Stories from the field: Teaching Experience Highlights Inequality in Florida School System

By Amir Whitaker

My Monday morning routine begins as a group of rambunctious 11th-graders shuffle into their desks at one of Miami’s largest high schools. The walls of my classroom are sprinkled with pictures of Thurgood Marshall, President Obama and Julian Bond that look on as I teach these students about the law.

As the students in this predominately African-American school shake off the weekend’s cobwebs, they notice a stranger.

“Good morning,” I say. “Today, we are joined by Stephanie Langer. She’s your attorney.”

Our attorney?” a student named Jaquan asks.

“Well, she represents all of you and more than a million other students of color in Florida,” I respond.

Sixty years after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, the SPLC is challenging state educational policies reminiscent of the Jim Crow era. Last year, the state set lower academic goals for children of color based upon nothing other than race. The SPLC responded by filing a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Justice Department on behalf of black and Latino students.

As the SPLC lawyer spoke to my class, what started out as a typical Monday morning turned into an unforgettable event that empowered these students to share their stories of Florida’s schools.

“If they want us to succeed,” said Jaquan, “get us new books! Our history books stop at Bill Clinton, and we still have to share them!”

Their stories echoed the accounts of students interviewed by SPLC advocates before the complaint was filed and what I have personally seen in the classroom. As an SPLC intern, I remember one 11-year-old who said that book bags are unnecessary because the students are not allowed to take textbooks home anyway.

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