Thursday forum: Black alumni describe struggles, tensions, fears of going to school in Amherst

Last modified: Friday, October 10, 2014
AMHERST— Two recent African-American graduates of the Amherst regional school system were the stars of the WHMP community forum on race issues Thursday as they described struggles to connect with teachers who weren’t challenging them, dismay at tensions that divided the school during their senior year and fear at seeing a black teacher attacked by racist graffiti.

Still, they professed a loyalty to their former high school and offered to work to improve conditions.

“Personally I love Amherst Regional High so I would come back and give my point of view on everything that has happened,” said Tasia Clemons, 18, who is headed to Framingham State University next week.

Clemons and Catia Correia, also 18, who will be going to Holyoke Community College this fall, were part of a seven-person panel moderated by the radio station’s morning host Bob Flaherty and news director Denise Vozzella. Held on the Town Common, it was broadcast live and ran for two hours. Other panelists included Russell Vernon Jones, a retired Amherst elementary school principal; Jean Fay, head of the Amherst-Pelham teachers’ union; Pat Ononibaku, parent of five children who passed through the school system; Vira Douangmany Cage, also a parent and member of the Schools Equity Task Force, formed recently to study racial issues; and Victor Nunez Ortiz, a parent of three young children.

Missing were four school and town officials — Superintendent Maria Geryk, Amherst Regional High School Principal Mark Jackson, Town Manager John Musante and Climate and Media Specialist Carol Ross — who had initially agreed to participate but backed out Wednesday. Geryk and Musante issued a statement before the event saying that their efforts to address racial inequities in the schools were at a “delicate phase” and they preferred to focus on “positive momentum.”

Flaherty said they told him that they did not want to discuss the troubles that plagued the high school and middle school during the last school year which included a gun threat, a racially motivated beating and threats aimed at math teacher Carolyn Gardner, who left her job in May when attacks persisted.

Absence felt

Thursday’s discussion was a wide-ranging conversation, before an audience of about 40 people seated on folding chairs, that included talk about how racism is expressed in Amherst, the impact last year’s troubles had on students, the lack of diversity in school staff in Amherst, and the fear felt by black people as the result of national incidents, such as the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

The absence of the administrators, however, loomed large, with frequent references by Flaherty and others to their decision not to take part.

“It kind of hurts, but at the same time they have to do what they have to do,” Correia said before the broadcast began. She added that she thinks administrators, particularly Jackson, had been effective in helping students weather last year’s crises. “It would have been nice to have them here today.”

The two young women drew murmurs of support and hearty applause as they talked about finding themselves among few students of color in honors classes at the high school and their motivation to mentor younger students.

Correia described being discouraged from tackling challenging material in elementary school reading lessons. “When you get put in lower classes you start falling behind,” she said. “You don’t know what your ability is and how far you can push yourself.” She said she could tell many stories about teachers urging students of color to try easier work. Then, when students do succeed, “They act like it’s a miracle.”

Correia said it was a scramble for her, but once she found supportive teachers during her last two years in high school, she began to excel in English. “Now it’s one of my best subjects,” she said.

Fay, the teachers union president, who is an elementary school paraprofessional, said she was sorry to hear the accounts by Correia and Clemons of their classroom experiences. “It saddens me to listen to these lovely young women who are so eloquent,” she said. She and other educators strive to provide a “loving, nurturing environment,” Fay added. “That’s really what it’s all about.”

She said she wished other school representatives could have heard the stories told by Correia and Clemons. “We can’t move forward until we stop talking at each other and start talking to one another,” Fay said. “These conversations are never easy, but we have to have them.”

Amherst not alone

Former Fort River Elementary School principal Russell Vernon Jones also praised Correia and Clemons. “My first reaction is that we should listen to Catia and Tasia more often because they have a lot of wisdom,” he said. “The enemy here is not the schools or any particular administrator or teacher. The enemy here is racism.”

He went on to say that Amherst is not unique. “It’s not a matter of individual acts of meanness or prejudice, it’s a whole system that exists in the United States in which white people are dominant and a whole lot of ideas have gotten into the culture about the inferiority of people of color,” Vernon Jones said.

It should not come as a surprise that Amherst schools are affected by it, he said, adding that “We need to find ways to come together to eradicate it.”

Ortiz, a U.S. Marine veteran who moved to town with his young family in recent years, said he was frightened and angered when two police detectives sought him for questioning following a lockdown at Crocker Farm Elementary School in March. It turned out the emergency response was triggered by a cafeteria worker’s suspicions of a custodian who was not wearing his name tag. But before learning that, he said, police were attempting to locate a “mocha-colored” man who had been seen in the school.

“I felt very disrespected,” he said of the attempts of the police to find him. “It was frightening.” Ortiz said in a subsequent meeting with Geryk and police he was told he was sought because “you fit the profile.” The experience, he said has left him shaken.

“I could have been arrested that day and had to fight my way out of it,” he said. “That’s why I’m here talking about it.”

Ononibaku said that her five children all had positive educational experiences in the Amherst schools, but noted that she has been an activist for 25 years. “Amherst public schools are good but they aren’t benefiting everybody,” she said.

Students whose parents can afford private tutors fare better, Ononibaku said. But low-income parents have rights, which include access to federal Title I funds for tutoring, and they should be aware of that, she said.

While Ononibaku praised the schools for programs such as the Family Center in the middle school that offers academic and social services support, and after-school help sessions, she said more needs to be done.

Staff needs diversity

For example, administrators must hire more teachers of color, she said, a point made by several of the panelists.

Ononibaku said her children had “many wonderful teachers of all races,” when they were in school, but a black elementary school math teacher made deep impressions on her son and daughter, who became a financial analyst and an accountant, respectively. “When kids interact with adults who look like them it does make a difference,” she said.

Douangmany Cage said she would like to see Amherst begin focusing on elementary school children of color to inspire them to return to their hometown as teachers someday. “Let’s create a pipeline for that,” she said.

Despite seeing few teachers of color during her school years in Amherst, Clemons said she has wanted to become a teacher since her junior year in high school. But watching what happened to Gardner last school year made her nervous.

“I was shocked and scared,” she said. It moved her to go out into the community and stick up for Gardner, she said, “and stick up for myself as well.”

Through his experience as a principal in Amherst, Vernon Jones said he knows that the majority of applicants for jobs in the school system are white. But, he said, “if a sincere effort is made, it is possible to hire more teachers of color than we have hired.”

He said a diverse staff is good for white students and teachers as well. “It begins to change the kinds of discussions faculty have and everyone learns from each other.”

As the forum drew to an close, audience member Sonji Johnson-Anderson took the microphone and called for the community to stop seeking evidence of racism in Amherst. “Let’s get beyond the fact the we have to prove that racism exists and acknowledge it and then talk about what we do next,” she said.

Reflecting on the fact key that people were missing from the discussion, audience member Carlie Tartakov, a retired Amherst teacher, said she understands why school and town officials wanted to focus on their own message about tackling racial issues. But, she added, “People have to get over their fear and begin to trust. We all want the same thing, to take the challenges before us and wrestle them down. And keep talking, together.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at dscherban@gazettenet.com.