Education

Protest In Selma: Tracking Ignites A Powder Keg

May 01, 1990 6 min read
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“And of course,’' he adds, “as you might imagine, the majority of students in levels two and three, the bottom levels, were black.’'

Henry Pitts, a black parent of three of Selma’s 5,900 students, first learned of the “leveling’’ system after Roussell’s effort to change it touched off public controversy. When he inquired at their schools, he discovered that each of his children was assigned to the lowest level.

“I was very upset about it,’' he says. “It’s wrong; it’s very wrong. If I’m paying taxes for your kid to get an education, I think my kid should get the same education that yours gets.’'

Roussell’s move to change Selma’s tracking policy lost him much of the support he had previously enjoyed among the city’s white community. His supporters say the move also set off the chain of events that culminated in the explosive protests by black students, parents, and civil rights activists that made headlines around the country in February. The demonstrations reached their peak just a few weeks before the 25th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday,’' the day marchers from Selma to Montgomery were beaten by state troopers. Reports of the violence disturbed the nation’s civil rights conscience and helped ensure passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

The recent explosion came as no surprise to Hank Saunders, a state senator and leader of the protest movement. “There’s been a lot of concern about tracking for a long period of time,’' he says. “We had the powder keg here all the while, but we didn’t have a match.’'

The board’s vote not to renew Roussell’s contract, and its later decision to reassign him, “were the matches that lit it,’' Saunders adds.

It is ironic that Roussell’s strongest support in the controversy comes from blacks who believe tracking is inherently unfair, because the superintendent believes ability grouping is “a sound pedagogical technique.’' He agrees with the protesters, however, that the system he inherited in Selma was unfair to students.

Under the “leveling’’ system used in the district since the early days of court-ordered integration, he says, students were placed in levels or advancedplacement and honors courses “based primarily on teachers’ judgments and somewhat on grades.’'

“I think we were in violation of the rights of our students to arbitrarily place them in groups,’' he says. “This was not just for black students; we also had a significant number of white students who were not taking the kinds of challenging courses they should have been taking.’'

At Roussell’s urging, the school board last year adopted a new “grouping for instruction’’ policy that uses students’ test scores and grades to determine their placements and eliminates input from teachers. Grouping was abolished altogether in middle school science and social studies classes.

Parents also gained the right to challenge their children’s placements.

Says Roussell: “Parental input is important because the parents ought to be able to say, ‘I think my child ought to be in this group,’ and if they perform successfully, they ought to be able to stay in that particular group.’'

The superintendent also convinced the board that all of the district’s high school students should be required to take Algebra, Biology 1, and Computer Applications--courses required for higher education that had historically been unavailable to many of the district’s students.

Selma’s teachers seemed to accept the changes, though not always enthusiastically. Grace Hobbs, a veteran teacher, says that she thought the tracking issue “had pretty much been dropped’’ after many of the worst fears of parents and teachers proved unfounded. “There seemed to be no general dissatisfaction,’' she says, “until the nonrenewal came up.’'

Some teachers in the untracked classes, she says, complained about having to teach unmotivated students. But, she adds, “You’re always going to hear that.’'

Hobbs herself defends ability grouping, saying it need not be used to separate black and white students. “I know that among national leaders and top-level administrators it’s very much in vogue to be antileveling,’' she says. “But I think it has its good points, too. It’s very difficult to teach a lot of different levels of ability in the same classroom.’'

The reaction of others in Selma’s white community was not so mild.

Kimbrough Ballard, a member of the Selma City Council, which appoints the school board, says he “first crossed swords’’ with Roussell after the superintendent altered the leveling system. “I am of the opinion,’' Ballard says, “that you don’t teach down to the lowest students, you teach up to the highest.’'

However, Ballard and other white leaders in the city dispute the protesters’ claim that the tracking controversy played a role in the school board’s decision last December not to renew the superintendent’s contract, which expires in June. The board opted not to rehire Roussell, the white leaders assert, because his leadership style was too “dictatorial’’ for Selma.

The black protest leaders insist that the issues of tracking and Roussell’s contract were inextricably intertwined, even though the media paid scant attention to the tracking issue in their coverage of the Selma disturbances.

“Only when he moved to get rid of this tracking system did they move to get rid of him,’' says Rose Saunders, the leader of a local citizens’ group that has spearheaded the protests.

The board tried to remove Roussell in February by reassigning him and appointing an interim superintendent in his stead. (All six white members on the board voted in December not to renew Roussell’s contract and in February to reassign him. The five black members showed their support for Roussell by walking out of the December meeting before the vote and boycotting all meetings after that.) When the decision to remove Roussell set off demonstrations and school boycotts, the board quickly rescinded it; they did not, however, agree to renew his contract.

The board also closed the district’s 11 schools, fearing the tensions would escalate into violence. More than 100 black students turned the situation into a stalemate by occupying Selma High School, and both veteran and college-age civil rights workers descended on the city to participate in daily marches and rallies.

The situation was defused after six days when Roussell convinced the students to leave the school by telling them he would resign rather than see them suspended or dragged out of the building by National Guardsmen.

A six-week occupation of Selma City Hall by the protesters did not end until March, after a state judge ruled the protests illegal because they were interfering with the conduct of city government.

In one of the few light moments of the drama, Dallas County Commissioner Perry Varner quipped to reporters that the protesters might be slow to comply: “We just got the order and it might take us two days to read it because they’ve tracked us into the lower levels, you know.’'

The city’s white political leaders were openly angered about the protests. “Leveling is not the issue; the issue is power,’' said city council member Ballard. “This is a political power play.’' He and other council members charged that the protests were being orchestrated by a group of black lawyers overly eager to assume the reins of power in the city, which may soon have a majority of registered black voters.

But the protesters continued to insist that the real issue in Selma is that tracking has created a system of “neo-segregation,’' and some vowed that the Selma protests were a precursor to a national “direct action’’ movement to abolish tracking.

“In the 60’s, it was the Selma movement that brought down the walls of disenfranchisement in this country for black and brown Americans,’' says Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “Now in the 90’s we are starting again in Selma to bring down the walls of unequal education.’'

--William Snider, Education Week

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Protest In Selma: Tracking Ignites A Powder Keg


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