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Government, Politics & Issues

At Kirkwood High, racial progress is marked by both success and frustration

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The relationship between Kirkwood and its predominantly African-American neighborhood of Meacham Park plays out daily in the public schools, where decades of attention to race-related issues have yielded both success and frustration.

At Kirkwood High School, African-American students have made major improvements in their graduation rate and other measures of achievement. But the number of African-American teachers has shrunk to two on a faculty of 118. Some current and former African-American faculty complain about being treated disrespectfully.

The story of the past three decades at Kirkwood High School is largely the story of two larger-than-life principals, David Holley and his predecessor, Franklin S. McCallie.

The two men have a lot in common. Both are tall, gregarious, forceful and not afraid to cry when moved. But where McCallie, a product of segregated Chattanooga, feels comfortable talking about race, Holley, a Kirkwood High School grad, does not. After the City Hall shootings in 2008, the high school made counselors available for students, but there was no soul-searching discussion of race.

For McCallie, race was the center of his work from the day he showed up in 1979 to be interviewed. A group of central office staff had gathered, each with a prepared question. The first questioner asked him about race. The second asked him about race. So did the third.

When McCallie suggested the district had a race problem, one person replied, "How did you know?"

At the high school, McCallie found that buses dropped off the black and white students at different locations on campus. Officials loaded black students on the bus earlier in the afternoon than whites, depriving them of an after-school period that whites had to go back to a teacher to clarify an assignment. Black and white students fought in the halls.

Over the next 22 years, McCallie talked about race during the morning announcements on the loudspeakers. He held assemblies. He urged teachers to have the highest expectations for students, like Jaime Escalante of "Stand and Deliver" fame. And he sought out talented black teachers and administrators, reaching a peak of 11 teachers and two administrators in 1999.

Today, only the orchestra teacher, who spends part of his time at a junior high, and a business teacher, who is a coach, are African American. None of the teachers of traditional academic subjects is black. That means that a student body that is 26 percent African American is taught by a staff less than 2 percent black.

The one African-American administrator at KHS, assistant principal Romona Miller, was initially offered her job without the title, current and former officials say. She had to insist that the title come with the job, an example, say African-American staff, of the way even the most successful black faculty members are sometimes disrespected. Miller and the district did not comment.

'We cried'

Holley's accomplishments have been different from McCallie's. He is proud that the high school has made great progress in improving two important academic measures for black students -- graduation rates and the number of students taking advanced placement classes.

In 2001, two black students took advanced placement tests, Holley said. Last year, the school had 49.

Miller said the increase was the result of "a major push where we actually talked to our teachers about encouraging African-American students who they saw had potential who may not have signed up for the AP classes."

The idea began to sell itself.

"Now the dynamic is that the kids encourage each other in addition to us," she said. "It's funny watching the juniors and seniors telling the sophomores, you have to take an AP class, you need to sign up for this honors class. The students are now coming in realizing 'I can do this, and the teachers do want me here'."

Holley said staff is careful to schedule black students into AP classes with other black students, "So they don't look around and go, 'Oh my gosh, I'm here by myself,'" he said.

Even as the number of students taking Advanced Placement tests has doubled, the rate of passage, around 85 percent, has remained stable.

Holley also is proud of the increase in African-American graduation rates. In 2008, 98.2 percent of African-Americans graduated, while in 2001, 71 percent graduated; meanwhile the white graduation rate rose to 96.6 from 87 percent.

"You don't think she and I cried?" Holley said, looking over at Miller. "We cried."

Holley said the school was able to build on the gains that McCallie had made before him. "It's not like 1979 when people were fighting in the halls. Those were the kinds of things (McCallie) had to overcome. We didn't have to overcome them because it was done."

'Excellent and inclusive'

One program responsible for the achievement gains is an in-house "alternative program" called ATLAS, which helps struggling students, from teen mothers to those who are burnt out on school. It's smaller than traditional classrooms with a student-teacher ratio of about six to one.

The ATLAS program is physically separate, situated in the performance wing of the high school. The make up of support classes hovers between 60 percent and 70 percent African-American. Holley says he's become uncomfortable that the percentage of blacks in the ATLAS classes has risen so high.

Holley said one of the biggest questions at the high school has been, "Can we be excellent and inclusive?"

"We can look at Kirkwood High School, and we can be an excellent school, and we can tout all kinds of scores and all kinds of markers that are markers of excellence if one takes a subset of kids. And what we as a school, as a school of 120 adults, have said, 'Can we open the doors of this school wider for all kids?'"

Holley believes the answer is yes. Blacks still generally sit with blacks and whites with whites in the lunchroom, but some tables find both blacks and whites together.

Three or four years ago a dropout wrote the N-word on the windows of the commons area. Miller says that the white students "rallied around their African-American counterparts.... They were so concerned about their African-American friends."

When Kevin Johnson, a Meacham Park resident, went on trial on charges of killing Kirkwood Police Sgt. William McEntee in 2005, some students from the neighborhood area wore shirts to school supporting Johnson during his trial. Holley said the school asked the students not to wear the shirts.

Holley hasn't heard students lionize Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton, the former KHS track star whose City Hall attack two years ago ended in the deaths of six city officials and himself. Holley, like McCallie and a number of other prominent Kirkwood residents, attended Thornton's wedding to his wife, Maureen, an educator. But Holley said he" didn't hear any one of the kids who said Cookie was something of a hero for what he did."

The school has "as much racial harmony as there is in a population of 2,000 in America," said Holley. "That is what we have at KHS."

'It takes effort'

Holley says he would like to see an increase in black teachers. "Is that a goal? Yes. We have almost none at this school. It's a complicated answer that I don't even know."

The pool of candidates is limited, Holley says, and other districts often snap up the best applicants. District officials go on recruitment trips and get great applicants, he says, but the best often choose Atlanta over St. Louis.

McCallie is blunt about the absence of black teachers. "They didn't hire blacks. Black teachers complained about it. It's because nobody has made a concerted effort over in the central office or the school to have black staff. It takes effort." McCallie said that may be changing with the new superintendent, Thomas L. Williams.

Williams met with African-American teachers several weeks ago and promised that recruitment of more African-American teachers would be a priority, says Kirkwood schools' spokeswoman Ginger Fletcher. Currently, the district has two African-American administrators, out of 26, and 22 African-American teachers, out of 393.

A mediation agreement, reached last month between Kirkwood city officials and community representatives under Justice Department supervision, did not include the school district. Fletcher said the Justice Department apparently didn't ask school officials to participate. A Justice Department spokeswoman said she could not comment on why the schools were not part of the process.

'Nothing ever happens'

Florence Borman, who teaches at Nipher Middle School, started a civil rights team two years ago for Kirkwood for about 30 seventh-graders. They went to museums and talked about historical events they learned about in social studies.

This year, she worked with several students and the Meacham Park Neighborhood Improvement Association to produce the association's newsletter and videotape an oral history of Meacham Park.

The results were encouraging, she said, but even talking about the problems in Meacham Park can be exhausting for residents who have been discussing them for years.

"One of the things said by one of our interviewees was that, 'People make videos, but nothing ever happens,'" Borman said. "That makes me sad."

The Community for Understanding and Hope, a group which formed after the City Hall shootings, hosted an essay contest last year. Sixteen-year-old Grace Evans won first place in the high school division for her answer on addressing race relations. She talked about a Native-American paper doll she had as a child, a cutout she kept in her drawer because it frightened her.

"Feeling uncomfortable about someone can lead to disrespecting and discriminating against them," she wrote in her essay. "Of course, many of us recognize these prejudices within ourselves and try to eradicate them by denying their existence. However, hiding from our own feeling is about as effective as stuffing a paper doll in a sock drawer; on the surface no one can see the problem, but it's buried deeper in our psyches."

The reporting team, from the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, includes William H. Freivogel, director of the school and a regular Beacon contributor; Jaclyn Brenning, a reporter-in-residence.

Kirkwood’s Journey

This article is part of a series on Kirkwoodians' efforts to understand how race affects their city and what role it might have played in the City Hall shootings two years ago. Read more stories about Kirkwood's journey. The series is part of the Beacon's Race, Frankly project.

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