching fourth graders video production at a local district high school. The UrbanHeart 21st Century Community Learning Center works to encourage elementary school students to attend their district high school. My first day, I pulled up to the school in my sister's Ford Escort. I noticed a group of boys, who looked rather old, in school uniforms staring at me. I was already a bit nervous because of the school's reputation. I wondered, "Why are they staring at me?"
One boy said, "Say girl, that's your car?"
"Yes," I replied.
"Damn man, 3-5 (what boys call girls that attend my high school) driving a car."
I turned around and walked into the building, thinking that the car might not be there when I returned.
At the time I thought nothing of the small dialogue between the boy and me. As I think back about the situation now, I know why they were staring. It is not common at that high school for students to drive cars. At my high school, a public school with selective admission, by junior year students are driving a car even if it is not their own.
Now, I often go to the school to work on different community projects. It is strange walking down the halls, knowing that this is the district school I was supposed to attend. I used to wonder why would I want to attend a school where it seems that half of NOPD and a number of school security guards are in the front at 3:15 for security purposes. But I often think if I had gone to that high school, I could have made a difference. When I walked down the halls of my high school, I was almost like every other student. The majority of us had the same backgrounds and similar social- economic status. We acted as if we didn't need any one else. We didn't need help, because we were "the best and the brightest" (our school motto).
Even though we were the "best and the brightest," we had some of the same problems as other schools, just on a smaller level. When schools are populated with students who are considered the "intelligentsia," it leaves other students doomed to the schools that are looked down upon. This creates an environment of division. Not only are students separate but their quality of education is separate and unequal. It is hard to learn in an environment that doesn't value education.
But the students at my district school want help -- and have much to offer those of us who left our district schools for citywide schools. These district students want to share what is going on at their homes and in their lives. I often sit in on a writing class that is making a phenomenal impact on the school called Students at the Center (SAC). One of the SAC teachers, Kalamu ya Salaam, emailed me a commentary he wrote. A section of his essay caught my eye. He included in his writing a poem written by a student. The student read her poem in class one day. I wish I could have sat in that class that day. Kalamu wrote: "One student wrote a piece called "Just Like Him," which is published in a book called From the Heart. She wrote: "They say when you're around someone for a long time, you start acting like that person. The problem is that I don't want to be like him in any way, but what can I say? I have his eyes, his hair, and I recently acquired his personality. Lately I go crazy and snap. I bitch slap my little brother, and on more than one occasion I've drawn blood from my little sister's lip. I didn't want to be like him, but I did it anyway. And something inside me is telling me that I let him win."
After reading that email I was surprised that a student would freely read and write something so personal. These students are hungry for help. The students at the citywide access school I attended want help also, but they are conditioned to be less willing to ask for it -- after all, they must live up to being "the best and the brightest." The district students like the one who wrote the poem are willing to put themselves out there.
I am currently working in collaboration with local community activists to help restore this high school. We want to restore the physical building itself and the minds of the students. I was always taught that education and goals are essential for life. Unfortunately, these students were not taught that. Some of them can barely read and write, but they still seem to matriculate through school. The excessive tardiness and absences would shock you. And when administration tries to get in contact with guardians, they are not able to because of bogus phone numbers and addresses. We are in the process of trying to get correct information to have dialogue with parents and community members. If left up to the school system, our district schools and students will continue to deteriorate. I and the handful of others will not sit back and let that happen.
These students are already victims of the sort of separate but unequal educational system that the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was supposed to remedy 50 years ago. These situations are not just going on in particular neighborhoods and schools. They are going on everywhere. And they will continue to go on if people don't do something about it. We are working to help people, not just poor black people, but all people. Many of the community activists are civil rights veterans who understand that just changing laws and relying on policy makers and public bureaucrats is not enough. As someone who is young, black and poor myself, I want to lend a helping hand to the peers from whom I was separated by the school system.
My parents value education. They took the choice offered to them to send their daughter to citywide middle and high schools that separated students by a combination of factors, including test scores, prior grades, and parental awareness of educational choices. But just offering these school choices is not enough to make real change. Somehow we need to make all schools better. I don't know the answers to that problem. I do know that it will take a larger, community-wide effort to create equal education for all students in New Orleans public schools.
I also am coming to realize that schools that separate me from my community may even contribute to the problem. At the high school I attended, I received a decent education. But as a college student, I am beginning to realize that the success of my school and the classes I attended had as much to do with who the school admitted as it did with what happened once we got there. What was missing was any sense of education to improve my people. Instead, the emphasis was on individual success, on taking care of myself and my test scores -- precisely the sort of education that keeps most of us from really applying our education to developing the communities from which we come. Until the majority of citizens fully commit to that, we will never change the structures of inequality built into the separate schools or build up the existing segregated schools to the point of equality.
12th Grade, Frederick A. Douglass Senior High School
My mom woke me up eagerly to get me ready for my first day at a new high school. I worried that she was still upset at me for letting my bad grades get me kicked out of my previous school, Rabouin Career Magnet. I turned over and told her I wasn't going, not looking like this.
"Yes you are. The superintendent says that it is important that all students attend the first day of school."
By my hair not being braided, nothing in the world could get me to go. Nothing, that is, except my mom's determination. She found a way to get my hair braided that morning. After that I was on my way to Frederick A. Douglass -- a whole new school and a whole different atmosphere from the school I was attending before.
The moment I arrived at school, I noticed a lot of difference. The girls wore big earrings, high skirts and cut pants. As for the boys, they dressed the same as I would dress in the streets: shirt out, no belt and pants sagging. As for me, I dressed as if I was attending my old magnet school: shirt in, belt strapped, pants up and book sack on my back.
Rabouin and Douglass didn't match at all. They were like day and night. They could never be used in the same sentence. One school dealt with any student who came; the other selected students for admission and then kicked out students who didn't maintain their grades or behave well. As I walked through the halls filled with loud and wild students, I witnessed a fight on the first day, and through the week I witnessed a boy tossing a teacher's computer printer out of the third-floor window. I also witnessed a student walk into the classroom and start choking this girl, lifting her up off the ground. Seeing these things, I told myself that this would be a long school year.