Jada Williams, a 13-year-old student in New York, also suggested that her fellow students needed to work to learn to read, but that doesn’t seem to have made a difference to the teachers and administration at her former school. Of course, it’s possible that it wasn’t her observation that teachers needed to teach the students that was at fault here.
We at the Frederick Douglass Foundation honored her because her essay actually demonstrates that she understood the autobiography, even though it might seem a bit esoteric to most 13-year olds. In her essay, she quotes part of the scene where Douglass’ slave master catches his wife teaching then slave Frederick to read. During a speech about how he would be useless as a slave if he were able to read, Mr. Auld, the slave master, castigated his wife.
Miss Williams quoted Douglass quoting Mr. Auld: “If you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there will be no keeping him. It will forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.”
Miss Williams personalized this to her own situation. She reflected on how the “white teachers” do not have enough control of the classroom to successfully teach the minority students in Rochester. While she herself is more literate than most, due to her own perseverance and diligence, she sees the fact that so many of the other “so-called ‘unteachable’” students aren’t learning to read as a form of modern-day slavery. Their illiteracy holds them back in society.
That’s right. Williams dared to treat illiteracy not as an abstract problem of resources and tests and lesson plans. Instead, she did something that few people tolerate well. She looked at it for what it is, a matter of social injustice:
“When I find myself sitting in a crowded classroom where no real instruction is taking place I can say history does repeat itself,” Jada recently read from her essay. “The reality of this is that most of my peers can not read, and therefore comprehend the materials that have been provided. So I feel like not much has changed. Just different people. Different era. The same old discrimination still resides in the hearts of the white man.”
Needless to say, it didn’t go well. That was enough for her teachers, who allegedly passed around her essay and who started giving this A-student failing grades while refusing to show her parents the supposedly sub-standard work. One teacher felt the need to personally tell Williams she was offended. Williams got in trouble for laughing in class, and her parents were told she was “angry”, though no one specified what had changed about her aside from the fact that she’d written the essay.
Williams’ parents removed from her first school, unable to get the administration to make changes. Then they removed from the school to which they’d been directed as a replacement, when this second school turned out to be warehousing for “problem” students. The school is still refusing to release Williams’ records. Finally, the local media has gotten involved, along with the parents’ association. So did the Frederick Douglass Foundation (see above).
That means that, finally, someone is being held to account. More specifically, it means that the district superintendent is taking official, public notice of what happened:
Late Friday afternoon, Superintendent Bolgen Vargas said the entire situation is unfortunate and offered an apology for what she is going through.
Superintendent Vargas said, “We could have responded better. This is a situation that was definitely not handled the best way.”
Vargas said he understands adult reaction, but school is a place where students should be able to explore ideas. When asked what action was being taken, Superintendent Vargas said while he couldn’t go into detail, but that they are addressing the situation.
If the purpose of a school district is to teach children, rather than to employ teachers, that’s a bit of an understatement. Enough so that I worry a bit about how this will all play out if the spotlight isn’t kept on the situation. To that end, I encourage you to keep an eye on this story. You can also let Superintendent Vargas know that you have an interest in seeing that this is handled well.
I note that you did your doctorate research in factors differentially affecting outcomes among high-risk students. I appreciate that the challenges of teaching students are higher at the moment than they have been at any time in my lifetime and that more students are at risk in our current political and economic climate. I appreciate that much of this stress is borne by teachers. I do.
However, there is no excuse for teachers to retaliate against a student who is bright and educated enough to know that the system is failing too many students and that the failures of the schools perpetuate the shameful injustices of our country’s past. There is no excuse for an administration to close ranks in the face of parents who insist their child be served well by the school system.
The situation faced by Jana Williams and her parents needs to be addressed directly and as quickly can be done while insuring justice. This needs to be handled “the best way” as soon as possible, not just for Jana but for other students and parents who will be watching. I will be watching, and I will encourage others to do so as well.
I trust that your attention to this matter will be prompt, professional, and in the best interests of the students your district exists to serve. For that, I thank you in advance.
Feel free to use as much of that as suits you, particularly if you think you’ll have trouble being polite. At this stage of the game, we should be polite. Action of some sort has been promised. We just need to demand that it be delivered.
Update: The superintendent responded briefly. The substance: “Thank you for your concern. I am afraid that what you have read or heard is not correct regarding this student.” I’m not sure what portions of what was reported–or what he apologized for publicly–he considers to be incorrect.