Gains have been made toward equality for African-Americans in the local school district, but there is still a long way to go, and what progress has been made is in danger of backsliding, said local leaders of the black community.
At a minority community forum held Saturday at the Greater Shiloh Church in Easton's South Side, statistics and experiences, both recent and decades past, were shared with the aim of promoting a better experience for students.
A lack of ethnically similar teachers fails to provide students with role models they can easily identify with, speakers agreed.
“There are only 12 African-American teachers in the district, compared to 676 teachers...but remember, we represent 18 percent of the student population of the school,” said Pastor Phil Davis. The only other school authority figures who are black are one administrator, one head coach and the school board president, he added.
“When you put the number of bus drivers and janitors [working for the school district] together, they outnumber the teachers,” Davis said, arguing it offers students an unspoken message.
"'You can aspire to be a bus driver and you can be a janitor, but you can't aspire to be a teacher.' In a hundred years, we've only been able to raise up to 1.7 percent of black teachers.
"If we don't have any good models before our children, what can they aspire to?” he asked the assembled audience of about 50.
Davis said up to 27 percent of local high school dropouts are black, and those with little or no education are most likely to end up in prison.
“When kids give up on their education, they are eight times more likely to end up in prison,” he said.
“We're not passing the blame; it's about stating the numbers,” Davis added.
The district's Easton Area Academy, set up for at-risk students, has 53 black students, who make up 47 percent of the school's population. Despite the district's effort, these students often still fail to be successful when they get out of school.
“We've seen it [more than once]—these kids come out of Easton Academy and go to prison,” Davis said. “When kids underperform in school, they're more likely to end up in prison, and our girls are more likely to get pregnant.”
Holding up a recent newspaper, he showed a page congratulating honors students and another page where the alleged crimes of two others were chronicled. The honors students were all white, while the two students who were indicted were black.
“We challenge this,” Davis said, “by coming together and presenting the numbers.”
Supporting the idea that more good role models for black students within local schools are needed were long-time educators William Houston, Alfredean Jones and Easton Area School Board president Kerry Myers.
Houston, a teacher and administrator with EASD for 35 years and a graduate of the Easton school system, said he's seen things change over the years, but worries the situation has stagnated.
“Throughout my whole [grammar school], we were the only two children of color,” Houston said. “I looked for a black teacher. I never saw one. I didn't know they exist.
“It affects you. Anyone who says it doesn't, tell them to come see me,” he added.
“I was the third or fourth person of color to work in the Easton school district,” Houston said. “For a long time, there were maybe three or four teachers of color.”
But as the makeup of the district changed, some local educators and administrators, even white ones, noticed the difference and saw a need for more minority teachers and administrators. However, over the years, gains in the number of African-American teachers and administrators in the district have slipped.
“In order to change the situation, you need more people of courage,” he said. “America's changing. Easton's changing. Think what it would be like if it were vice versa—600 black teachers and 72 white teachers. You can bet someone would say something.”
“We're no better now,” he said. “Fifty years ago—fifty years, we had one black police officer; today we have one black police officer. Fifty years ago, we had one black fireman; today we have one black fireman. Somewhere along the way, we got skewed on progress.
“[At one time] there were five black [school] administrators. Now there is only one,” Jones said.
Myers, also a product of the Easton school system, said his early school experience was good.
“I went to Asa Packer. Everybody knew everybody,” he said. “Shull [middle school]—we were all black together.
“But when I got to high school, thing drastically changed. Drastically. All of a sudden, you weren't 'Kerry,' you were 'boy.'”
Myers said the racial tensions of the late '60s and early '70s affected him directly -- when he was physically attacked by white students in high school.
“I was the only black player on a 15-member [basketball] team, in a sport we now dominate. They tried to kill me, literally... I woke up in the hospital,” he said. “Full scale [race] riots were three months later.”
At the time, only 81 of 1,200 Easton Area High School students were black.
“It's strange. If you'd told me 40 years ago I'd be standing in front of you as the president of the Easton Area School Board, I'd have laughed at you,” Myers said. “I'm not the first black school board president. Ken Brown was there too.”
But despite his own success, more still needs to be done, he said.
“Our history in this district is repetitive, and we have to stop the cycle,” he concluded.
The six current and recent local student speakers agreed. All told of times they felt they were treated differently because of their race. Though all are high achievers, some said they felt their academic needs were not treated seriously or that less attention was paid to them.
Sydney Durrah, president of her class, said she felt pressure to suppress her cultural heritage.
“When we hit high school, I heard a lot of this 'Diversity is our strength' thing. It always bugged me that they teach this because there was no real place we could go to,” Durrah said. “Despite the fact that my mother is a teacher, there was no one I could just go to and not have to tone it down , or not use my hands [when I talk]. In short, to be able to be black.”
“I really do think something needs to be done,” she added. “This school means so much to me, and it's so important to have these experiences.”
But she fears many of her black classmates are missing that.
“They walk around so disconnected,” she said.