May 17, 2004 – It will take more than seating children of different races together in a classroom to promote equality in education, Gov. Charles W. Turnbull said on the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision that legally ended segregation in U.S. public schools.
The governor was a young school teacher on May 17, 1954. He recalled on Monday that the students and staff of the then-Abraham Lincoln School were called to gather in the courtyard a day later to hear Principal J. Antonio Jarvis make an important announcement. The idea in America that schools for colored and white children could be separate but equal had been struck down as illegal and immoral by the nation's highest court.
Jarvis — for whom the school later would be renamed — "explained to us the significance of the Supreme Court's ruling," Turnbull said, "stating that the education of American children that was separate but not equal would not be a part of the American dream."
The governor continued his recollection of Jarvis's words: "He said, being a great historian, that 'today was a significant day,' and America has never been the same."
As an educator and a historian himself, Turnbull acknowledged the progress that has been seen since 1954's ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education. But the chief executive said many disparities also still exist.
"Although we could celebrate and commemorate this day, there's much more to be done so that all Americans will receive equal education," he said. "There are factors beside going to school together that make a difference in whether American education is equal."
Without a conducive home environment, economic equity and support by government, communities and the private sector, public school students will miss out on equality in the classroom, the governor said. He called on all Virgin Islanders to commit themselves to "narrowing the gap" so that, another 50 years from now, more students can succeed in school.
Ironically, in the Virgin Islands, the best places to find examples of successful school integration are not within the public education system but in the territory's private schools. At St. Croix's Country Day School, Principal Jim Sadler also reflected on 50 years of American education since Brown vs. Board of Education.
May 17 "is an incredibly important day," Sadler said on Monday. "In a way, it is the day when true education in the United States began. I think it's impossible to minimize the importance of this. It was the first time that the government and the education system said we have an obligation to educate everyone."
But that, Sadler added, represented only a start. There still are places where students don't have equal opportunities. And, like the governor, he said that putting children from different backgrounds together in a school cannot in and of itself promote uniform opportunity for achievement.
On the other hand, he said, at Country Day School, achievement comes in all colors and ethnicities, judging by the range of students scoring high on standardized tests, winning scholarships and vying for top school honors.
"We have a range of abilities," Sadler said. "The important thing is, do kids group? The kids who are successful, do they group on racial lines or on cultural lines? Or do they group on background lines?" The answer, he said, is: "They don't. The important thing is that every student has an equal opportunity to succeed."
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