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Students Take Action to Keep African-American Teachers (Camp Hill, Alabama)
by Chris Drury

During the 2002-03 school year students at Edward Bell High School (EBHS) in rural Camp Hill, Alabama participated in a national high school civic engagement initiative, Project 540. At EBHS, students in Project 540 narrowed down their issues of concern to one major issue affecting their school and community. This team of students chose to focus their efforts on reversing a faculty desegregation court decree, Lee v. Macon County, which would force the transfer of seven of their eleven African-American teachers to other schools in the county.

Originally, in Lee v. Macon County, civil rights attorneys appealed to the federal court to integrate the schools of Macon County. After six months of deliberations, on Aug. 13, 1963 federal judge Frank M. Johnson ordered Macon County, and all of the state of Alabama, to integrate its schools. Until this year, EBHS—located in neighboring Tallapoosa county—has not been in compliance with the court decree. School officials decided to take these steps in order to obtain "unitary status" in the county, a status that could not be obtained without a ratio of black to white teachers that was proportional to other schools in the county. EBHS has a 100% African-American student body.

Students at EBHS became outraged when they heard about the consequences of the court decree. With the transfer of these African-American teachers, the students felt that they were being stripped of their chance to grow up and learn what their older brothers and sisters learned before them. The teachers who were being transferred had been there for many years and were members of the Camp Hill community. Students also felt that just as their standardized tests scores were beginning to improve, their teachers were being taken away.

Students used Project 540, and the student dialogues, as a platform to organize against Lee v. Macon County and take action to keep their teachers. They did this in several ways.

Making a documentary video of their struggle.
With equipment purchased by Project 540, students at EBHS were trained in documentary film-making technique and then produced a segment detailing their campaign to keep their teachers. This segment is one of seven school vignettes featured in a documentary video to be broadcast over PBS stations beginning in January, 2004.

Presenting their case to the Camp Hill City Council.
Students presented their concerns to the members of the Camp Hill City Council and asked for their support in the fight to keep their teachers.

Inviting one of the attorneys from Lee v. Macon to the school.
Students met with one of the attorneys to discuss their concerns regarding the removal of their teachers and to ask about possible recourse. They protested the court decision and the impact it would have on their educations.

Investigating why school conditions suddenly improved once the arrival of the new teachers was nearing.
Both in their session with the attorney and in the documentary video, students raised questions about the sudden improvement of school conditions. It was the students' belief that school conditions improved in anticipation of the arrival of the new white teachers.

Meeting with the Superintendent's office to present their objections.
A team of students met with the district superintendent and his Director of Personnel to voice their concerns about the removal of their teachers, and to challenge the district's conclusions on the number of teachers that needed to be removed as a result of the court decree.

Although the students were ultimately unsuccessful in changing the court order in the short term, many of the students vowed to continue their fight for justice by going to the school board to insist that it hire more African-American teachers systemwide, so that the proportion of black teachers to white teachers would be more balanced (currently, 81% of teachers in Tallapoosa County are white; only 19% are black).

Visit Edward Bell High School on the Web.

Project 540: Civic Engagement by Youth
Funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, and housed at Providence College, Project 540 attempts to reverse a 40-year decline in youth civic engagement by asking American high schools to become the actual "practice grounds" for democracy. A central feature of the program is a curriculum for deliberative democratic dialogue, with students facilitating other students in identifying the issues that matter most to them and developing recommendations for change. To learn more about Project 540, including materials, technical assistance, and how to adopt the project for your school, go to: www.project540.org.

Chris Drury
Chris Drury is the Assistant Director of Project 540, and Co-Producer of "Students Turn For A Change," a documentary about Project 540 to be aired on PBS stations in 2004.


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