Success for black students

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.

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  1. Teachers in my school district are routinely chastised if they give too many Ds & Fs, even if they can show that the students “earned” them. Due to budget cuts, summer school is not an option for all failing students, so I believe that administrators want to limit the number of students who might need to take summer school classes.

  2. I used to teach in Cleveland – teachers get harassed if they fail “too many” black kids – whether or not they’ve done any work, or even showed up semi-regularly. The white teachers get gun-shy after being told they are racist if students don’t pass. They are told that by parents, administrators, and students.

    Many fold, and give undeserved grades, particularly if they are close to retirement, or are the sole support of their family. After about 8 years, to change to another school system is quite costly – they generally get only 6-8 years of experience credit on the salary scale. So, after a relatively short time, most teachers stay in the system they are in.

    To be fair, principals are graded for performance by the numbers. So, they pass that concern down to the teachers. Unfortunately, except for the more ambitious students, working hard makes no sense. They can get the same grades whether or not they do the work – so, why bother? They don’t see the long view, and are unimpressed by the fact that they know so little. Their sense of self-esteem is intact, and shields them against that nagging feeling that they have weak skills.

    It’s all the teacher’s fault, ‘ya know.

  3. If grades were cross-checked with e.g. NAEP scores, then teachers would be able to point to the standard and say “I can’t give these kids grades they haven’t earned” and the administration wouldn’t be able to say boo about it.

  4. tim-10-ber says:

    I like Engineer-poet’s idea!! Very good!

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    E-P’s idea explains why it won’t happen. Can’t happen. Won’t be allowed to happen.
    To be able to explain in realistic terms the results of single standards is nice, but its results could range from vile accusations to some employment action. The reason things are as they are is because things being as they are is the GOAL.
    Why would the powers that be want to forego the GOAL?