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"Not to know is bad; not to wish to know is worse."

Proverb of the people of Nigeria, West Africa

For several months there has been community attention to the efforts of Roger Plunkett, principal at Wilde Lake High School to propose and implement changes that have been needed at the school for years. Mr. Plunkett, selected as principal of the year for Maryland in 1997, has been assigned to Wilde Lake since September 1997. During his first months he brought discipline to the school and the very high number of disruptive incidents dropped dramatically. He seemed to receive acclaim from all for that major accomplishment.

Then Mr. Plunkett began to address the very poor academic performance of many of the students and he put the spotlight on a scheduling system called "supervised study" - unique to Wilde Lake - that results in students losing instruction in core subjects two days a week. The system permits students to opt out of regular classes to do their individual thing and while they are gone for two days the teacher is prohibited from introducing new material to the room full of students left behind. Consequently, those left behind lose about 80 days of instruction a year. It is no wonder that overall student performance has been so low at the school while some exceptional students have thrived.

While the existing system adversely affects many students, it has a disproportionate adverse impact on the large number of African American students who have been "tracked" into low level classes that are an educational cul-de-sac. That doesn’t seem to be a problem for the handful of parents and a few teachers at the school who are in opposition to Mr. Plunkett. For them not to know of the adverse impact on many African American students of the system that they are defending is bad; for them to appear not to want to know is worse. This has led many in the organized African American community to reasonably conclude that a factor in their hostility to Mr. Plunkett is that a very capable and strong African American man will end the operation of what is in effect two schools within one building. Wilde Lake High is a school where some students (overwhelmingly white) have been encouraged to star while many of the remainder of the students (disproportionately black) are little more than academic extras in a bad movie.

I once told the late Bill Manning, the last African American member of the Howard County School Board, about an insight I had. I attended school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where the schools were always integrated. When I graduated from Westinghouse High School in 1952 the school was about 45% African American, 45% Italian American and the balance miscellaneous white ethnic groups. However, I never had an African American teacher from kindergarten through graduation from the University of Pittsburgh. I remember virtually no instance of our white teachers doing anything overt to retard African American students’ educational development. In 10th grade Mrs. Johns wasn’t calling on me and so I told my parents. The next morning my mother went to see Mrs. Johns and after that she called on me constantly and I became her star pupil in literature class. My uncle’s younger brother, who was two years behind me at another school that was virtually all white, graduated first in his class but the principal recommended that he get a job sweeping floors in the steel mill. Fortunately, he paid no attention to the principal and went off to college. He’s an attorney engaged in international finance with clients around the world.

The insight that I communicated to Mr. Manning was that in the early 1950s even the most racist of our white teachers had no need to retard our educational development because it would have been beyond their comprehension that any of us would go on to competitively challenge our white classmates for positions of responsibility and the good things of life. The American institutional system of the the time was designed to ensure that didn’t happen. But beginning in the mid 1950s the American system of institutional white supremacy began to fracture under pressure of the civil rights movement and was therefore less effective at blocking African American aspirations. Today, teachers and administrators with overt and covert white supremacist views are fully aware that African American children, if allowed to fully develop, will be educationally and economically competitive and therefore agents in the further destruction of white supremacist ideology worldwide. The fractured system of institutional white supremacy is today less effective and therefore African American students have faced a compensating increase in overt and covert hostile situations within some Howard County classrooms - from kindergarten on - that we didn’t face from teachers in the schools of Pittsburgh and elsewhere in the 1950s and earlier years. This illuminates the process that in 1998 facilitates a segregated and deficient education for many African American students within seemingly physically integrated classrooms and school buildings.

The strong response of the organized African American community in support of Mr. Plunkett brought to mind the following excerpt from Malcolm X’s Statement of Basic Aims and Objectives of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, dated June 28, 1964: "Education is an important element in the struggle for human rights. It is the means to help our children and people rediscover their identity and thereby increase self-respect. Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today." Also, there is this statement by William Strickland: "... We ignored the larger reality. We neglected the young because we did not want to admit the system’s real intention toward them -- or us. ... But we cannot compartmentalize their fate from our own, for the children are the future, and if they are killed literally or culturally or morally or intellectually, then so, too, are we."

Now you know about Wilde Lake High School and the need to support Mr. Plunkett. Whether you have children in school or not, what is happening to African American students in the classrooms in your neighborhood? Not to know is bad; not to wish to know is worse.

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Last modified: September 9, 1999