13 years old student mistreated by Rochester City School District

via www.change.org

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

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