Why Diversity in the Classroom Matters

Children clustered on the side of a busy road, waiting for the bus. A boy clinging to his father, perched on the back wheel of his bicycle. Three men leaning against the wall of the corner store in silence. A community rising as one, taking a deep breath to prepare themselves for a day that will present the challenges typical of low-paying jobs, a lack of affordable housing, and a failing healthcare system. This is what I see as I drive through North Charleston, South Carolina on my way to school.

However, the area has changed significantly in the past decade; as I near the school, the tattered vinyl siding turns to pastel hardy plank. Groaning roofs with missing shingles are replaced by trendy tin complete with solar panels. Like so many other places on and nearby the Charleston peninsula, gentrification is spreading like a plague. At the nexus: Bonds Wilson Campus.

It’s the home of acclaimed magnet schools Charleston County School of the Arts and Academic Magnet High School. The former, serving kids in grades 6–12, is known across the county as a place for children to foster creativity and develop the necessary skills to use their artistic talents as tools for good in the community. The curriculum at the latter is notoriously intense, but has the results to justify its approach; Academic Magnet is the 43rd best high school in the nation, according to US News and World Report. Both schools are tied for best high school in the state, and require an audition process to gain admittance.

The seemingly limitless success of both schools comes with a catch: the total minority enrollment at SOA(School Of the Arts) is 23%, with African-American students making up just 12% of the total student body. Academic Magnet is even worse with 16% total minority enrollment, and African-American students making up 3% of the total student body.

The campus is a fortress of extreme academic and artistic achievement, with burgeoning white neighborhoods serving as the moat separating the campus from the black communities that surround it.

I attend School of the Arts, and can speak firsthand to the pressure the lack of diversity puts on students of color. If not the only, I am often one of the few black kids in my class. SOA is an extremely liberal school environment, and save for a few emotional Confederate flag debates when I was in middle school, I’ve rarely felt like a victim of overt racism. Still, there is a certain discomfort that comes with feeling like you’re representing your entire race when you’re in the classroom. During discussions of, say, African-American Vernacular English in my AP Language class, I fight paranoia that everyone else in the class is looking at me. Additionally, issues discussed in class that feel extremely important to me as a student aren’t as urgent to my classmates. Once, before a Creative Writing assignment requiring us to share an instance of prejudice in our lives, we watched a few episodes of acclaimed Civil Rights documentary Eyes on the Prize. The boy next to me fell asleep.

“It makes me feel like I don’t have a voice. Not just physically but mentally,” said sophomore Simone Geathers, secretary of the Black Student Union. “In certain situations in the classroom I might even double back on my original thoughts and feelings because I think to myself, ‘Will I have anyone to help defend me if I say this or if I do that?’ In a sense, it changes my entire thought process in the classroom.”

The diversity divide feels even harder to bridge at our neighboring school, Academic Magnet, where no such organization exists. They have been the subject of a few race-related scandals, such as their football team smashing watermelons on the field while playing against a predominantly black school (explained away as an unrelated joke, the subsequent investigation resulted in the resignation of the school district’s superintendent), and a video surfacing of a few of their students guzzling beer after chanting “1, 2, 3, Robert E. Lee! 3, 2, 1, the South should’ve won!” Choices made by students during Spirit Week have repeatedly raised discussions about cultural appropriation and what is okay to be worn as a costume; this year, a student was called to the office for dressing up as a Vietnamese rice farmer in accordance with the theme “Jungle Warfare in the 20th century.”

Rosie Booker, a junior at the school, expressed frustration with the administration for failing to take measures or implement policies that would stop these perceived racial and cultural insensitivities from recurring year after year.

“Magnet needs to educate their white students because it’s never intentionally bad,” she said. “I don’t feel alienated about my views on these incidents because I’ve surrounded myself with likeminded people, but I have been in situations where I was just absolutely shocked by other students’ lack of empathy…Whenever race is brought up in a class setting everyone immediately becomes tense, and it feels like such a taboo topic although I don’t think it should be.”
Bonds Wilson under construction. Picture found by Tara McCart, the Archives and History Clerk at the City of North Charleston. Published in Academic Magnet’s newspaper, the Talon, in 2015.

While there is no one universal student experience, these perspectives disprove any idealistic claims that SOA and Academic Magnet have been able to transcend past race-related issues. Furthermore, it is important to note that as the minority students able to attend these schools, the problem extends far beyond us.

In a case of near painful irony, Bonds Wilson Campus was originally Bonds Wilson High School, an all-black high school serving the surrounding African-American community from the 1950s until its integration in 1971. It was closed in 1985 and students were redirected towards North Charleston High School, a reasonable walking distance from Bonds Wilson. In contrast to the high ratings of the schools on that campus, however, North Charleston struggles with a 90% black student body that’s suffering from systemic poverty and shrinking due to school choice, leaving them with inadequate resources.

The problem begins at an elementary level. Charleston County is home to the highest and lowest poverty rates in the region of South Carolina known as the Lowcountry, and the school that you attend is largely dependent on what neighborhood you live in. As an old city in the Deep South, Charleston neighborhoods are still very racially homogenous.

Black students and white students remain separated, and as the Supreme Court ruled in 1954, separate is inherently unequal. Poor resource allocation and extremely different home lives create inequities between black and white students before they even turn eleven years old.

Magnet schools theoretically solve this problem, as they typically allow students to apply as long as they live within district lines. However, as Academic Magnet and SOA show, these schools simply existing is not enough, if students are applying with extremely different resources available to them. Some responsibility certainly lays on the schools themselves.

Peyton Smalls, Vice President of the BSU, calls on SOA to increase accessibility to tryouts.

“Kids that go to [Title 1 and predominantly black] schools don’t know about programs at SOA or what they need to get in. The kids who really know about these requirements are the kids who take private lessons, or who go to schools that talk about it all the time, and these kids are mainly white.”

Responsibility lays on the Charleston County School District, as well. A former school board member who wished to remain anonymous said that while there is significant concern for these diversity issues, there is a lack of knowledge on how to fix the problem.

“Ideas are tossed around, but busing is over, so any solutions have to be more school-based.” She spoke of a literacy policy CCSD implemented to attempt to insure that all students throughout the district learned how to read between the critical period of 1st and 3rd grade. “We as a district could not change where kids of certain races went to school, other than school choice and magnet schools,” she added. “Diversity was absolutely discussed in the context of magnet schools, and the solution for magnet schools with high demand and poor diversity was often creating another similar magnet school within the underrepresented community.”

This seems to have worked with varying degrees of success; in response to a lack of diversity at a major SOA feeder school, Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary, North Charleston Creative Arts Elementary was created and is currently providing much needed arts education to the kids of the community. However, the location of SOA and Academic Magnet has not had such an impact.

The former member I interviewed said that she cannot speak to the effectiveness of measures that the current school board has taken. She stressed the importance of remaining conscientious when electing members to the board.

Even as we can be sure that there are no clear-cut solutions to the diversity problems facing Bonds Wilson Campus, we can be equally certain that the importance of diversity and accessibility in the classroom can never be underestimated. On nights when extracurriculars keep me out late, I often entertain myself by imagining what’s happening inside the houses I pass on the road. I could be in the low-income North Charleston or more affluent Mount Pleasant. The inhabitants of the homes could be black or white, Asian or Latino.

No matter the circumstances, there are shared experiences.

Young children resisting bathing. Older children dreading homework. Above all, parents laying down for the night, tired from work, and wishing the very best for their children the next day.

Wherever people can disagree, they will, and education is no exception. The path forward is not clear. It is shadowed by low budgets, curriculum quarrels and underpaid teachers. But there is no weight to the American Dream if there is no way to achieve it. There is no value in education if every child is not afforded the best education available. And so the path needs to be followed nonetheless, as there is no other choice that can be selected in clear conscience.

Stagnancy is not an option.

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