CLEVELAND — In the weeks leading up to today’s first day at Cleveland Central High – a day that was preceded by years of loud debate over whether it should occur at all – the campus quietly took on change.
Purple and black Cleveland Central High signs sprang up on school windows and buildings. Inside, the halls were repainted to don purple and black stripes. The district’s website has been redesigned in those same colors. Even the fire hydrants and trashcans sported a fresh coat of paint bearing the new school’s new colors.
It was a transformation 62 years in the making, triggered by a desegregation lawsuit filed against the Bolivar Board of Education in 1965 and ordered by a federal judge in May 2016. The order read clear: East Side High School and Cleveland High School, D.M. Smith Middle School and Margaret Green Junior High School had not done enough to successfully integrate, and as a result must consolidate.
Some welcomed it, some fought it. After filing an appeal in federal court, the school district finally voted in the spring that it would abide by the judge’s order.
With the first day of school quickly approaching though, the mindset among faculty appeared resolute: there is no longer room to wish for what was. The focus must be on making this transition as successful as it can be for the students.
“We’ve got to move forward and we’ve got to make the best of the opportunity that we have. There’s nothing else that can be done. You can’t go backwards. That’s not going to serve any purpose. We’ve got to move forward and make the best of every opportunity we have to work with the kids,” said Randy Grierson, the former East Side principal who is now the principal of Cleveland Central High.
A flurry of national attention
When the news broke of a Mississippi public school being ordered to desegregate in the year 2016, national and international news stories erupted.
The New York Times, The U.K.’s The Independent, The Atlantic, NPR, CNN all covered the event, some of them descending upon Cleveland to attempt a more closely examined dissection of the situation.
They made mention of the demographics — that Cleveland High was 60 percent African-American and 40 percent white; that East Side’s student body was entirely black save one student, that the district itself was about two thirds black. The stories relayed fears about fear of white flight if the consolidation went through.
Perhaps what went overlooked, however, was the sense of identity that people found in these schools they attended. The colors, the mascots, the alma maters – none of that stuff was just stuff. It meant something that transcended race, some say.
“I didn’t see the tension that I thought I might see. Everything that I’ve been picking up from them basically is that it’s not about (race). The students were like ‘What do you mean we’re not integrated? We’re not segregated.’ It was about traditions,” said Paula Johnson, an education associate with the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA).
Johnson flew in from San Antonio to spend a day conducting cultural competency training for the teachers. She talked with them about how to recognize implicit biases, how to work well with a demographic of people you may have never worked with before, how to look past class or culture when engaging with students.
For the past seven years she’s taught this program in schools across the South that are either under federal desegregation orders or have freely elected to seek out the training.
“I don’t feel like this is a racially charged situation. There are some where you can see the tension with teachers,” she said.
Of course, that doesn’t speak to the painful process of letting go of traditions, the effects of which quietly ripple through the community as it begins to comprehend life as one school.
“I didn’t want them to combine but then again I did. It’s just what it came to. I wanted to stay with East Side instead of everybody coming together. That’s where my family graduated from so I wanted to graduate from East Side,” said Monterrius Ward, a rising freshman whose older brother was one of the last to graduate from East Side.
A kicker for the school’s football team, Ward remains optimistic about the upcoming year, especially the athletic powerhouse that the athletes believe will be created by merging the two programs.
For some like Connie Castle, letting go is less about relinquishing what could have been and more about moving on from what was.
Castle, a life-long Cleveland resident, graduated from Cleveland High School in 1987. She’s taught science at the high school for decades, the same classes her mother taught while working at Cleveland High for 36 years. She stands behind the podium her mother stood behind while she taught. Her siblings graduated from Cleveland High. And when the news broke of Cleveland’s closing, she mourned.
“When we found out that this was going to happen in October, I literally grieved for two months. It was like somebody died,” she said. “After I worked through the grieving, the peace I came to was good and it was needed. It had to end. I do agree that this was the best thing for our community and for our kids because it’s about the children.”
Even though so many now insist the fight to cling to the dual school system was more about traditions and less about race, the fact that the fight was being fought at all affected students.
“I didn’t like it. We’re children. We all belong to the same city so I think we should be represented by one city. And I didn’t like it when they put us separate like that,” said Stanley Adams, a rising 11th grader from East Side.
“People should know that it’s going to be good. We’re going to represent Cleveland right. We’re going to do all that we can to make sure this works out,” he said.
Making it work out has been logistically a colossal undertaking.
Teachers from East Side had to pack up years’ worth of materials and haul them over to Cleveland Central High School. Teachers from Cleveland High had to box up everything in their classroom (something that most of them hadn’t had to do in years), move it out of the classroom so that it could be painted, then move everything back in.
“At the beginning it was unsettling only because I like things organized. So for me it was unsettling for the logistics. I’m going to have to move over here. How am I going to handle that and still teach the rest of the school year?” said Donna Gaines, who taught math at East Side for more than 20 years.
Last week, with days left before school starting, teachers were unpacking boxes, walking the halls looking for misplaced equipment, stapling materials to corkboards, cramming what usually spans an entire summer into roughly a week.
Can Cleveland be a model?
With hundreds of school desegregation orders still pending across the country (some 40 of which are in Mississippi), the possibility of more schools having to merge is on the horizon.
“I think the shift that’s coming is the government seems to be very short on patience,” Johnson said. “They’ve let all this time go. We’re talking at least 50 years where they let school districts try to get it right. But if I’m still looking at data and I’m still seeing you have two schools that are specifically divided along racial lines, they’re going to start pushing them in this direction I think.”
Johnson sees room for Cleveland to be a prototype for other school districts that could inevitably be pushed in this direction.
“In fact, I’ve been talking to my director about this and how this is something we’ve never come up to before. There’s usually not this major of a change going on. And this is a major change. I have a feeling that this is something that’s a teachable moment for us as well in how you go about doing it. It can be a very positive experience with the right planning and communication and getting the teachers and students involved.”
Community buy-in will also be an important aspect of the transition, said Lenden Sanders, a plaintiff in the case against Bolivar County Board of Education.
She has her reservations about some of the decisions that were made as the schools merged. Overall though, she’s pleased that it happened.
“I think the schools going together was a good thing,” she said. “It can be a good thing for the town, if we allow it to be.”