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Black Students, White Teachers, Big Debate

When black students in Shelby, Miss., voted for two white teachers as their best, the school board and superintendent didn't like the result.

Shelby, Miss., students at Peer Power session

"Name the two teachers who have taught you the most at Broad Street High."

The seemingly innocent inquiry was posed to the students at the high school by three African-American students belonging to the organization Students Involved in Community Change: Katana Frazier, Meleena Frazier and Antwanette Keys. The answers they got, however, had bigger consequences in the North Bolivar School District of Shelby, Miss., than anyone had possibly intended.

The Peer Power Program is an after-school tutoring program that hires high school and college students to work with students at Shelby Middle School. It launched in 2008, following in the footsteps of a similar successful program by the same name that began at East High School in Memphis, Tenn. As part of the program, Michael Castagnola, the executive director of Peer Power, taught a leadership course for the high school students at Broad Street in which he had them read books like Martin Luther King Jr.'s biography.

Keys says that the course made her realize that "we should be fighting for the district because there's no excuse why our school shouldn't be the best." According to the Mississippi Department of Education Accountability and Reporting Systems, enrollment for the 2009-2010 year for prekindergarten-to-12th-grade students in the district was 717 students. Keys, one of the founding members of SICC, says the organization's mission is to improve the value of the Shelby educational system so that enrollment in the district's schools will increase.

Katana Frazier told The Root, "The main purpose of the survey was to show what kind of teachers have shown significant improvement in the school system and made big impacts in the lives of students." They tabulated that out of the 45 students they asked, the majority chose two employees -- both of them white -- of Teach for America, the national organization that recruits recent college graduates to commit to two years of teaching in urban and rural schools.

The students reported the results during a school board meeting. In their statement, they announced that of the students they surveyed, the majority had chosen teachers who "were not from around here, did not look like us and were all successful at improving student learning."  

According to Bobbie Reed, vice president of the school board, the survey was not conducted with proper administration or board approval. She also stated that the survey had deep racial implications in a community where the teacher and student population is mostly African American.

Reed told The Root, "The teachers of North Bolivar -- they're working hard and doing a great job. They don't need this negative talk in the community. It brings down the morale of the staff, pits the white teachers against black teachers." The students claimed that neither the survey nor their observations were intended to be racially insensitive.

Castagnola, a white Teach for America alumnus, understood the problematic assumptions of the student survey, but he believed that the focus shouldn't be on race. He said, "When you ask which teachers have taught you the most, the answers should be used to recognize the skill sets among those teachers so they can be transferred to others."

Believing the survey to be Castagnola's idea, Superintendent Ronzy Humphrey and the board declared that Castagnola would be allowed in Broad Street High and Shelby Middle School only with prior approval of building administration. Although the Frazier girls, Keys and Castagnola insisted that the students did the survey of their own volition, Castagnola was no longer able to manage the Peer Power curriculum. (When contacted for an interview, Humphrey replied that he would send a statement via email. So far that statement has not been received.)