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 Lessons Learned:
Making the Promise of Brown a Reality**
 

Vivian Gunn Morris and Curtis L. Morris

 

It is very clear that for many African-American children in this country, the promise of Brown is not a reality. What characteristics of the valued segregated African-American schools may be helpful as we attempt to change our school system to meet the promise of Brown? Lessons learned from our earlier work, The Price They Paid (Morris & Morris, 2002) will be used as a framework for this discussion.

A. Lesson 1

African-American communities provided a good education for their children long before the 1954 Brown decision and school desegregation. African-American citizens in Tuscumbia established the Osborne Academy in 1877. It was renamed Trenholm High School in 1921 and closed in 1969. Trenholm High was one of the valued segregated schools that provided a good education for African-American children both before and after Brown. This school for African-American children possessed many of the characteristics outlined in current educational literature (Morris & Morris, 2002b): a) caring, competent, and committed teachers; b) small school environments; c) rigorous curriculum; d) extra curricular activities; e) strong family and community involvement; f) strong leadership; and g) orderly classrooms. However, Trenholm and other valued segregated African-American schools often lacked two important factors: an adequate physical plant and adequate supplies and equipment. Fifty years following the Brown decision, this state of affairs continues to exist in many schools where the majority of the students are African-American.

B. Lesson 2

The promises of equality of educational opportunities for African-American children are not ensured merely by closing poorly equipped, segregated school buildings and allowing African-American children to sit next to white children in well-equipped, desegregated, formerly all-white school buildings. This case study of Trenholm High School and the recent report cards issued by states, using the No Child Left Behind guidelines, communicate very clearly that even in "blue ribbon schools," where the average achievement of students is high, African-American and other students of color, special needs students, and children from low-income families are not achieving at the same levels of their white peers on standardized tests. African-American citizens in the Trenholm High community indicated that the desegregated school had an adequate physical plant and supplies and equipment, but lacked: a) caring, competent, and committed teachers; and b) strong family and community involvement in the life of the school.

C. Lesson 3

Relationships can mean everything in improving the academic achievement of African-American children. Small school environments offer great promise for promoting positive relationships between teachers and their students. Students and teachers in the Trenholm High School community were neighbors. They attended the same churches, grocery stores, and social events in the community. The student were playmates and classmates of their teachers' and principals' children. Their teachers and parents were friends and belonged to some of the same social and civic clubs in the community. This is rare in most communities today.

Ifill-Lynch (1998) noted that "the principles of small schools, in which teachers and children know each other well is good for all children" (p. 48). A commonality in the small high school is powerful relationships (Ark & Wagner, 2000). They found that the small schools they visited "were designed around relationships between the students and the teachers, and the relationships among the adults in the school" (p. 50). These schools boast nearly one hundred percent completion and college acceptance rates. Every student is connected to an adult in the building. Gladden (1998) found that students in small schools are more involved in extra curricular activities, are suspended less often, feel safer at school, use drugs less often, and are truant less often than students in larger schools. Trenholm High School and many valued segregated African-American schools met the enrollment criteria of a small school, i.e., not more than 350 at the elementary level and 500 at the high school level (Fine, 1999).

D. Lesson 4

What we need most to improve academic achievement in America is a caring, competent, and qualified teacher in every classroom. How do we prepare and retain these kinds of teachers in schools that enroll African-American students? Where do we begin? First we must make certain that preservice teachers are enrolled in high quality preparation programs that ensure that they:
1. Possess a deep understanding of the subjects they teach;
2. Evidence a firm understanding of how students learn;
3. Demonstrate the teaching skills necessary to help all (emphasis added) students achieve high standards;
4. Create a positive learning environment;
5. Use a variety of assessment strategies to diagnose and respond to individual learning needs;
6. Demonstrate and integrate modern technology into the school curriculum to support student learning;
7. Collaborate with colleagues, parents and community members, and other educators to improve student learning;
8. Reflect on their practice to improve future teaching and student achievement;
9. Pursue professional growth in both content and pedagogy; and
10. Instill a passion for learning in their students (Report, 2003, p. 7).

One of the characteristics of highly effective teachers identified as very critical in our case study and in the study of valued segregated African-American schools was the attribute of caring. This characteristic of quality teachers began to appear often in mainstream teacher education literature in the 1990s and has become a mainstay in descriptions of highly qualified teachers in the twenty-first century. Gay (2000) described the characteristics of both caring and uncaring teachers. She stated:
Caring teachers are distinguished by their high performance expectations, advocacy, and empowerment of students as well as by their use of pedagogical practices that facilitate success. The reverse is true for those who are noncaring. Their attitudes and behaviors take the form of low expectations, personal distance and disaffiliation from students, and instructional behaviors that limit student achievement. Just as caring is a foundational pillar of effective teaching and learning, the lack of it produces inequities in educational opportunities and achievement outcomes for ethnically different students (p. 62).

Completing a high quality teacher preparation program is only the first step in enabling novice teachers to become highly qualified teachers of African-American children and other children of color. Second, during the recruitment process, new teachers should be interviewed by the principal, existing teachers, and parents. The new teachers should have an opportunity to tour the premises in order to make certain that a particular school is the right match. Such a match cannot be made if a teacher is interviewed and hired by the district's human resources office and assigned to a school. This also means that prospective employees should be interviewed in more than one school setting in order to find the most appropriate match (Johnson & Birkeland, 2003).

Once new teachers are hired, they must be engaged in a high quality induction and mentoring program that ensures that they will be retained and able to move toward being a highly effective master teacher. One of the most successful induction and mentoring programs is the model implemented by the New Teacher Center (NTC) at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where they have maintained a teacher retention rate of 94% as compared to the national average of 50% (Villar & Bloom, 2004). This induction model is not a "buddy system" where a veteran teacher merely checks on a novice teacher occasionally and asks: "How are you doing?" This often means providing only emotional support (which is very important) with little attention given to classroom instruction. But in the NTC model, veteran exemplary teachers are released full-time to provide intensive support to 12-15 beginning teachers over a two-year period. These mentors meet with each beginning teacher from 1.5 to 2 hours weekly to provide assistance with teaching strategies, lesson planning, and identification of curriculum resources. They also help new teachers to establish professional learning goals, conduct classroom observations, offer teaching demonstrations, coach teachers in methods and student and parent interactions, and provide emotional support.

Villar and Bloom assessed the impact of the NTC mentoring and induction program student achievement gains in classrooms of new teachers participating in the NTC program compared to gains in classrooms of non-participating new teachers, mid-career teachers, and veteran teachers. Students in NTC classrooms demonstrated achievement gains approaching those of the mid-career teachers' classrooms, surpassed those of students assigned to veteran teachers, and far-surpassed those in classrooms of new teachers who did not participate in the NTC program. This is the kind of induction and mentoring program that is needed in schools that enroll African-American children.

Principals and veteran teachers at the school site are critically important in ensuring that new teachers stay in the profession, especially at schools with high enrollments of African-American children, other children of color, and children from low-income families. Johnson and Birkeland (2003) note that in order to retain new teachers in the profession, school leaders must: "ensure that new teachers have an appropriate assignment and a manageable workload, that they have sufficient resources with which to teach, that their principals and fellow teachers maintain a stable school and orderly work environment, and that they can count on colleagues for advice and support" (p. 606). Lastly, top level school district officials, college administrators, state department education personnel and local, state, and federal policymakers must be willing to allocate the resources that are required to support the initiatives necessary to ensure that the promise of Brown is a reality in schools for all children.

In Fifty Years After Brown v. Board of Education, Carroll, Fulton, Abercrombie, and Yoon (2004) made some similar recommendations as reported in our lessons learned. They listed the things that we must do as a nation to make the promise of Brown a reality for all children in all our communities:

1. Acknowledge unequal school conditions and marshall the political will to seek solutions;

2. Listen to what teachers and students tell us about conditions in their schools;

3. Establish school standards that sustain quality teaching and learning for every child;

4. Establish funding adequacy formulas based on per-pupil needs in lieu of per-pupil averages;

5. Use better data to report on the relationship between school conditions and student performance;

6. Hire well-qualified teachers and principals, support them, and reward them for their performance; and

7. Hold officials publicly accountable for keeping the promise of educational equity (p. 6).

In a recent study, Jerome Morris (2004) reports on his investigation of two predominately African-American elementary schools in low-income urban communities that are very successful in educating their students. What is very interesting about his findings is that the two successful schools that he studied (in 1994-1997 and 1999-2002) have some of the same characteristics as the valued segregated African-American schools that existed before Brown, e.g., school personnel reaching out to families, intergenerational and cultural bonding, significant presence of black teachers in the schools, African-American principals serving as cultural and academic leaders in the community, and successful African-American schools as pillars in black communities.

We had many successful schools for African-American children before Brown, and we have some in the twenty-first century, but not nearly enough. We know enough to ensure an equitable education for all children in this country, and we have the financial resources to support the needs of our schools. The question is: Do we have the will to make the promise of Brown a reality in this country? Will it take fifty more years to attain that goal?

We cannot afford to wait!

excerpted from: Vivian Gunn Morris and Curtis L. Morris, Before Brown, after Brown: What Has Changed for African-American Children?, 16 University of Florida Journal of Law and Public Policy 215, 224-228 (August, 2005).

 

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