A large roomful of Burke High School students engaged with four leaders of the Civil Rights Movement on Friday morning to kick off a structured examination of school history.
The underlying goal was not only to gain better appreciation for the role Burke High School has played in Charleston but also to confront and counteract negative publicity.
The students were divided into small groups and asked to consider the school's public reputation, the reasons for its predominantly black population, the impact of segregation and discrimination and the definition of "quality education."
Again and again, students voiced concern about the image of the school and discussed ways to boost its social and academic standing and inspire both students and teachers to embrace productive change.
Facilitating the conversation were Robert Moses, an activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the first part of the 1960s; Dave Dennis, a Freedom Rider and Mississippi director of the Congress of Racial Equality; Millicent Brown, one of 11 students to integrate the Charleston County schools; and James Campbell, a James Island resident who served as an educator and union organizer in New York City for many years.
The event was co-organized by Burke High School and Jon Hale, professor of education history at the College of Charleston. It followed on the heels of two related panel discussions, the first on Judge Waties Waring and the Briggs v. Elliott case, the second on the status of public education and the impact of civil rights activism.
Among the concerns expressed by Burke students were the stereotyping they regularly encounter, the media's tendency to focus mostly on bad news, the need to take control of Burke's image and destiny, the lack of certain course options such as health sciences and auto mechanics, gentrification and teachers who are not always familiar enough with the particular circumstances of students.
One group calling itself the "Pride Speakers" said students should speak up more and possibly start a newspaper. Interaction with other schools also was mentioned as a priority. What better way to chip away at negative images than by introducing others to what's working at Burke? In so doing, Burke students will learn about the way other schools operate.
The group called "Change" noted that success at Burke often is incremental and rarely celebrated sufficiently. Fireworks don't accompany the shift from "below average" to "average" on the state report card, and probably shouldn't. But that doesn't help morale.
It was announced this week that Burke High School received a Palmetto Gold award and Burke Middle School received a Palmetto Silver award recognizing improvement in academic performance, but Principal Maurice Cannon said good news about his school isn't often picked up by the media.
Some students said parents should be more involved in school life and that lasting change must come from within.
"We have to know the facts if we're going to fight back," someone said.
The group called "Real Talk" advocated more use of social media and town hall meetings in order to recruit new students. (Enrollment at Burke has been slipping in recent years.)
"People in the community talk badly about us, but they've never been in the school," one student said.
Dennis said that "failing schools" is a designation imposed by others, and that larger social and economic forces largely determine the fate of public education.
Campbell complimented the students' interest and energy, calling them the change-agents of the future.
"You define America in what you do, what you achieve, what you change," he said.
And Moses, once again citing the preamble to the U.S. Constitution and its "We the People" designation, spoke of the fundamental right to equalized and adequate public education.
"Each of us is a constitutional person, and we have a constitutional right to change this country," he said.
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