Race and Education: How Alabama High School Students Feel

education“Looking forward, not to the past.”

On the 60th Anniversary of Brown v Board of Education, looking back has inspired a long, hard examination at how the issues raised by the historically relevant Supreme Court case have either been improved upon, gotten worse or stayed the same. Six word essays, written by high school students in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, have granted some insight into how today’s students feel about the issues regarding race and education. The high-schoolers at two distinctly different schools, Central and Northridge, also took poignant pictures for a challenging photojournalism project.

Amanda Zamora, senior engagement editor at ProPublica and her co-worker, Nikole Hannah-Jones, went to Tuscaloosa and got permission from the principals at both Northridge and Central High Schools to assign their journalism classes with the project. 20 point-and-shoot cameras were used to take the photographs.

They were instructed to illustrate their views regarding education and race through pictures taken at their schools. The young journalists at all-black Central and fully integrated Northridge were interested in the challenge, but cautious. They were unsure of what to use as subject matter for their photographs.

“Skin color doesn’t define your intelligence.”

Hannah-Jones gave the students a brief history lesson about the landmark ruling and the subsequent decades that were full of struggles and battles to integrate the public school system. She also talked about the recent indicators that much of what was accomplished has been undone. As a group, they discussed the “Green Factors”, six determinators as to whether school districts had successfully met the federal obligations regarding integration.

Questions were then posed. The students were instructed to think about how they feel race and education affect their high school experience in Alabama. They were asked to consider transportation options at their schools, as well as, the extracurricular activities and courses offered. They then went over the differences that distinguish photojournalism from photography as a hobby.

Once Zamora and Hannah-Jones felt that there was enough material to work with and after much discussion, a meeting was arranged for the journalism students from both schools. Together at Central High, the teams started editing their work. That was in February.

In May, the students got together again, this time to view their final project. It was now an exhibit at the Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center in Tuscaloosa. The six-word essays that they also wrote were a contribution to Michele Norris’s Race Card Project.

“I am not what society thinks.”

Since meeting their counterparts from the other school, a lingering question was on the students’ minds. If exchange programs can exist for international student swaps, why not a program that allows an exchange for students at Central and Northridge High Schools? When Paul McKendrick, the Superintendent of Tuscaloosa City Schools, was asked what he thought of the idea, he admitted it was a good one and promised to look into the possibility.

Though Zamora and Hannah-Jones knew that many of the important voices regarding the resegregation going on in Tuscaloosa schools would be those of the students themselves, they could not have predicted such a diplomatic outcome for their inventive project. A junior at Central High, Jessica McKinstry, said that she is hopeful that the exchange will help her fellow classmates challenge the assumptions they make about other students at other schools and also to make some new friends. There is a clear message of goodwill when these Alabama high school students express how they now feel about the issues of race and education.

by Stacy Lamy


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