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Princeton Schools Host Conference to Close The Gap Among Students

Candace Braun

The Princeton Regional School District hosted the 5th Annual National Student Conference at the Hyatt Regency Princeton this past week, where 125 students and 60 chaperones gathered from around the country to meet for a week of discussions, lectures, and social gatherings that would bring them one step closer to closing the minority achievement gap.

Together the students learned about preparation for college testing at the Educational Testing Service, attended a college fair at the Princeton Theological Seminary, attended lectures conducted by professors from Princeton University, and developed a plan of action to further close the minority achievement gap in their individual school districts ‹ something that the Princeton Regional Schools have been striving to do since becoming a part of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN).

MSAN began in February 1999, when superintendents from 15 suburban school districts agreed to form a network to improve the academic achievements of students of color.

On Thursday, September 30, the group gathered to listen to keynote speaker Carlotta Walls LaNier, one of nine students to attend the public white school in Little Rock, Ark., when it first became desegregated in 1957. Ms. LaNier told the story of her struggle to receive the best education that the South could offer her.

On the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education case that desegregated schools across America, Ms. LaNier, 61, told the students how one court decision made it possible for African Americans to go to the public library, public pool, sit in the front of the theater instead of the balcony, and attend the public school that was formerly only open to white students.

But while the court decision was passed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954, it took a series of steps by area activists over the next three years before Ms. LaNier could actually set foot in Little Rock's Central High School.

A total of 517 black students lived within the Central High School District, and 80 expressed an interest in attending the school in the fall of 1957, one being Ms. LaNier. Following interviews with the school's superintendent and staff, 17 of those students were selected to attend the school in the fall. But only nine braved the journey.

That September, those nine students attempted to enter the school, only to be turned away by the National Guard who were put in place by Gov. Faubus to "keep the peace in the community," said Ms. LaNier. It took almost a month before President Eisenhower was able to restore order in the town, and send armed troops to escort each student into the school.

"I went to school with a body guard my entire tenth grade year," she said.

The "Little Rock Nine," as they came to be called, received incessant taunting from many of the other students and their parents. Burning paper was thrown at them in the halls and in the bathrooms, said Ms. LaNier, and their classmates would step on their heels until they bled: "There were thousands of them on the inside and outside [of the school] and there were only nine of us."

Not all of the students were mean to the group, she said, but those who treated them as equals were harassed by the other students: "There was a group of [white] students there who really just wanted all of it to go away."

Ms. LaNier was a member of the National Junior Honor Society at her old school, and some of the nine other African-American students had participated in band, track, student council, and choir. They weren't allowed to be a part of any of these activities at Central High, and they spent most of their school nights on lock down to stay away from the violence they were constantly at risk of receiving from the community.

Overcoming Hatred

When students at the conference asked how Ms. LaNier could stop herself from feeling bitterness and hatred, she told them that she'd known the battle she would face when she signed up to attend the white public school, and she wasn't going to let others' ignorance stop her from receiving the best education.

But, most important, was the lesson her parents had taught her as a child: "I was not taught to hate."

Ms. LaNier said that her parents had a large influence on the woman she would become: "My parents and the other eight parents were the real heroes ... and I didn't even know it until I became a parent."

Brought up to know she had the same individual rights as anyone of any other color, Ms. LaNier said that "you have to keep being positive to accomplish what you want to do."

Knowing this, Ms. LaNier told the students that one of the rights that people of every color have today is the right to vote, a right that many fought to obtain: "Voting is one of the most cherished rights we have...based on the struggles of those who came before you."

She encouraged every student to start voting as soon as they are old enough to register, meet people unlike themselves, and never be influenced by negative thinkers: "Dare to dream the impossible and go make it happen."

Ms. LaNier was only one of three out of the Little Rock Nine to graduate from Central High. She went on to receive a college degree from Michigan State University, and now works in real estate in Englewood, Colo.

Ten years ago she and the other eight members of the group were invited to the White House by President Bill Clinton, where they were each awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

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