For my first day of school in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1965, my mother dressed me in an orange-and-white gingham dress that she made, tied white ribbons on my two smallish pigtails, and gave me a quarter and three pennies to buy the hot lunch that remains my favorite comfort food: Baked spaghetti, English peas, a roll, and a square of yellow cake with chocolate frosting.
Turns out it was a halcyon beginning that briefly insulated me from the harsh realities that raged around me.
One of those realities was starting school in the Duval County School System, which was so grossly underfunded that the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools had disaccredited its high schools the year before.
Another was being a Black student in that system, one that ignored a desegregation order issued in 1960, six years after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education that declared segregated schools unconstitutional.
Black students in this system had to navigate puddles and other assorted ickiness to reach classrooms in schools plagued with drainage problems, overcrowding, and other issues that turned learning into an ordeal when it should have been an adventure.
Schools were so crowded that, as a Black former Jacksonville elementary school teacher described it in a 2021 report on inequities in the school system, “Our third graders were going across the street to the little church that was across the street from the school, and then our fifth and sixth graders had to go down behind the school across the creek, to another church.”
“Our (Black) schools were allowed to get in disrepair,” the teacher recalled.
The learning conditions were so horrendous that in 1964, 27,000 Black students, under the leadership of the NAACP, boycotted the schools over two days.
My parents, who were both teachers in that system, tried to make my everyday education experience as fulfilling as that segregated system would allow. But they understood that if it persisted, I wouldn’t be prepared for a future outside of it.
That is why they walked out in 1968 to protest the state’s refusal to adequately fund schools, a statewide walkout that served as a prelude to wider tensions that erupted later that year, when assassins killed Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.
It would be another three years before Duval County finally yielded to the accreditors and the courts.
The last high school was reaccredited in 1971 and desegregation — largely through court-ordered busing — began that year. It was then that many of the glaring inequalities, like hand-me-down books and desks, began to ebb. The dilapidated Black schools were either closed or converted to other uses.
Yet decades later, in Jacksonville and in school systems throughout the nation, the battle for education equity still rages.
It is that history and lived experience that informs my work here at Chalkbeat Tennessee.
I fondly remember my first day of school because for me, that reflects how education should begin — as a journey of dignity and possibilities for children; as something to be experienced and not endured.
It should also be an experience in which resources are available to students regardless of where they live, or what color or ethnicity they are, or how much their parents earn.
But for far too many students in Tennessee and elsewhere, that’s not the case.
Public school students continue to be isolated by race and class. And today, as Black and Latino youths make up an increasing share of students in public schools, the stakes of failing to recognize the significance of this moment couldn’t be higher.
According to a 2020 report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, Black students now make up around 15% of students in public schools, while Latino students, who are the fastest growing segment of public school students, make up 27%. Asian students make up nearly 6%.
White students now make up 47% of students in public schools, down from 79% in 1970. That decline isn’t because more white students are going to private schools or being homeschooled, but because fewer white children are being born, according to the report.
“In a multiracial society where there is no racial majority, skills in working and living successfully in multiracial institutions are a vital asset,” the report concludes.
“These skills are learned, mostly through experience, and are extremely difficult to acquire living in segregated communities and attending segregated, concentrated-poverty schools.”
So while the quest for education equity when I was a child was driven by the civil rights movement and fears of more social unrest, what must motivate it now is the reality that the workforce of the future will rely heavily on people who aren’t white.
What that means is that education equity isn’t just about ensuring a future of opportunity for children who will constitute a majority of the nation, or simply about doing what’s morally right and fair.
It’s about the future of a nation that will need educated workers to fill jobs that people like myself — children of the 1960s and 1970s — now hold.
But if thousands of students are left to struggle in schools that have become more racially and economically isolated since my childhood, or in school systems that are horribly underfunded, as Jacksonville’s schools were when I entered first grade, then we’re not just failing them.
We’re failing the future.
It’s fortuitous that someone like me wound up living and working in the city where Dr. King spent his last days helping its sanitation workers fight for equity and dignity.
Fortuitous that I — a Black woman whose mother taught fifth and sixth grades and whose father was a high school dean and coach who admired Dr. King so much that he made me memorize “I Have A Dream” when I was 8 — am here working in a space designed to continue that equity work.
Fortuitous that my journalism journey took me from the 904 — Jacksonville’s area code — to the 901 — Memphis’ area code.
But being at Chalkbeat is an opportunity for me to turn that serendipity into action by guiding education coverage that centers on what King, my parents and others fought for: educational equity and opportunity for all children.
Especially those who look like the future.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is a multiple award-winning journalist, proud University of Florida Gator and Jacksonville Raines High Viking. She joined Chalkbeat Tennessee as its bureau chief last August after a 26-year career as a columnist at The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, Florida, and at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.