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Student Perspectives on Race and Education in Tuscaloosa

Teens at two high schools helped ProPublica tell the story of resegregation by documenting their experiences in photos. Their work has launched a conversation about race and education in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and beyond.

This story was co-published with The New York Times Lens blog.

“Skin color doesn’t define your intelligence.”

“I am not what society thinks.”

“Looking forward, not to the past.”

These are just a few of the six-word essays written by high school students in Tuscaloosa, Ala., when asked to describe their perspectives on race and education in America today.

The essays are all the more poignant when paired with photographs by the same students documenting everyday life at two schools on very different sides of the resegregation equation. Sixty years after the Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling outlawed official segregation, nearly one in three black students in Tuscaloosa now attends a school more reminiscent of the Jim Crow South.

When my colleague Nikole Hannah-Jones set out to report the story of the dismantling of court orders, closed-room deals and school district decisions that paved the way for resegregation in Tuscaloosa, she knew some of the most important voices would be from students living the consequences of those decisions. So we hatched a plan to enlist them in telling their own stories. As the engagement editor at ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative newsroom, my job is to help build an audience for our work and get the community to participate in our journalism. We wanted the students’ stories to be a vital part of this story from the start.

We went to Tuscaloosa with 20 point-and-shoot cameras, the blessing of principals at two high schools and an assignment for our students: show us what race and education looks like now, 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education outlawed “separate but equal” schools.

Journalism students at the integrated Northridge and all-black Central high schools met our challenge with cautious interest, and plenty of questions about what exactly they were supposed to photograph. Documenting race and education is a challenging assignment for any seasoned photojournalist, much less a group of high school students.

Nikole walked them through Brown v. Board, the decades spent struggling to integrate schools across the country, and the more recent slide back. We talked about the six “Green Factors” laid out by the courts nearly four decades ago to determine whether school districts had met their federal obligation to integrate across a range of areas, such as the student body, staff and facilities. How did transportation differ at both schools? Their courses and extracurriculars? We covered the differences between recreational photography and photojournalism and the importance of also capturing in words the stories behind their photos.

In subsequent weeks, we reviewed and discussed their work until we felt we had enough. We returned to Tuscaloosa in February and got the students from both schools together for an afternoon of editing at Central High School. For most students, it was first time they had ever spent with kids from the other school.

One of the last times so many white students occupied Central’s library, senior D’Leisha Dent was there to photograph the occasion. A group of German exchange students sat around tables last October, snacking on cookies and unwrapping gifts from their Central hosts. It was actually the second time German students had visited Central through an exchange program. The photo project got the students wondering: if their classmates could visit their peers in Europe, why couldn’t they spend more time with students in their own district?

That question was on their minds when the students came together again on May 2 to see their photos on exhibit at Tuscaloosa’s Dinah Washington Cultural Arts Center. They wrote six-word essays to lead a conversation on race and education in partnership with Michele Norris’s Race Card Project. They’d listened to the adults, they’d told their stories, and they came back to the same question: why should they have to settle for entirely separate educations?

That night, they brought a bold idea to Tuscaloosa City Schools Superintendent Paul McKendrick: a new exchange program for students at Northridge and Central.

“I didn’t think he was gonna go for it, honestly, I didn’t,” said Jessica McKinstry, a junior at Central High. “But then he said, ‘Actually that’s a good idea, I’m gonna look into that.’ And I said, Yes!’”

Jessica said she hopes the exchange — perhaps a day or weeklong swap next year — will help students challenge assumptions and make new friends.

“Before we did the project about race and the two different schools, I don’t think that anyone actually thought about it, they didn’t take it into consideration,” she said. “They thought they were gonna stay in their own place, their own little zone. The project we did, it gave us the motivation to go through with it and ask the superintendent to have this happen.”

More on this story: View the Tuscaloosa students’ photos, watch a short documentary film on Central High School or read our full investigation on resegregation in U.S. schools.

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