By Charles Hallman
The St. Paul NAACP branch and the St. Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) recently have joined forces to work on local education issues.
“We started talking this [past] winter” with the NAACP on working on “big picture” issues around education, says SPFT President Mary Cathryn Ricker. Last month the SPFT and NAACP jointly held a series of recognition events to mark the 60th anniversary of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, including lesson plans written by William Mitchell College of Law students and taught to all St. Paul Public Schools students on May 16 and community listening sessions at five city Black churches on May 18.
Ricker said that both organizations earlier discussed how to use the anniversary “to serve as that catalyst to address the recent desegregation of our schools in our community head on. We all need to talk about the unfinished business of Brown v. Board of Education in every neighborhood of our city.”
Both Ricker, a St. Paul middle school teacher, and NAACP President Jeff Martin, a local attorney, not only discussed during a May 16 outdoor morning press conference at Obama Elementary School the historic ruling’s significance, but they also emphasized a shift in many city schools’ composition.
Martin pointed out that the White student population at Obama Elementary has decreased from 50 percent in 1988 to five percent last year, while Blacks increased from 35 percent to 78 percent during the same time span. “Research shows that race remains historically linked to both inequality and opportunity, and that is no less prevalent or more controlling than in schools,” he explained.
“We all lose when we are segregated,” said the St. Paul teachers’ union president. She said that what attracted her to St. Paul was its diverse schools, but she is concerned that too many
city schools seem to be losing their diversity. “The trend in St. Paul is [that diversity is] becoming more isolated.”
“You can’t say segregation is over when you look around in my classroom,” said Obama second-grade teacher Chris Pierce, who told the MSR that 20 of his 22 students are of color.
Mary Frances Clardy, a literacy coach at Obama, added that she doesn’t believe that her school is intentionally segregated. “We’re building a community, so people are choosing to come to our school,” she pointed out.
William Mitchell Law Professor Jim Hilbert, who is executive director of the school’s Center for Negotiation & Justice, told the MSR that at least 15 law students worked on the Brown lesson plans project. “We’re a community-based law school, and we’re teaching our students how to interact in the community.
“It was an incredible experience for our students to see how what they do as lawyers can impact policy in education and can impact how people perceive pretty important social issues and it can help frame what people think about [them],” Hilbert pointed out.
“It was really important for the students to understand how bad it was [before the Brown decision] and to identify the differences of today,” said Mitchell first year law student Caitlin Miles of Minneapolis.
“I wanted to share with [students] what I learned,” added AnJuanna Napue of Minneapolis, who graduated last month from William Mitchell.
The lessons also included activities for students to “let them think about the times of the Civil Rights Movement,” noted Vivian Scott of Hattiesburg, Miss.
Ricker hoped the teachers also “walk away from the experience thinking about the makeup of the school and the district.”
“We talk freely about race in my classroom,” noted Pierce.
“We seem to forget that this was not an accident in history,” said Martin on the Brown decision. “This was a very strategic action brought about by the excellent legal minds that existed at the NAACP, especially Charles Hamilton Houston and his protégé Thurgood Marshall.”
The Brown decision “was one of the three most important decisions reached by the [U.S. Supreme] Court,” ranking it with the Dred Scott and Prissy rulings, proclaimed historian Mahmoud El-Kati, who spoke to SPFT teachers and staff at Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in St. Paul. He told the May 16 luncheon audience that Houston, the late Howard University Law School dean, selected Marshall and several other Black lawyers and specifically trained them to pursue legal and social change in education through the courts. “It was these guys who worked for students in the ‘30s and ‘40s,” noted the retired professor.
“What has been really sad for me in the 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education is that now we [have] started to re-segregate,” said Ricker.
“We want to prevent being where we are back here each and every year talking about inequality in education, talking about an opportunity gap [and] an achievement gap,” said Martin, who urges community residents, whether they have children now in public schools or not, to get more involved in educational issues.
“I’m excited to use these events as a starting point of us working with the NAACP and others to figure out how to address segregation and to end it permanently,” said Ricker.
“This is a first step and a call for action, and a constant call from the NAACP throughout our community in St. Paul…that we are not going to put up with the educational [inadequacies] of our children,” concluded Martin. “This is everyone’s fight.”
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