When school officials handed out copies of The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass, they said they hoped students would connect with the abolitionist’s struggle learning to read at a time when African-Americans were largely prohibited from becoming literate.
That’s exactly what 13-year-old Jada Williams did, drawing a parallel between Douglass’ experience and those of many of her classmates in the City School District. And in an essay that she turned in at School 3, she compared illiteracy among city school students about 75 percent can not read at a level appropriate for their age to a modern day form of slavery.
“When I find myself sitting in a crowded classroom where no real instruction is taking place I can say history does repeat itself,” Jada recently read from her essay. “The reality of this is that most of my peers can not read, and therefore comprehend the materials that have been provided. So I feel like not much has changed. Just different people. Different era. The same old discrimination still resides in the hearts of the white man.”
Now, Jada and her mother say that those words touched off a controversy at School 3, with Jada feeling persecuted for expressing her opinion. After Jada turned in the essay, her mother Carla Williams said that her daughter started getting in trouble in class and earning poor marks. She said one teacher even confronted the girl, telling her that she was offended. The family has the backing of the Frederick Douglass Foundation, Rochester Parents United and school board member Cynthia Elliott.
“It just appears to me that here again our staff doesn’t seem to be on the same page as parents and students,” Elliott said. “That’s distressing to me.”
School district spokeswoman Linda Dunsmoor said the school and the district had worked with the family to resolve the situation, but declined to offer further comment. Dunsmoor said school officials would not be made available to discuss the situation.
Elliott has long been outspoken about the disconnect that can occur in a school district where the vast majority of students are black or Hispanic, and the teaching force is predominantly white, as students and teachers bring different cultural and historical backgrounds with them into the classroom.
School officials have acknowledged the issue and taken steps to address it, including hiring consultants to conduct cultural sensitivity training for staff. A study by a group of consultants from New York University found that in many cases, city school staff did not have a good understanding of the different cultural backgrounds their students came from, and also did not efficiently communicate with parents about the needs of their children.
Jada, a seventh-grader, received her copy of the book as part of the district’s ROC Read program, which offered students incentives to read the book over the holiday break and write an essay. The teen was especially compelled by a passage in which a slave master talks about using illiteracy as a means to keep slaves captive.
“I felt like this stuff is still going on through the district,” Jada said. “Some of that stuff is still going on in schools. It makes me feel horrible inside. I love to learn. I feel like I should be in school learning.”
According to Jada’s mother, the English teacher confronted her about the content of her essay and told the girl she was offended. Jada’s mother, who said the girl had never been in trouble before, said she started receiving calls from various teachers at the school saying that Jada was acting out in class and seemed “angry.” When she came to the school to meet with teachers, Williams said that school staff members brought copies of the essay.
Several meetings, however, yielded no results and the problems persisted. Williams made the decision to transfer her daughter to School 19, but Jada was not happy there. Williams said that she has been attempting to contact administrators with the school district for several weeks, but it was not until after a reporter called seeking comment for a story that anyone called her back.
“What message are you sending my daughter when you tell her you are offended by an essay she wrote about a book the district gave her to read?” Williams said. “She feels like she’s supposed to go to school and learn, but now that she’s learning it’s a problem. All she did was compare her experiences now with the material that was provided to her. Did they realize the content of the book before they distributed it?”
Tiffany Lankes, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
From the Frederick Douglass Foundation:
On Saturday, February 18, 2012, the Frederick Douglass Foundation of New York presented the first Spirit of Freedom award to Jada Williams, a 13-year old city of Rochester student. Miss Williams wrote an essay on her impressions of Frederick Douglass’ first autobiography the Narrative of the Life. This was part of an essay contest, but her essay was never entered. It offended her teachers so much that, after harassment from teachers and school administrators at School #3, Miss Williams was forced to leave the school. We at the Frederick Douglass Foundation honored her because her essay actually demonstrates that she understood the autobiography, even though it might seem a bit esoteric to most 13-year olds. In her essay, she quotes part of the scene where Douglass’ slave master catches his wife teaching then slave Frederick to read. During a speech about how he would be useless as a slave if he were able to read, Mr. Auld, the slave master, castigated his wife. Miss Williams quoted Douglass quoting Mr. Auld: “If you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there will be no keeping him. It will forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.” Miss Williams personalized this to her own situation. She reflected on how the “white teachers” do not have enough control of the classroom to successfully teach the minority students in Rochester. While she herself is more literate than most, due to her own perseverance and diligence, she sees the fact that so many of the other “so-called ‘unteachable’” students aren’t learning to read as a form of modern-day slavery. Their illiteracy holds them back in society. Her call to action was then in her summary: “A grand price was paid in order for us to be where we are today; but in my mind we should be a lot further, so again I encourage the white teachers to instruct and I encourage my people to not just be a student, but become a learner.” This offended her English teacher so much that the teacher copied the essay for other teachers and for the Principal. After that, Miss Williams’ mother and father started receiving phone calls from numerous teachers, all claiming that their daughter is “angry.” Miss Williams, mostly a straight-A student, started receiving very low grades, and she was kicked out of class for laughing and threatened with in-school suspension. There were several meetings with teachers and administrators, but all failed to answer Miss Williams’ mother’s questions. The teachers refused to show her the tests and work that she had supposedly performed so poorly on. Instead, the teachers and administrators branded her a problem. Unable to take anymore of the persecution, they pulled her from School #3. Wanting to try another school, they were quickly informed that that school was filled and told to try “this school.” During her first day at this new school, she witnessed four fights, and other students asked her if she was put here because she fights too much. Long story short, they took an exceptional student, with the radical idea that kids should learn to read, and put her in a school of throwaway students who are even more unmanageable than the average student in her previous school. To protect their daughter, her parents have had to remove her from school, and her mother has had to quit her job so she can take care of Miss Williams. To date, the administrators of School #3 have refused to release her records, even though she no longer attends the school, and they have repeatedly given her mother the run around. We at the Frederick Douglass Foundation have contacted school administrators in regards to this situation and have also been told to hit the pavement.
That’s what we intend to do. If this school will sacrifice the welfare of an above-average student whose essay, that they asked her to write, they find offensive, we intend to make everyone aware of this monstrous injustice. The school has a job, and it is not doing it. We would like as many folks as possible to call the Principal of School #3 and complain about this injustice. Her name is Miss Connie Wehner, and she can be reached at (585) 454-3525. This treatment of Jada Williams cannot stand.
Tracy Fickess Director of Youth Advocacy Frederick Douglas Foundation NY 585-576-9435
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