—Karla Scoon Reid
Public schools course through Virginia Walden-Ford’s veins.
As an African- American child growing up in Little Rock, Ark., at the height of the civil rights movement, she was the daughter of educators. Her father, William H. Fowler, was a principal and later an assistant superintendent of the city school district. Her mother, Marion Armstrong, was the first black teacher to work at an all-white elementary school there.
The famed Little Rock Nine were the first African-American students to integrate Central High School, in 1957. But Walden-Ford and her twin sister were among a group of about 130 black students who were handpicked to desegregate the city’s high schools on a larger scale in the late 1960s.
Now, at age 50, Walden-Ford is the executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, a nonprofit parent-information organization that helps parents find options outside the public system. She sent the youngest of her three children to private school. He then graduated from a District of Columbia charter school in 2000. Her two teenage stepsons also attend charter schools here.
The transformation from making civil rights history in public school hallways to becoming a school choice advocate was not easy for this strong-willed woman.
“I was not only raised in public schools, that was my father’s life,” says Walden-Ford. “We were committed to that.”
Yet Walden-Ford came to a crossroads with her youngest child, William, that forced her to compromise. He was promoted annually despite his dismal grades, she says, but she was committed to “sticking it out” in the public schools.
“I felt guilty,” she acknowledges with a hint of an Arkansas drawl.
By 9th grade, however, William started hanging out with hoodlums on the verge of heading to prison. One night, Walden-Ford, by then a single mother, found him handcuffed to her front porch by the police. The only option that seemed available was “Southern school choice"—sending William to live with her parents in Little Rock.
As a teenager, Virginia Walden-Ford helped integrate public schools. But when her son got into trouble, she felt forced to leave them behind.
A neighbor stepped in, though, helping to pay for the teenager to attend a local Roman Catholic school. William became a different person, his mother says.
As William was starting his senior year in 1999, the scholarship money ran out. It was two years after charter schools opened in Washington. Walden-Ford enrolled William in Booker T. Washington Public Charter School for Technical Arts, where he earned A’s. After a year of community college, he enlisted in the U.S. Marines. The 19-year-old is a private first class stationed in Aberdeen, Md.
Without school choice, Walden-Ford believes, her son “would be in jail or dead. I couldn’t control him.”
More than 30 years after graduating from Central High, Walden-Ford now tries to reconcile her family’s long-term commitment to public education with her passion for school choice.
Armstrong, Walden-Ford’s mother, accused her daughter of deserting the public schools and wouldn’t speak to her about school choice for years. Walden-Ford says her mother confronted her, arguing: “ ‘Your daddy fought hard for the public schools. How dare you leave?’ ”
Armstrong says there was “never any question” that her daughters would attend Central High School. Their father, who died in 1985, wanted his children to receive the best education possible. And, Armstrong says, he was monitoring the school’s progress with integration.
“There was no way we would send our child to private schools,” declares Armstrong, 79, now retired in Little Rock after teaching for 28 years. All five of her daughters graduated from public schools. “We just didn’t believe in private schools.”
That commitment was firm, despite the fact that every school day from 1966 until her graduation in 1969, Walden-Ford was the target of racial slurs. “I got called ‘nigger’ so much it would make your head spin,” she recalls. “Not just the kids—the teachers, too.”
Many African-Americans, she believes, are driven by the tradition of public schooling, rather than what’s best for children today. Two of Walden-Ford’s sisters, who used to teach in public schools, now work at charter schools in Detroit and Kansas City, Mo.
“We didn’t fight to enroll our children into a bad public school,” she asserts. “We fought for quality education.”
Today, more than 10,800 of the District of Columbia’s 68,000 students attend 37 charter schools. Peggy Cooper Cafritz, the school board president, believes charter schools should serve as an arm of districts for “kids who need something special,” rather than as competitors.
Walden-Ford says she understands that the system needs time to make improvements. But, she argues, parents need alternatives in the interim—even if those options aren’t flawless.
That’s why Walden-Ford is dedicated to fielding 100 calls a week from parents desperate to find a better education for their children.
She scoffs at critics who label school choice supporters as fanatics.
“We’re just a group of people living the horror of seeing a child not being educated,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the December 05, 2001 edition of Education Week as Coming to Terms With History