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'An empowering moment': How Clayton students saved their transfer program

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 15, 2009 - Race and education collided five years ago in the Clayton School District over the issue of money. When Missouri began to cut per-pupil spending for the voluntary transfer program, some Clayton homeowners felt it was time for the district to reduce the number of students from the city of St. Louis who attended Clayton schools under in the desegregation program or phase it out altogether. These homeowners argued with some credibility that their position had nothing to do with race and everything to do with fiscal responsibility.

Then Lily Kurland, who was a 17-year-old junior at Clayton High School at the time, got wind of the discussion. She heard it at a school board meeting and remembers walking away appalled by the talk of tampering with the transfer program and dismayed that so few students were even part of the conversation.

The following weekend, Kurland got busy with a friend, Barrie Nussbaum, and put together a flier to call attention to this threat to the program. The two students got help from another student, Marttise Hill, who circulated a petition in support of the program. The movement culminated in a silent walkout in May 2004, involving about 700 of Clayton High's 900 students.

Together this trio can take credit for helping to convince the school board to stay the course and not tamper with the district's desegregation program, which dated back to the early 1980s.

African-American residents and transfer students make up more than 22 percent of the students in the wealthy district, and many of them perform well on the state achievement test.

For Kurland, however, the issue was less about test scores than about the diversity the transfer program brings to the district, giving white students in particular a view of life beyond what they normally experience.

"We needed more than a textbook education," she said. "We needed an education about how different groups related to one another. There was this outrage from the students that something we'd always treasured and thought was an accepted thing was being pulled away all of a sudden."

Kurland, who graduated from the University of North Carolina this year, now works in the academic center that provides tutoring for Clayton students. She intends to become a lawyer. "If you want to change the system, you have to know the rules of the game. I think I can help by going to law school and learning how to work within the law to change how we live."

Hill, another leader of the walkout, was himself a desegregation student who would later graduate from Morehouse College in Atlanta before enrolling in New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in Singapore. There, he's working on an MFA in film production.

In an email, Hill said he was glad his mother, a teacher, had enrolled him in the Clayton District. "I was so thankful for the opportunity to study and grow in the Clayton school district that I wanted other African-American students to get the same opportunity."

The diversity he experienced in the district prepared him to work with students from around the globe, he said, and those experiences in turn have helped him "go into every situation with an open mind and heart." Students in a diverse environment, he says, "are able to learn from each other's backgrounds, which makes them more well-rounded. They are able to empathize and connect with people from all walks of life."

Though the walkout is credited with protecting minority student enrollment in Clayton, the transfer program itself is set to end for all participating school districts in the 2013-14 school year. Even so, Kurland is pleased that students took a stand, and she continues to be surprised by how her idea changed so many minds.

"It was an empowering moment," she says.