This is Judy Jones.
I have been thinking and reading a great deal about the incident with the Confederate Flag and the East Chapel Hill High Students. As a retired teacher from this high school, I am saddened by the lack of awareness of some of our students and I certainly share and understand the hurt and anger felt by so many. This flag is a symbol of a very sad time in the history of our country.
I know the teachers who led this field trip and I know how thoughtfully they plan these simulations, taking great care to make sure that students understand that this battle is a simulation of a regretful time in our country. The teachers always stress that as Southerners we are glad that we are still part of the United States and that the enslavement of a whole group of people has ended.
But adolescents are not always attentive to messages and they do really thoughtless and hurtful things. That was certainly the case here. Many times this age is very quick to speak and to act without first considering the impact of their words and actions. This is where we as teachers, parents, and adults need to help them see the painful feelings that their thoughtlessness evokes.
I am concerned about the source of these feelings that are so deeply embedded in our society and I also regret the frequently unrecognized racism that continues to plague relationships in the U.S. As opportunities have opened up for minorities, we whites sometimes think that racism has ended, but recent events across our country have certainly proved us wrong.
In addition to pondering the flag incident, I began to think about our high school and our district and what has happened to our focus in the last several years. When I first began teaching in the district in 1984, there were certainly racial problems, but I was heartened when the district began to put serious consideration toward helping teachers and students become more aware of diversity and to learn empathy and understanding of our shared history and what that history has meant to different groups. We worked hard to create high schools where students would have the opportunity to interact in classes and have more open conversations – where they could learn to appreciate and understand the perspectives of different ethnic groups.
But recently, our schools have become even more divided. Before 2011, our science classes and our history classes were heterogeneous – they were environments where all students could learn together, appreciating the many and varied gifts that each of them brings. But the school board chose to create honors and standard classes in almost all of the science and history classes by a vote of 4 white members to 3 black members – a racial divide that should have raised alarm bells. With this act, we now have a high school where all the core subjects are divided into honors and standard. If you walk into standard classes at ECHHS and then compare them to honors classes, you will see that there is a preponderance of African-American, Latino, and ESL (English as a Second Language) students in the standard classes. Since retirement, I have long-term and short-term substituted in these classes and found these young people to be bright, interesting, creative and deserving of the best possible education. They are kind of young people with whom and from whom I would have wanted my own children to learn.
This artificial separating of the races can only contribute to an environment where lack of true relationships and understanding cannot be overcome by discussions in classes that do not have a heterogeneous mix of students. In order to respect and understand each other, we absolutely need environments where we can listen deeply to the experiences and thoughts of others. The academic separation also creates among the standard students a feeling of being “less than” or “incapable” of honors work. I know some would argue with me that everyone has the opportunity to tackle the honors classes. But please, consider that some of these students, who are from ethnic groups that have historically (and currently) been discriminated against, may not (as 13 and 14 year olds) have the courage to take that step. Our schools need to thoughtfully address these issues and create schools were students can interact academically.
In 2011, when the school board forced us to create honors and standard science classes, we attempted to organize hybrid classes where students could learn in a heterogeneous environment and choose whether they wanted to meet the honors expectations or the standard expectations. Both options were open to all students in the class. We worked hard to redesign some of our curriculum so that we had more options. But after only a few weeks, a parent complained to the school board and we were forced to completely rearrange our classes. It was a sad day for us because we, as teachers, have done much research on this issue. We know that tracking classes does not improve education for those left in the “standard” environment and does nothing to improve the achievement of those in “honors.” So why do we do it?
I suggest that if we really want to create an environment where students become sensitive to the feelings and thoughts of people who have a different perspective and background, the Superintendent and the School Board need to take responsibility and help us organize an environment where students of different ethnicities have many more opportunities to work and learn together. Otherwise, we are contributing to the very sad separation that we see in the larger society.
I also suggest that if separating our students is thought to be necessary for getting honors credit, building transcripts, taking multiple AP classes, and competing for the “best” colleges and universities, then the cost is too high. Our society deeply needs a return to what matters – our relationships and our focus on learning from each other.
I respectfully ask those school board members who were part of the original decision to create honors and standard science and history classes (Mr. Kelley, Ms. Brownstein, and Ms. Bedford), now that you have seen some of the negative consequences within our community of segregation and isolation in our schools, would you and the other members of the Board be willing to revisit your decision from five years ago?