In 16 years of schooling that were mostly public and northern, I never had a black teacher. I thought nothing odd of this at the time, which was from the mid-1940s to 1960. I remember it as strange now, though, because I recently spent some time with white children for whom black teachers--and black guidance counselors and black principals--are accepted as routine.
It appears to be routine also for three black educators I talked with in Vero Beach and Gifford, two communities--one white, the other black --on Florida's east coast. As the school year begins, the integration being discussed here has little to do with breaking racial barriers. That's already happened. Busing has worked. White- flight schools have not taken hold.
During the 1970s, the citizens of Indian River County, where the politics are conservative to moderate, put the rights of their children above the needless stirring of anger and confusion about busing children out of their neighborhoods. The conservatives here could teach a lesson or two to so-called progressives in the North, who, as they abandon public schools for private, are content to keep on seeing children as "ours" and "theirs."
James Jenkins, a black guidance counselor for 19 years at the Middle- Seven school in Gifford, into which nearly all of the county's 583 seventh graders are now bused, understood long before the recent burst of reports spelled out that children best learn when they know they are expected to learn.
Talking in his small office off one of the main corridors, Jenkins confessed that the imparting of expectations was one of the hardest responsibilities he had, particularly for poor black children.
"Many of the black families," he said, "have lost the initiative--the drive--that they instilled in their kids when I first came along. If I had an argument, it would be with black families. As soon as we accepted the concept of integration, it was as if, 'my child all of a sudden is in a white environment, so he's going to succeed.'
"That's a false impression. You still need that drive, that motivation, from the home which we seem to find we aren't getting from a lot of parents. It makes our job a little more difficult here."
It might not only be the fault of black parents without drive. In the '70s, school boards and superintendents decided--in the name of accepting each child "where he is"--that expectations were lowered. Educate them, but don't work them.
That ill-fated era has passed. Its results have been seen: dropout rates higher for blacks than whites, rates that could be still higher in the years ahead. A report released this week by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching says that 30 percent of white Americans were 19 or under in 1980. For blacks, the figure was 40 percent. "If minority students continue to leave school at the current rate (about one in four high-school students drops out before graduation), the number of school dropouts will significantly increase."
This is why Mary Futrell, the new president of the National Education Association and a black who taught business in the pubic schools of Alexandria, is saying that the lowering of academic standards for blacks in the 1970s was asking for trouble. Her call is different: "Don't lower the standards, don't lower the expectations. Bring black students up to the standards set for all."
I saw something of this in Vero Beach High School, a sprawl of a place with 2,002 students, the majority of them white. One morning I sat as an observer in tenth-grade English class. The teacher was black. Two of the 19 students were black. For 55 minutes, the class read and analyzed an essay by Thomas Paine. Wanza Murray, a teacher for 20 years, had the skill to deal in both hard knowledge--explaining what Paine was saying--and soft awareness: raising the critical faculties of the students to judge whether or not Paine's choices about patriotism should be their choices.
It was a demanding, difficult class, Early in the year, Murray was letting everyone know what lay ahead: the students, white and black, would be asked to make the response. They had the ability. Together it spelled responsibility.