In a perfect world, nine brave African-American students would have integrated Central High School 50 years ago, and today we would have a school that boasts equality and equity for all. In a perfect world there would be no “subtle racism,” no “racial stereotypes,” and no “injustice.”
Did those courageous teens in 1957 put their lives on the line for nothing? Or have we as a school — as a community — made significant progress? Brandon Love is the answer to that question. He is the shining example of all good things that can happen at LRCHS. He came to us — an African-American male — armed with knowledge, loaded with ability, blessed with charm and charisma, and supported by parents who want only what’s best for him — much like those nine students who forged his way.
In a perfect world, all students would come to us like Brandon Love. In the real world, our students come to us from every corner of our urban neighborhoods and from every lawn of our sprawling suburbs. They are not always gifted; they will not all graduate with honors — or even graduate; they do not all have parents who will encourage and nurture them. Most importantly, they will not all seize or even see their opportunities.
Brandon is correct in a number of his reflections. Central, like all high schools, is divided between the haves and the have-nots of all races. We are riddled with problems brought to us from the violent streets and the dysfunctional homes. Our test scores range from good to excellent, yet the disparity between scores of blacks and whites still exists. What’s different about Central though, is its history. Every student who comes here, each teacher who works here, anyone who walks up our steps knows our history, feels our importance, recognizes that this place is special. For those of us who call Central home, it is our legacy and our charge to insure that the struggle for equality and equity in education has not been in vain.
Brandon asks these questions: “Do counselors discourage blacks from taking demanding courses?” and “Maybe whites have the first choice when it comes to course selection, filling all of the classes before blacks have a chance to enroll?” We in the guidance department at LRCHS find ourselves outraged and defensive when we read these questions. We have, however, not walked in Brandon’s shoes, so perhaps these questions are legitimate. In any case, we are prepared to answer them with a passionate and unequivocal “NO!” and “NO!”
From a counseling standpoint here is how we help each student and his/her parent determine the best placement for each student. First, we meet with all classes in small groups and explain the curriculum, the graduation requirements, the importance of rigor, and the consequences of no rigor. We then meet with each student individually and we use their grades, test scores, teacher recommendations, and the student’s desires and goals to select the classes. Then, we send the course selection sheet home for parents to add, discuss or change. We encourage students to discuss their placement with their parents, and we welcome questions. It is a collaborative effort.
We are particularly sensitive to African-American students and first-generation college students and encourage them to accept the rigor and challenge of Advanced Placement (AP) and pre-AP classes. We want that success for our students, and so we incorporate every tool we can. One of those tools is AP Potential, a program developed by College Board that uses a student’s 10th-grade PSAT scores (which all students at Central now take) to identify talent. There is a Texas study conducted by the National Center for Educational Accountability that shows if an African-American student takes at least one AP course in high school, his/her probability of graduating from college in five years triples. Our African-American enrollment in AP classes has risen from 274 students in 2004-05 to 357 students in 2006-07, a 30 percent increase in just two years.
We continue to encourage all students to take the most rigorous courses available. We strive to keep up with the progress of all students, and we insist that students stay in the pre-AP and AP classes that they requested. To this end, Central’s 9th grade academy has worked with UALR’s Trio Program to provide tutoring to 9th grade students who score basic on the ACTAAP. These students are provided transportation to and from Central and UALR, where tutors are provided. In addition, our counseling department has offered MAP for the past two years, a program designed to help students, especially African-Americans, stay in pre-AP and AP courses. This program provides peer tutoring and skill building to help students enrich, motivate and scaffold the skills needed to succeed in rigorous course work. Next year, we will add AVID to our curriculum. This program targets first-generation college students and assists them every step of the way with tutoring, mentoring, skill-building and information. We know of no high school, public or private, doing more.
Like many multicultural high schools in America, we still have a long way to go, but we are making strides. While we still have a long way to go with our test scores, we have had a 49 percent increase among African-Americans passing the state-mandated literacy test and an 88 percent increase on the state math tests. In 2005 we were one of 14 schools in the nation selected to receive a Siemens Award for Advanced Placement, which honors those schools that had the highest percentage of growth of minority students in AP classes.
The stereotypes and racial innuendoes that Brandon Love has encountered are obviously real. His passionate rendering of his high school experience is heartfelt; and he’s right; high school can be the “best of times and the worst of times.” Have we at Little Rock Central High stood by and accepted this “Tale” as hopeless and just the way it has to be? We have not. If our school can help produce an insightful and pro-active citizen like Brandon Love, then we are headed in the right direction. Is it a perfect world? No, but we at LRCHS are working hard for the betterment of ALL of our students.
Nancy Rousseau is principal of Central High School. Leslie Kearney chairs the school’s guidance department.