At a school left behind, students ponder the gap

From the outside, Martin Luther King High School is a squat, brick fortress set in a sea of parched grass and pavement. Last month, students visiting from an affluent suburban high school were taken aback by the metal detectors just inside the front doors.

But metal detectors are only one of the obstacles that King students confront each day. Earlier this year, a spate of fires set by students burned inside trash cans and lockers in the hallways. Then there are the lack of AP courses, the limited extracurricular offerings, and, some students say, a looming sense that they are not being adequately prepared for college.

"I'm petrified," says Yaasiyn Muhammad. In spite of being on the honor roll, he worries that he'll arrive at Temple University in the fall only to be lost in a crush of students who are better versed in grammar and who have already mastered calculus. "I hope I don't get to college my freshman year and flunk out."

Fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education declared segregation in schools illegal, at this school - named for the civil rights leader - 98 percent of the students are African-American. And they are acutely aware of the differences between "King" and other schools, like the predominantly white Abington Senior High School, just five miles away.

Yet as a handful of students recently gathered in an otherwise empty library to ruminate on the meaning of Brown on the cusp of its golden anniversary, their comments were pragmatic rather than bitter.

From a legal standpoint, they agree that Brown has accomplished what it set out to do. It successfully changed the law so that, in theory, any white student who wants to can attend King. And technically, they, too, are free to go to a more integrated school.

"The school we're in, it's not the whole world," says senior Ashley Harris. "Because we are segregated in our own way doesn't mean that every school is."

On a more personal level, though, many wonder if they've had the same opportunities and "advantages" afforded their counterparts at Abington, a federally designated Blue Ribbon School, with which King has been partnered through a community after-school program.

When junior Kemoy Campbell spent a day shadowing Abington students this winter, she was amazed to sit through a French class where not a word of English was uttered. That school's grounds are meticulously landscaped. And its teachers devote hours to preparing their students for the SAT.

"I guess they picked schools that are opposite," suggests Yaasiyn of King's pairing with Abington.

King teachers could be better about impressing the importance of education upon their pupils, says Ashley. Her English teacher, Lynn Dixon, agrees. "When you have heterogeneous grouping, your extremes get lost in the shuffle," she tells her students. "You deal with the middle ground. That's all a teacher can do. It's not a justification for the fact that you're not getting a really challenging education."

But when it comes to casting blame for holes in their schooling, these students don't play the race card. If anything, they put the onus on themselves and their peers. "Black kids need to start taking advantage" of their education, says Ashley.

Even nearer than Abington are Central High School and the Philadelphia High School for Girls, two high-performing magnet schools where the majority of students are not white. "I think it's amazing how 10 minutes away there is Central and Girls High School," says senior Peta-Gaye Taylor. "There is a world of difference between this one and those schools."

One difference, she says, is that at King "the majority of students do not come to school to learn." These are the students Ashley calls "lollygaggers." They disrupt class and initiate fights, which regularly erupt in the school's mural-decorated halls. Halls that Yaasiyn says must be carefully navigated, because "if you mingle, you get caught up in the middle of a fight."

Perhaps, the group suggests, the difference between a sound and a flawed education is economic. "You get what you pay for," says Moniqua Turnage, a junior who attended a Roman Catholic middle school.

Senior Ronalda Grant concedes this may be true, but counters that most parents of King students can't afford to send their children to private schools.

Maybe, then, economics and race are inextricably linked. Do rich black kids get a better education than poor black kids? "Oh yeah," replies the chorus. Why? "Because they go to white schools."

Many King students have attended black, neighborhood schools their entire lives. And some see college as an opportunity to meet people of different cultures from disparate places. Others, who have been to racially mixed schools before, look forward to returning.

At the high school Ashley attended in California, "white guys went out with black girls and no one cared what race you were." She's eager once again to be in that climate at Philadelphia University. On a recent trip there she met an array of students - including goths and punk rockers - who she remembers more for their clothing style than for their race.

To Michael Bance, a freshman, it doesn't matter what kind of college he attends - white, black, or mixed - as long as it offers a solid education from good teachers.

Still, Ashley says the blend of people from different backgrounds is a truer reflection of the world beyond King's dour brick walls - crucial for overcoming stereotypes and to success later in life.

"When we get out of high school and go to college and then to work, we're going to have to be with people of all races. And we'll have to understand them," she says. "People live in a world of ignorance if everyone is the same."

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