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Black students in Rockwood School District want diversity programs that create safe spaces

Kaleigh Ashwood, Aniyah Triplett, and Makenzie Watson
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Eureka High School juniors Kaleigh Ashwood, 17; Aniyah Triplett, 16, and Makenzie Watson, 17, on Sunday at Ashwood’s bus stop in south St. Louis. The three are part of a decadeslong school desegregation program that allows students in the city to attend suburban schools.

Makenzie Watson wakes up every weekday at about 6:15 a.m. to catch the 7:30 a.m. school bus from south St. Louis to Eureka High School, about 45 minutes from her home. She is often uncomfortable and lonely at the predominately white school.

Watson and other Black students at the high school are desperately searching for ways to connect with each other, especially since the school district eliminated three diversity programs that gave students of color throughout the district a sense of community.

It is hard to express yourself as a Black student while going to schools in the Rockwood School District, said Watson, who has been in the district since kindergarten.

“I feel like I was not myself for a long time, I would have to hide my real voice,” said Watson, 17. “I didn't have any friends for a long, long time.”

Watson began making some new friends at Eureka in part because of the empowerment program that was offered at the school. The high school junior joined Women Empowering Women two years ago. The program is a part of the L.O.V.E. Project – Sisters Helping Each Other Reach a Higher Height, which has served district high school students since 2016.

But she lost that lifeline on Oct. 6, when the Rockwood Board of Education voted 4-3 to not renew the contracts of the L.O.V.E. Project, SistaKeeper Empowerment Center and leadership programming by Tony Thompson Inc. The programs all supported the students’ emotional and mental well-being.

Eureka High School on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, in Eureka, Mo.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The entrance to Eureka High School pictured last Sunday in Eureka — a suburb about 30 miles southwest of St. Louis.

Board members Jessica Clark, Tamara Jo Rhomberg, Randy Miller and Izzy Imig voted to eliminate the programs. Lynne Midyett, Keith Kinder and board President Jamie Bayes voted to renew the three contracts.

“I do not feel like they serve all of our students," Imig said during the meeting.

Kaleigh Ashwood, a Eureka High junior who participated in the Women Empowering Women program, was devastated by the board’s decision.

“A lot of our reactions were like ‘What's next?’” said Ashwood, 17. “[There was] a lot of anger, obviously, because it's like, we get something that's finally ours and there's so many other groups that are for other students, and it's immediately taken away.”

Ashwood said she needs the program because its sponsor reflected the students, something Ashwood said she does not see often because she does not have any Black teachers.

“For us to have a Black woman who looks like us, and who was able to mentor us and who was older and who knew these kinds of things … it was good,” she said. “That’s what we needed.”

The students met about once a month during lunch to talk with their sponsor, Shante Duncan, about life experiences, self-love and higher education. They started each class off with affirmations to help them feel accepted by their peers. The students also participated in meditation practices. The group focused on a variety of issues that impacted their lives. They also used the space to learn how to deal with any racism that they faced at school or if they needed to share personal reflections about family or friend issues.

The goal was to create a space for the girls to genuinely explore who they are and how they want to show up in their own lives, Duncan said.

“If we don't take care of ourselves, and we feel a certain kind of way about ourselves, it's going to show up in every area of our lives,” she said. “If the Rockwood School District wanted the students to be the best versions of themselves, we had to create a space for them to be able to access the tools to do that.”

‘Racism in school’

Eureka High School juniors Aniyah Triplett, 16, Kaleigh Ashwood, 17, and Makenzie Watson, 17, on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023, in south St. Louis.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Eureka High School juniors Aniyah Triplett, 16; Kaleigh Ashwood, 17, and Makenzie Watson, 17, last Sunday in south St. Louis.

Black students in the district make up about 7% of the student population. At Eureka High School, 5.6% of 1,719 students identify as Black. The students said the diversity programs help them cope with the racism they face at school. Junior Aniyah Triplett said racism is so prevalent that she is starting to become numb to it. Last month, she was humiliated in class when a student asked her about the designer purse she was wearing.

“He was like, ‘How much did that cost?’ … and he's like, ‘Did you steal it, is it fake?’” said Triplett, 16. “I was like, ‘No.’ Then he asked me where I was from … and then he told me I lived in a one bedroom, one bath on the south side. It is so crazy, because … you would think they had enough decorum to realize 'this shouldn't be coming out of my mouth.'”

The students also said that trying to cope with their environment has affected their mental health. Triplett said sometimes she speaks to one of her white teachers or a social worker about hurtful things that have happened to her. Ashwood said she has had days when all she did was cry because of students' cruelty.

She cannot forget an experience she had during her freshman year.

“These guys who go to a different school were in the group chat and I kept getting added, I kept deleting and they kept saying like the N-word over and over and they would call me the N-word,” she said.

Ashwood and Triplett have also been in the district since kindergarten. They relied on the programs and the diversity, equity and inclusion administrators for support and were saddened when Aisha Grace and Terry Harris, the diversity administrator and student services director, resigned in January. The students said they used the diversity programs as a safe space to hide or heal from racist incidents that occurred at school.

Superintendent Curtis Cain has acknowledged that there have been racist incidents in the district. On Feb. 3, heemailed familiesabout a viral social media video of two bathroom stalls inside Eureka High School labeled “White toilet” and “Colored toilet.” Cain called the incident “very disturbing” and noted that the district stands firmly against all forms of racism.

Taking a stand

After the bathroom incident, Watson, Ashwood and three other Black students decided to act. They told the school board last month that they need the empowerment programs to feel safe and increase their confidence at school.

Watson said that the program helped guide them and that Duncan taught them things that they were not learning in class.

“She was teaching us about our roots … and the school doesn't teach us that,” Watson said. “There was stuff I never heard of.”

Watson’s mother, Rachel Woodson, who graduated from Rockwood Summit High School, said she experienced racism while at the high school in the late 1990s, but it was not so common. She encourages her daughter to talk to her principals and the administration so they can know about her experiences and do something to change things for Black students, but she is fed up with the district.

“As a parent, I am definitely tired of it,” Woodson said. “I would never send another brown child out to Rockwood School District, Makenzie is it.”

Woodson, whose son also attends a school in the district, has spoken with administrators about the issues her children have faced at school. She said she is losing faith in the administration.

District response

The Rockwood School District Administrative Center on Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, in Eureka, Mo.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
The Rockwood School District Administrative Center last Sunday in Eureka

To help improve the culture in schools, the school board approved the diversity training program, “Belonging Through a Culture of Dignity.” The training, which begins late spring, will provide workshops on dignity and belonging for administrators, teachers and staff to help create comfortable learning environments for all students.

“Our job is to make sure that people feel good about coming to these schools, learning and working,” Cain said. “That's what we need to be about.”

Over the past few months, Black students have been asking Cain, the board and other administrators to work harder to address the level of racism in schools and to bring back their empowerment programs or replace them with new ones.

They said that no matter what district officials decide, they will continue to find ways to gather and continue to lift up Black students at Eureka High School.

“We are not giving up,” Watson said.

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.