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Chalkbeat Tennessee office chief recalls roots in fight for education equity


For my first day of school in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1965, my mother dressed me in an orange and white gingham dress that she made herself, tied white ribbons around my two little pigtails, and gave me a quarter and threepence to buy the hot lunch that remains my favorite comfort food: baked spaghetti, peas, a bun and a square of yellow cake with chocolate frosting.

It turned out to be a happy beginning that briefly isolated me from the harsh reality raging around me.

One of those realities was starting school in the Duval County school system, which was so severely underfunded that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools had disaccredited its high schools the year before.

Another was being a black student in that system, one who ignored a desegregation order issued in 1960, six years after the US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education declaring segregated schools unconstitutional.

Black students in this system had to navigate puddles and assorted other disturbances to reach classrooms in schools plagued by drainage, overcrowding, and other problems that made learning into an ordeal when it should have been an adventure.

The schools were so crowded that, as a former Black Jacksonville elementary school teacher described in a 2021 report on inequalities in the school system, “Our third graders were crossing the street to the little church that was across the street.” of the road from the school, and then our fifth and sixth graders had to go down behind the school across the creek, to another church.

“Our (black) schools were left to fall into disrepair,” the teacher recalled.

The learning conditions were so horrendous that in 1964, 27,000 black students, under the leadership of the NAACP, boycotted schools for two days.

My parents, who were both teachers in that system, tried to make my daily educational experience as fulfilling as that segregated system would allow. But they understood that if it persisted, I wouldn’t be prepared for a future outside of it.

That’s why they left in 1968 to protest the state’s refusal to adequately fund schools, a statewide strike that served as a prelude to larger tensions that erupted later that year, when assassins killed Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

It would be another three years before Duval County finally caved to the creditors and the courts.

The last high school was reaccredited in 1971, and desegregation, largely through court-ordered busing, began that year. It was then that many of the glaring inequalities, such as secondhand books and desks, began to diminish. Dilapidated black schools were closed or converted to other uses.

Yet decades later, in Jacksonville and in school systems across the nation, the battle for equity in education still rages on.

It’s that story and lived experience that inform my work here at Chalkbeat Tennessee.

I fondly remember my first day of school because for me that reflects how education should begin – as a journey of dignity and possibility for children; as something to be experienced and not endured.

It should also be an experience where resources are available to students regardless of where they live, what color or ethnicity they are, or how much their parents earn.

But for too many students in Tennessee and elsewhere, that’s not the case.

Public school students continue to be isolated by race and class. And today, as Black and Latino youth make up a growing share of students in public schools, the stakes in failing to recognize the significance of this moment couldn’t be higher.

According to a 2020 report by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, black students now make up about 15 percent of students in public schools, while Latino students, who are the fastest growing segment of public school students, make up 27 percent. %. Asian students make up nearly 6%.

White students now make up 47 percent of students in public schools, down from 79 percent in 1970. This decline is not because more white students attend private schools or are homeschooled, but because fewer white children are born, according to the report.

“In a multiracial society where there is no racial majority, the skills to work and live successfully in multiracial institutions are a vital asset,” the report concludes.

“These skills are learned, mostly through experience, and are extremely difficult to acquire while living in segregated communities and attending segregated, poverty-concentrating schools.”

So while the quest for equity in education as a child was driven by the civil rights movement and fears of greater social unrest, what must motivate it now is the reality that the workforce of the future will rely heavily on people who they are not white.

This means that equity in education is not just about securing a future of opportunity for the children who will make up the majority of the nation, or simply about doing what is morally right and fair.

It’s about the future of a nation that will need educated workers to fill jobs that people like me – children of the 60s and 70s – now fill.

But if thousands of students are left struggling in schools that have become more racially and economically isolated since my childhood, or in school systems that are horribly underfunded, as the schools in Jacksonville were when I entered first grade, then we are not simply failing.

We are failing the future.

It’s a coincidence that someone like me ended up living and working in the city where Dr. King spent his last days helping his healthcare workers fight for fairness and dignity.

Serendipitous that I – a black woman whose mother taught fifth and sixth grade and whose father was a high school principal and coach who admired Dr. King so much that she made me memorize “I Have A Dream” when I was 8 – here I am working in a space designed to continue that equity work.

Serendipitous that my journalistic journey took me from 904 – the Jacksonville area code – to 901 – the Memphis area code.

But being at Chalkbeat is an opportunity for me to turn that serendipity into action by leading education coverage focused on what King, my parents, and others have fought for: educational equity and opportunity for all children.

Especially those that look like the future.

Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning journalist, proud University of Florida Gator and Jacksonville Raines High Viking. She joined Chalkbeat Tennessee as bureau chief last August after a 26-year career as a columnist at The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, Florida, and at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. Contact her at [email protected].

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