Forty years after her sophomore year at Cleveland’s virtually all-black John F. Kennedy High, Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks got together with her former 10th-grade English teacher, Stuart Telecky, and her former math teacher, Lelia McBath, to talk about success for black students.
• A school’s success starts with its principal. Ours never bothered with mission statements loaded with “life-long learner” babble. His motto was simple: Every child deserves the chance to fail a class. Emphasis on every, not on fail.
• School integration was a noble aim but undid the social fabric of our all-black campus. That had less to do with race than with history, politics and geography.
• Sugar-coating lessons shortchanges students. You can scrub “Huck Finn” of the N-word, but that’s an insult to students’ intellect more demeaning than the racial slur.
Mr. Telecky taught Huck Finn, n-word and all, discussing its meaning.
“We read passages aloud, we used the word. And there was no derision, no snickering. And I was completely bowled over, in every instance, by how mature the students were.”
That’s because he treated us with respect.
When Banks was graduated in 1972, John F. Kennedy High was “modern, well-kept and middle class, a jewel of Cleveland’s school system.” Integration, ordered by a federal judge in 1976, “led to years of mandatory busing and involuntary teacher transfers, which integrated Kennedy’s campus but unraveled its neighborhood bonds,” Banks writes.
Academic standards began to slip. Veteran teachers, uncommonly strict, met resistance from unfamiliar parents. New white teachers let too much slide. Many had never taught mixed classes and hesitated to push black students.
New teachers gave A’s and B’s to low-performing students, thinking they “couldn’t do better,” recalls Banks’ Mrs. McBath.
Before integration, an 11th-grade trigonometry teacher failed her entire class. Banks and her classmates tried again in summer school — with lots of help from Mrs. McBath.
And I celebrated my “C” when the semester ended. Because I knew I had earned it.
Kennedy High is no longer a “jewel.” Banks’ analysis of her old school’s decline fits Stuart Buck’s thesis in Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation.