Sunday, September 16, 2018

When ALL our TEACHERS were BLACK, Part I

Please note: It has been over a year since I posted here. I have been very busy in the meantime, working at my job from which I retired this past June; writing for publication in books, newsletters. I have worked with a colleague to develop a new book proposal; presented at conferences including NAGC in November in Charlotte, N.C. and keynoting in Dubai at the International Research Association on Talent Development and Excellence in Dubai.

This post came about after attending the 50th class reunion of the Class of 1968 of King & Queen Central High School. I attended as a guest (I graduated from the same school in '71). For a number of years now, the school and its formula for success as a very large number of our graduates have held very successful careers positions in government, education, and many other fields, many rising to the top in their fields. Documenting the 'secret' to the success of our high schools' graduates has been on my mind for a number of years. A goal is to develop a book proposal and invite others from the school to join me in documenting the school's first 50 years of educating Black students in our small rural county east of Richmond and west of the Northern Neck region of Virginia. 

As the topic of recruiting Black teachers into the education profession grows into a national conversation, I keep thinking back to what high school at Central was like when I arrived in the fall of 1967. Our school like so many in Black communities across the nation, particularly in the south was still segregated by race and the education profession was an appealing career choice for Black college students, many of whom were first generation college graduates. Many felt a sense of obligation to reciprocate and return to their home communities to teach. Central High was no different. As a matter of fact, during my tenure at Central, at least 50% of the teachers grew up in the same county and proudly returned for their first teaching jobs in King and Queen. 

There is something very special about attending a school where everyday you can look at and interact with people who share your race and culture. Educators who understand your family situation, who understand your hopes and aspirations and feel a sense of obligation to 'set you on the right path' for the future. That was Central High School in King & Queen County, Virginia. Here's part I of my story: 

As a career educator, author, educational administrator, researcher, preeminent scholar in the field of gifted education and former college professor in teacher education I often reflect on the experiences that I had as a young student that shaped and framed me into the professional that I became many, many years later. In the past ten years or so, our nation has been broiling about the teaching profession and many related concerns that are affecting our students and their school performance. One issue of grave concern is the lack of Black and Hispanic teachers in classrooms where the majority of students are Black and Hispanic. Research studies have noted the negative impact on students of color because of this cultural mismatch or discontinuity between teachers and students. The cultural mismatch has been demonstrated to have a negative impact on student performance, disproportionately high  rates of students in special education and low number of our students in gifted and advanced learner programs. The mismatch has also impacted the disportionately unfair disciplinary practices across the nation and the growing ‘school to prison pipeline'. I am from a generation of Black students (and perhaps the last generation) who was fortunate enough to have gone through at least three plus years of my schooling in an environment where most if not all of our teachers were Black. Other students in my high school had Black teachers for their entire schooling career, K-12. 

Attending a school where all of the teachers were African American was very different from one where there was a racially mixed population of teachers. I had both experiences in my school career and I can attest to this difference. There was definitely a different 'feel', different environment, differences so real that they were palpable. My high school was one such place. Walking into a school with an entirely Black teaching staff, administration, counselor and support staff ind of felt like ‘going home’ every morning or going to church on Sundays. The attitudes were positive and supportive. The teachers were firm, but understanding. We knew that they loved us and valued us as young Black scholars. They could envision a future for us that was positive and perhaps even better than the one they experienced personally. They took the role a 'shaper of eternity' seriously. They did not see the color of our skin as a disadvantage and something to overcome, but they saw us as 'diamonds in the rough'. They easily saw our strengths and weaknesses and used what we know today as a 'strengths-based approach' to teaching us.  They were professional but approachable. They were our role models and mentors, but also like our parents and extended family. It was their presence that made a very humble facility into a first class school building.  Unlike the historical Central High School of Little Rock, Arkansas that was originally built for White students and was forced to allow Black students to attend, this school was built for Black students, exclusively. Two schools at each of the county provided education for White students. Prior to the opening of Central High, Black students were educated in small, one room schools scattered among communities throughout the county. (I will provide more about Central High's history in part II) 

Our school was not a large urban area high school with fully equipped gymnasiums, auditoriums, elaborate science labs or music practice spaces for budding musicians. It did not have many of the resources and amenities associated with award winning facilities of today or even of the past. We were seated in classrooms just large enough to fit 20-25 chairs, although in most cases, our classes were much smaller, except in music room or in the mandatory government class. We did not have a gymnasium, or auditorium, we had a cafeteria with a stage that was used for gym and for programs. We did not have equipped science labs, but did have one lab table with functional Bunsen burners and sink. The periodic table was the only visual hanging ominously in the science room. No opportunities for international travel, except by viewing the large maps in the French and History classes. No visual arts room, but we learned how to design and  to sew in the home economics class  and boys had the shop area to learn building trades (taught by a practicing brick masons from the community) and auto mechanics. But it wasn’t the equipment or class resources that made our education unique and first class. It was more than that. It was our teachers, the counselor and principal. What was lacking in resources, the teachers made up for in committment and dedication to our education. The fact that each of those persons looked just like us (or in some cases were family) in physical features was lost on our rambling minds, raging hormones, and busy bodies until we left and went out into the world to ‘become’ the people we were borne to be. All of our teachers in this space were Black. Our school was built by Black men of the community on land originally owned by a Black man and our Black parents were actively and intimately involved in our education.

It was 1967 when I entered the halls of King & Queen Central High School, a new student in the 9th grade. My family had recently re-emigrated to Virginia after spending 13 years in Newark New Jersey. In Newark, our schools were sprawling edifices, structures so large and massive they were often encompassed an entire city block. Many schools had two gyms, one for boys and one for girls. We had art classrooms, science labs, auditoriums large enough to perform elaborate dramatic plays and musicals and to seat hundreds. Our teachers were Black, Italian, Jewish, and from other European cultural groups. My siblings and I received a rich, progressive education in Newark. I will always value my beginnings in Newark Public Schools. My father’s decision to move the family back to Virginia was right on time. Our nation was in the midst the heated protests and revolutionary actions of the civil rights movement.  In the summer of 1967, Newark was about to explode.

Moving from a culturally diverse environment to a singular cultural experience in school had a profound impact on me. Actually it was a culture shock. From a large urban area in the northeast to a small isolated rural community in the South, was quite different for my sister and I. My other siblings completed high school in Newark. At the time I started at Central, I resisted and was not very comfortable. As an advanced student, I felt restricted by the curriculum offerings and believed that it would not be a good 'fit' for me. I went home after the first day and complained to my mother that everyone is the school was Black, even the principal! It took me several months to adjust to the school's lack of resources and limited educational experiences. As I look back now, I remember that it was the teachers and the school counselor, in particular, who helped make the transition so much easier. Little did I know then how important their Blackness was going to be to my development in the months and years to come....

[In Part II, I will discuss briefly the school's history in the context of public schools for African American students; the teachers and administrators (using pseudonyms); and the successful life outcomes for some many of our alumni from this small rural school that I have nicknamed: THE MIRACLE ON ROUTE 14, KING & QUEEN COUNTY, VA].