For Natchez High students, education not about black and white

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 9, 2003

While many Natchez High students do not know much about a desegregation court order that has effectively governed their schools for 14 years, they still have opinions about integration. They didn’t realize they are part of a class action lawsuit; they only know what they have lived through &045; a technically integrated system. They could be the most important part of the class however &045; the Natchez High School students any new decisions about the school district will affect.

Current students believe the school district is integrated; they enjoy the diversity of their classmates.

And they would never think of splitting up their high school. United under one banner, one mascot, one name, one set of colors &045; this is the way Natchez High School has been since 1989, when U.S. District Judge William H. Barbour Jr. handed down a court order for desegregation in Natchez and Adams County.

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But now the district has filed a motion for unitary status &045; a legal designation meaning the schools are integrated. Natchez High students believe that makes sense, because, they say, the district is unified.

&uot;We’re all one family,&uot; junior Ashleigh Irving said.

The order meant the end of North and South Natchez high schools &045; unifying them into one school.

But it wasn’t necessarily as easy as a judge’s decision.

&uot;You can’t legislate making me like you,&uot; current Natchez High Principal James Loftin said. &uot;Some things have to come intuitively.&uot;

The court order has placed certain limits on the school district &045; among them, school officials can’t build any new facilities without court approval.

Neighborhood schools?

But if the district is released from the court order, the school board members and district officials can then make their own decisions about schools &045; building new ones, changing attendance zones, etc.

The possibility the district could build new schools is an idea that did not sit well with some of the current Natchez High students.

Neighborhood schools, students said, could bring back the very thing the court order was designed to prevent &045; segregation.

Natchez’s neighborhoods are majority white or majority black, and setting up neighborhood schools would only move the system &uot;backward instead of forward,&uot; senior Leonard Jackson said.

If there was a need for new schools, they should be centrally located, most students said.

And the district should pay attention to race when planning for new facilities &045; they have to make sure the schools are equal and not segregated, students said.

At Loftin’s question about busing as an option to keep schools from being segregated, students said they would feel &uot;uncomfortable&uot; to have to attend a school they were specifically bused to alleviate segregation.

Race in the district

But as students began to discuss the terms of the court order &045; and the possibility it would be lifted &045; they targeted the larger issue many adults have skirted &045; race.

In fact, the students addressed many aspects of race and its effect not only on the public school district but on private schools as well.

For example, the noted the number of white students attending public schools has declined as students get older.

The students attributed much of this to differences to personal reasons and parental choice.

If some of the white students at Natchez High could afford it, Eleice Williams said, she thinks they would still choose to go to Natchez High instead.

And senior Ashley Wood said she is one of them.

&uot;I chose to come here,&uot; Wood said.

But the students also know some people like the smaller, more intimate settings of the private or parochial schools.

Students do not, however, believe their classes are overcrowded. The cafeteria and gym are crowded when all 1,400-plus students are in one place, but classrooms are not.

Students also acknowledged some of their peers are raised in the public school system and are proponents of their public education, while others enjoy their private school education.

&uot;You can’t judge them by the school they go to,&uot; senior ClaDonda Smith said.

Community opinion

But Natchez High students said people in the community judge them by the school they attend. The public often makes generalizations about the public schools that simply aren’t true, students said.

&uot;I feel offended when people think we are all gang related,&uot; Irving said. &uot;We want something out of life; we want an education.&uot;

It seems the bad always overshadows the good, they said.

&uot;Some people take one experience and it sticks with them,&uot; Smith said. &uot;They don’t hear the good stuff we do.&uot;

The students know there are some people in the community who perceive the public school system does not provide a quality education. They however, disagree wholeheartedly.

&uot;I think we’re getting the best education in the state,&uot; Irving said.

There are so many class offerings, clubs and organizations to choose from, the school gives students many opportunities.

Loftin, who has been through other districts, said this district offers so much to its students that other districts do not have.

Some of the students said they believe there would be a better public perception of the public school system if more white students attended.

Presently, the high school is 85 percent black and 15 percent white with less than 1 percent of another racial background.

This is not close to the approximate half-black and half-white racial makeup of Natchez and Adams County.

&uot;We have just a small white community (in school),&uot; Irving said. &uot;What does it say for our city?&uot;

When asked what could be done to make the schools more integrated, to bring more white students in, the students answered simply, they did not know.

The students said they would love to have every student in the county in the public school system with them and would welcome anyone.

But students realize their peers &045; and parents &045; choose what they believe is best.

&uot;If we were in their shoes, we would feel the same, in public schools (or) in private schools,&uot; senior Harrison Knight said.