During Black History Month, I had numerous conversations with a retired educator about the changes in education from when we were growing up in the sixties to today. As teachers and educators, we both shared our experiences from Kindergarten to High School and even College.
Ms. Vauda attended school with her twelve classmates ages three to six years in a one-room building at a church in rural Virginia. She completed her education in Washington, DC, where she later attended college and taught in both segregated and integrated school settings. I attended the only school built in my hometown for Black people in North Carolina for grades 1-12. I was also fortunate to be a member of the last class to graduate from this institution in 1965 as the desegregation of schools began in 1966 in my town.
Together Ms. Vauda and I shared our thoughts about the successes and failures of education past and present for Black folks.
Here is what we realized was essential to school success in the old days:
● Parents, teachers, and community members held high expectations for all black students to do their best regardless of their learning curve or abilities. Members of the black community constantly reminded students whenever they could, whether at church, the grocery store, or elsewhere, of the importance of education and success.
● Commitment by Black educators was vital as they worked closely with each student in and out of school settings voluntarily and without additional pay. Parent/teacher communications were open and honest. Students knew that their school day would be discussed when necessary. We were so proud to have Black teachers as role models. We felt a sense of added security for emotional and social growth. Students, parents, and the community highly respected teachers.
● Students knew and understood their responsibility to their family, teachers, and to their community to do their best to learn to read and write and graduate from school. We did this despite being forced to use outdated books and teaching equipment (shipped to Black schools every three to four years from white schools!) as a method of quelling our intelligence. However, this learning method only motivated students and teachers to work harder in our commitment to learning.
What impact did school integration have on Black students?
Together we created a few thoughts over school integration:
Integration of schools devastated both blacks and white people. Regardless of black students’ intelligence, there was and continues today a false belief that their skin color determined the level of knowledge and success. Integration while not its initial purpose created a mass school drop out of students. In my community, students experienced tremendous mental abuse and stress from white students and white teachers as they adjusted for school integration. Black students quit school to take jobs to wash dishes in kitchens, mop floors at the hospital, or worked in local plants which added stress to their lives. Integration also sparked a determination among Black students to graduate from school because it was required to enter college and continue their endeavors to be successful.
● Desegregation forced Blacks in leadership positions as principals, departmental chairpersons, other administrative roles to accept demotions in these positions under the white-guided school system. Even today, Blacks make up only 10.2% of superintendent positions in the United States per https://www.zippia.com/school-superintendent-jobs/demographics/ , a career statistic website (18% are Hispanic and 4.6% are Asian). Fifty-one years after the first Black superintendent Marcus Albert Foster in 1970–1973, this is where we are in terms of progress.
● Quality teacher-parent partnerships gained through trust, commitment, and commonalities among Black families weakened and minimized parent engagement and attendance in public schools today.
● Mental health and stress for black students, parents, teachers, and our community was and continues to be high due to fear of white institution leadership. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, one in five children and adolescents experience a mental health problem during their school years.
● Black families are experiencing increases in high school dropouts, suicide, psychological issues, and other challenges. Today, school emotional support is hampered by funding, distrust of teachers and the systems, and a disconnect within our communities.
● Technology is a beautiful tool to support and expand curriculum lessons and resources for learning. However, its impact on the creativity, analytical, and critical thinking skills necessary to learn and process information is fading away for many black students.
What is essential to student success today
Padlocking the doors of Black school buildings was not the goal for Black people protesting for the desegregation of schools in the '50s. Having an option to choose to enroll their children into a school that had updated books, equipment, sufficient rooms, etc., for their children to receive an equal and fair education was the ultimate goal. Our school was our second home in a sense with an instilled goal and commitment to learn. It was a safe space for us as blacks’ people, students helped one another learn and teachers worked to ensure all students were successful regardless of their economic status were respected. Our parents were more engaged in special activities and events. Rarely, was it necessary for a parent to visit the school because of a student behavior. In the old days, sickness was the only reason our classmates missed school, no one would have skipped school because people in the community would ask why you were not in school.
As our society continues to struggle with integration, there have been extraordinary outcomes for black people as a result of it. Our determination, inner spirit, intelligence, and life experiences have taught us as black people that regardless of your educational background there is nothing that you cannot accomplish and that there will always be a struggle based on your skin color.
In closing, we both admitted, we miss being teachers! There is just something about making a meaningful contribution to the rest of a child's life, regardless of the hurdles put in our way.