Today is Juneteenth, a day to celebrate the promise of freedom to black children and families throughout the United States. Though the freedom we celebrate today was provided by the Emancipation Proclamation more than 150 years ago, we still have a long way to go to achieve racial equality, particularly in the South. In Arkansas, we see dramatic examples of inequality, particularly in education.
Take Lee County, for example. It borders the Mississippi River just north of Helena-West Helena. Its school district is the only county-wide public school district in the state. There is another school located in Lee County separate from the school district- the private Lee Academy. Other communities are in similar situations, but few schools remain as segregated as those in Lee County.
The Lee County School District has struggled over the years with declining enrollment, poor student achievement, and run-down facilities. The mechanization of the agricultural industry has left few jobs. Much of the working middle-class, white and black, fled from the county to other parts of the country where there were jobs, leaving an overwhelming majority of impoverished students stranded in the public school system. There are a few white students still in the public school district, and for the most part they are very poor themselves. Almost, if not all, middle- and upper- class white students in Lee County attend school elsewhere.
Lee Academy, founded in 1969, thrived when parents took their children out of the public school system and enrolled them in the private school during integration. Other districts in Arkansas, such as Charleston, integrated their schools with little notice. However, along the river in cotton country, segregation still exists, practically though not legally.
In addition to Lee Academy, another avenue of white flight for Lee County is through school choice to the Barton-Lexa School District. Lee County school officials report losing numerous white students to Barton-Lexa, a majority white district south of Lee County.
Finally, the KIPP Delta School attracts the area’s brightest black students. The students who get in and stay enrolled often receive a high-quality education, but the requirements of parent involvement and parent know-how to get children signed-up have the consequence of screening out some of the children who would benefit most from attending KIPP.
These three factors leave the Lee County school district to deal with the poorest children of the poorest-educated parents, who, unfortunately, have extremely limited opportunities. Much work is needed to improve the Lee County School District for the 800-plus students that it still serves. The state has removed the school board and is overseeing a massive reform effort.
Still, folks in Lee County know it won’t be enough to spark a county-wide effort toward equitable education. In separate conversations, a high-ranking, black school official and a white community leader were asked, “What would it take for whites to return to the Lee County School District-what resources, what teacher quality, what facilities?” The expected answer was a list of needs. However, each admitted they believed it would never happen.
The work of the Arkansas Department of Education in the schools brings some hope. But the students will need more. They will need more top quality teachers, more tutoring, and more after-school and summer programs. They need to reach every child possible with early childhood education. Even if all these resources are secured, progress will be difficult without the cooperation of all Lee County citizens in building a first class school system. On Juneteenth, let’s all acknowledge that black children in Lee County, and in other stubbornly segregated communities in the South, will not be able to reach their full potential until they have the first class education that is the foundation of opportunity in America.