By Felicity Taylor
Halle Kline had one teacher of color when she attended school in Lexington and Rockbridge County. Byron Winchester had none.
Kline and Winchester attended Lexington City schools and graduated from Rockbridge County High School in 2017 and 2018, respectively. They each spoke at the second of two “Impact of Educators of Color in our Community” panels that the Rockbridge Regional Library hosted in February.
The first panel on Feb. 3 dug into the history of segregated schools and Lexington and Rockbridge County and it featured graduates, teachers and members of the local historical society. The second panel focused on more contemporary experiences for students of color. Kline and Winchester were joined by administrators.
The two graduates of Rockbridge County High School talked about how the lack of diversity in the area hinders recruitment of teachers of color. And, they said, the lack of educators of color means students aren’t challenged enough.
Kline said Black teachers push students to “question the dominant narratives they’re seeing in literature, history or other parts of everyday life and start to see who has been excluded from those narratives and why.”
Schools need to ask why Black educators turn down offers, Kline said. It’s not enough, she said, that Lexington celebrates black people with a parade honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once a year.
More needs to be done to make teachers of color feel welcome in the community, Winchester said.
“There’s no support system,” he said. “They don’t give educators the opportunity to network beyond education.”
Kline, who is studying education at the University of Virginia, said the schools’ white-centered curriculum doesn’t address Black history or include the contributions that Black people have made in the development of the nation.
One way to accomplish that, she said, would be for teachers to assign books or other readings by Black authors.
Winchester said students of color also can’t find mentors among the educators at the schools and must rely on extracurricular activities and sports to make connections. But there aren’t many people of color in either of those areas either, he said.
He said he was lucky that he connected with an African American basketball coach at Lylburn Downing Middle School.
Winchester coaches an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball team in Rockbridge County. AAU is an independent youth sports league with teams all over the country. He said tries to be the players’ role-model. He said he has a lot of relatives in Lexington and mentors a lot of his younger cousins. He says he pushes them to “stay close to something you’re passionate about.”
“We can have not just educators, but mentors who are doing multiple things,” he said.
Kline said she never found a mentor of color while she attended local schools. It wasn’t until she graduated and helped with the College Orientation Workshop (COW) at Virginia Military Institute in 2019. There, she met Gene Williams, an African American man who runs the four-week program designed to prepare high school boys for college.
“He is the first local role model I can think of,” she said.
She will begin graduate school at UVA in the fall. She plans to seek her master’s degree in teaching English.
Rockbridge Schools Superintendent Philip Thompson also participated in the panel discussion and talked about the student dress code. He was asked whether the dress code could be amended to ban clothing with Confederate flags and other symbols of the Confederacy.
He said debating the dress code would be complicated. “We have a diverse community, and some people feel very strongly on both sides of it,” he said. “Working with the First Amendment, it’s a sticky subject.”
Kline disagreed with Thompson. She said seeing students wearing clothing with the Confederate flag was distracting and disruptive.
“A day didn’t go by without seeing a student wearing the Confederate flag in school,” she said in an interview after the panel.
She said Black children don’t feel safe because they can’t connect with their teachers.
“What teachers should be thinking about always is how to ensure that students feel safe and cared for and fully welcome when they’re at school,” she said. “And the same could be said for educators as well.”