Earlier this month, we delivered more than 130,000 petition signatures -- the product of tremendous activism on the part of the ColorOfChange.org and Change.org communities -- to local school officials in support of recent high school graduate Kymberly Wimberly.
ColorOfChange.org has followed up with hundreds of phone calls to the superintendent and school board members in McGehee, Arkansas. That's where Wimberly, a young Black mother, was forced to share a "co-valedictorian" designation with a lower achieving White student. This after the high school guidance counselor assured the Wimberly family that Kymberly was the top-ranked senior, and a staffer worried aloud that having her in that role would cause "a big mess."
Despite all the petition signatures and calls, district officials are continuing to pretend as if they've done nothing wrong. So more than 100 ColorOfChange.org members have now called state-level leaders. The commissioner of Arkansas' education department and members of the state board are staying tight-lipped as well, refusing to make statements in support of Kymberly.
What Arkansas school officials fail to realize is that by staying silent, they're saying plenty about their beliefs on the topic of Black student achievement. The situation in McGehee has never been solely about Kymberly. The equal protection lawsuit she has brought against the district alleges that administrators and teachers there routinely discourage Black students -- nearly half the high school student body -- from taking honors and AP classes.
As much as the events in McGehee sound like an aberration, they're not. This spring, a district in Malverne, Long Island, mistakenly named a white student valedictorian. Once the error had been exposed, school officials attempted to name her co-valedictorian with the higher achieving Black student. The community pressed for the district to fully fix the error, and the school board eventually voted to name the black student, Aalique Grahame, the sole valedictorian.
In Sumter County, Georgia, the Black community began organizing around a similar issue in 2009, when a high-achieving Black student at Americus-Sumter High School didn't make the cut for valedictorian. Suspecting that some teachers were giving Black students lower grades to ensure that they stayed out of the top slot, the local NAACP petitioned school officials to explain why only one Black student had been acknowledged with the honor in the previous eight years, and why high-achieving, ostensibly eligible Black students were not being permitted to apply for a federally-funded scholarship administered by the school.
Ignored by local officials, the Sumter County Branch of the NAACP eventually took its complaint to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR). OCR investigated whether the district was discriminating against Black students, but before it could issue a recommendation, the district asked to resolve the complaint. Superintendent Roy Brooks signed a resolution agreement in April, agreeing to revise and clarify district policies around valedictorian selection, train all staff who advise students about the valedictorian process, notify parents and students of the criteria for achieving the honor and to provide other information on a timeline established by the OCR, which will continue to monitor the district. It's a process that's just beginning, but it appears that the federal government -- after being called upon by local activists -- is pushing a major culture shift in this Georgia school district.
In McGehee, where ColorOfChange.org members' attention has been focused, the district is expected to respond to the Wimberly family's lawsuit within the next several weeks. But in the meantime, officials there would do well to pay attention to what happened in Georgia. Ignoring a groundswell of activism is what school leaders did in Sumter County, too, and it didn't serve them well. If the activism of more than 130,000 people around the country can't set things right in McGehee, perhaps the U.S. Department of Education will have to.
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