The next year she was in trouble. Her Algebra 2 teacher announced on Parents Night that she disapproved of school sports and thought students in her class (such as Jordan, who had already lettered in basketball and track) should avoid them. Expensive prep schools know that selective colleges love athletic prowess and would never have hired an instructor with such strange ideas. Jordan ignored the anti-sports dictum, but she struggled in the class.
The great teachers I know would have helped the student master the subject. This one told Jordan’s parents “she just doesn’t seem to get it” and suggested she forget her dreams of becoming an engineer.
Her parents had experienced enough uncomfortable moments in the racially mixed district to wonder if the teacher’s biggest problem might be that Jordan was black. Walter Fields, a longtime journalist and civil rights activist, founded the Black Parents Workshop Inc. and with his wife filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights about black students being put onto lower academic tracks. Before later filing a federal lawsuit, Fields said, the parents group tried to work with the district but did not get what they wanted.
They sought an end to steering black students into lower level classes. They wanted desegregation of an elementary school system where 58 percent of students in one school were black, compared with less than 20 percent black enrollment in each of the other four.
Schools officials promised improvement, but progress was slow. High school officials told one African American student he couldn’t take honors history and barred another from honors geometry, even though the students had teacher and counselor support. When a school dance group performed to Billie Holiday’s song about lynching, “Strange Fruit,” a group of white teachers complained it made them feel unsafe in the auditorium.
The settlement approved by the school board on July 13 and other actions by the district are designed to improve the school culture, as well as integrate the elementary schools and facilitate black students’ overall enrollment in advanced classes.
Sadly there is still no obvious legal bar in the United States to the widespread tendency to hold back students with just average grades — whatever their ethnicity — from advanced courses like AP. Good teachers know struggling in such classes is better preparation for college than leaving students in undemanding lower level options, but most schools have yet to adopt that attitude.
Better data, like that being collected under the South Orange-Maplewood settlement, may help reveal that schools with similar student bodies can have widely varying success challenging students. By standard measures in 2017, Columbia High was a near twin of James Hubert Blake High School in Silver Spring, Md. Columbia’s enrollment was 1,850. Blake’s was 1,600. The portion of black students was 45 percent at Columbia and 41 percent Blake. The portion of low-income students was 21 percent at Columbia and 35 percent at Blake.
Yet at Blake, where taking AP was actively encouraged, the AP exam participation rate was 50 percent higher. A higher portion of Blake seniors than Columbia seniors had passing scores on AP tests.
Jordan Fields, who eventually took AP courses in calculus and English, graduated with honors this year from the University of Pittsburgh and was named “Senior of the Year.” She is policy coordinator for the mayor of Pittsburgh and will enter the University of Pittsburgh’s law school in 2021. Her story will help undermine what her father calls “the narrative of underachievement” that has limited opportunities for black children at her old school district.
Walter Fields and district communications director Anide Eustache both said the Black Lives Matter movement encouraged important conversations about race in their community. The school board voted 9-0 in favor of the settlement.
More needs to be done to persuade schools to offer challenging courses to students who don’t speak up for themselves or have parents who didn’t go to college. If a student with a family as supportive as Jordan Fields’s had to suffer under a discouraging teacher, what hope is there for those elsewhere who have nobody telling them how good they can be?