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Group of students at Kirkwood High School tries to transcend stereotypes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: When two gangs of African-American girls began fighting in the halls of Kirkwood High School this spring, Robyn Jordan, Monica Gibbs and a group of their high-achieving African-American friends got fed up. They organized to combat racial stereotypes and visited middle schools to urge girls to avoid fights when they get to high school.

Jordan and Gibbs found themselves dealing with negative stereotypes among some teachers and other students even as they wrestle with what it takes for an African-American student to achieve in a predominantly white school in a predominantly white town where they feel as though they are expected to fail.

In their advanced placement classes, Jordan and Gibbs are sometimes afraid to speak up for fear their answer may be wrong. Other black students sometimes accuse them of being "traitors" or "acting white" because they take the classes. When fights start in the halls among black girls, some teachers assume they, too, are involved. At home, some African-American parents warn their daughters against white boyfriends and one parent advised her daughter to hit back if someone hits her -- advice sure to get the girl suspended. 

When the first of about five hallway fights began during the spring semester, the girls joined together to make the point that they were different.

"Some teachers, as soon as this happened, they would say, 'Were you involved?'" recalls Gibbs. "Why would I be involved? That annoyed me. I sit in your class every day and still you ask me if I was involved?"

Jordan adds, "You have to work harder to prove yourself because people think that since you're black, you're not going to succeed. You have to work harder to excel."

The girls' effort to bridge racial stereotypes comes at a time when the larger community has been wrestling with racial reconciliation. In February, the Kirkwood City Council approved a mediation agreement hammered out under supervision of the Justice Department's Community Relations Service. The Justice Department got involved after Charles "Cookie" Thornton's Feb. 7, 2008 assault at City Hall that resulted in the deaths of six white city officials and Thornton, who was African-American.

The mediation process did not include the school system, but there is no way to have a conversation about race in Kirkwood without including the schools. Two of the 118 teachers at Kirkwood High School are black.

Paul Ward, the lone black City Council member and a member of the school district's long-term planning group, says he continues to push for more black teachers at the high school. Amy Barker, an AP English teacher agrees: "I do think that students like to see themselves reflected and that the ideal would be to have a more diverse staff," she says.

Success story

The story that Jordan, Gibbs and other high achieving African-American students tell is actually part of a success story during David Holley's tenure as principal. The school has put a big emphasis on increasing the number of African-American students taking AP courses, and it has succeeded. The number of black students taking the AP exams jumped from 2 to 49 between 2001 and 2009.

In the beginning, recalls Assistant Principal Romona Miller, "we had teachers who said, 'You are setting them up for failure.' Now teachers stop me in the hall and say this or that student needs to be in an AP class.

"You see some of these kids who do not have anyone encouraging them to go to school. Once that fire is lit, they are off and running."

Two white teachers were instrumental in encouraging black students to take AP courses -- Barker, the AP English teacher and Karen Ambuehl, who teaches an African-American studies course.

Barker is a lively, animated 1988 graduate of Kirkwood High who was recruited by former principal Franklin S. McCallie to return to the high school after graduating from Swarthmore and Harvard.

"I really do believe that when students walk into my room they can be smarter when they walk out," she says.

Watching Barker teach Toni Morrison's "Song of Solomon," it almost seems possible she will some day achieve her dream of every student taking AP English. Somehow, she blends vocabulary words, student discussion and a short quiz into a lesson on how the students might answer an AP question about a key passage.

Chelsea Miller, 17, a senior, is one of four black students among the 16 in the class this day. The black students sit together on one side of the room. "We call it the black side," says Miller.

Black students find the AP courses daunting. Another black face is important.

"In my AP history class when Monica came I felt more comfortable," says Jordan, herself a self-confident young woman who is on the pom squad and track team. "It's hard to explain. You feel more comfortable around people with color."

For Gibbs, an outgoing cheerleader who also runs track, joining Jordan's AP history class at mid-year "was a shock. When I got in the AP class, I was so intimidated. We were learning more and more in-depth. I was still hesitant to talk. I didn't want to give the wrong answer."

Jordan explained, "It's a mind thing. You go in and you think, not that they're better than me, but that they've been in this environment their whole lives. It feels like when black people [take AP classes], they're going outside of their environment, but when white people do it, it's expected."

Still Jordan is proud of what she's achieved and has signed up for more AP classes next year. "I feel like I've made a name for myself at Kirkwood. They don't know me as a black girl. They know me as Robyn. Black is what some people will define me as, but that is not what I define myself as."

Lingering separateness

Gibbs says she feels as though teachers view the African-American students differently. "There [are] times, like at the beginning of the year, when teachers are looking at their classes thinking, 'These are the kids I can actually teach, and these are the ones I'm just going to have to deal with,' and you get grouped in with the kids they're gonna deal with because you're black."

Carlin Pruitt, a junior, agrees. "Teachers are surprised" when black students do well, she says, but other black students say "why are you acting the fool" by working so hard.

Jordan adds, "People expect you to be bad and to fight, but if you do more than is expected then what can they say?"

Ashley Lomax, another junior, puts it this way: "I think that people expect us to fail. You don't see as many African Americans in AP classes doing well."

The feeling of being different or separate only deepened when two gangs of black girls got into about five different fights during the spring semester. Most often the fights were about boys, often kindled by nasty Facebook comments. In one instance, boys cheered on two girls who jumped a third when she left the cafeteria.

Shyniece Ferguson, a 17-year-old graduating senior who won the McCallie award for her leadership qualities, says the fights led her to "worry about it becoming a stereotype of all African Americans (among teachers). It's kind of embarrassing. It gets annoying."

Meanwhile, those African Americans who are achieving are subjected to barbs from some black students who aren't.

Ferguson ascribes it to the other students' insecurities. "If we speak proper language or join in choir, you are acting white."

Gibbs has a similar experience. "They say, 'She acting white.' I don't even care. I'm going to graduate.

Last month, Jordan, Gibbs, Pruitt, Lomax and Diamond Boyd visited Nipher and North middle schools to urge African-American girls to stay away from fights. They told the girls to sign up for hard classes and surround themselves with others who do the same.

As Pruitt puts it, "Make the right choice for yourself instead of saying, 'That's my homegirl.'"

Jordan and Gibbs aren't sure the message sank in. "The middle school students are set in their ways," says Jordan. "'She did this to me and I had to do this back.'"

Adds Gibbs, "When someone has an eye-for-an-eye mentality, it is hard to tap into it and change it."

In the fall, Jordan and Gibbs, working with Assistant Principal Chris Lindquist, will start a group of African-American girls aimed at addressing the fighting and stereotypes.

Building an Identity

What the young African-American girls are struggling with is nothing short of their identity.

How should they speak? Should they go out with white boys? Should they go to all-black colleges or predominantly white ones? Who should they sit with at the lunch table?

"I eat lunch with all black girls," Jordan says. "On the weekends, I hang out with all white people. But I don't really mix the groups. It doesn't work that way.

"When I am around white people, I talk a different way. Not that you are who you are with, (but) if you are around enough people you talk a different way."

Gibbs finds that some white friends try to talk in black slang. "I get people saying 'yo' and doing the head-nod and stuff because they're trying to be what they think black is," says an amused Gibbs.

The issue of identity comes up immediately when Adonika Smith, an 18-year-old graduating senior, starts saying she's from Meacham Park, stops mid-word and then says with emphasis, "Kirkwood." She explains:

"People feel like Meacham Park is isolated from Kirkwood. They say Kirkwood, and then they say Meacham Park. They don't see it as just one."

Gibbs says she doesn't want to go to an all-black college because "the world around you isn't all blacks." When one girl asks her if she would consider getting a tattoo in college, she quickly answers no. "You can't get a job in corporate America with a tattoo," she says.

This is treacherous ground these young women are crossing as they figure out how to be successful women in the 21st century. But they exude confidence as they take on centuries-old stereotypes and misperceptions that stand in their way.

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute. Previously, he worked for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 34 years, serving as assistant Washington Bureau Chief and deputy editorial editor. He covered the U.S. Supreme Court while in Washington. He is a graduate of Kirkwood High School, Stanford University and Washington University Law School. He is a member of the Missouri Bar.

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