School stock

The Tangipahoa Parish school system’s desegregation case is nearing its final stages, as the district works to increase diversity among its teachers. 

The lawsuit, called Moore v Tangipahoa Parish School Board, has been ongoing since 1965, when a father sued on behalf of his children. It lay dormant for decades but resurfaced again in 2007 as concerns rose that traditionally Black schools were getting less money and resources.

There have been promising signs of the lawsuit’s completion. The latest annual report to the court said a new superintendent, Melissa Stilley, has made changes to the district's hiring practices and cooperated better with the court and attorneys for the plaintiffs. 

Part of the desegregation lawsuit is a goal of a 40% Black teaching staff — about 46 percent of the district's students are Black. While the district is only at 26%, Stilley said there’s a mutual understanding between the district and the plaintiffs that the projected number is unattainable for several reasons.

Court documents back that up, with transcripts of conversations filed in which both sides say there just aren't enough Black teachers to hire — but the district is making a good faith effort to reach its goal.

The lawsuit includes other elements, too, like facilities and and transportation. But staff and student assignment are areas the district has specifically struggled with in the past.

Students notice the lack of diversity in teachers. Ponchatoula High School student Justin Winder recently emailed Stilley and the school board members saying it was important he, a Black student, and others see themselves in their teachers.

He is hoping to develop an ethics or Black history-focused class throughout the school system to increase racial understanding and culture in the schools.

“(School board officials) said they have the highest rate for Black teachers around, but the rate doesn’t mean anything when you’re in the schools and you don’t see the teachers they claim they have,” Winder said. “It would mean a lot to have more Black teachers because some students don’t have the same type of connections with the White teachers to be able to tell them what’s going on with them, and to understand the culture.”

Stilley, who is White, acknowledged that, while the district-wide racial makeup of teachers is 26%, there are some schools like Ponchatoula High that are much lower. At Ponchatoula High School, 10% of teachers are Black.

“Honestly there’s not enough minorities that are going into teaching,” she said. “Even though we recruit, there are not as many teachers in general going into the profession.”

Last year, Stilley implemented a program in which prospective teachers with a degree would be able to start working with the school district as a teacher while completing a one-year teacher certification process.

In 2019, nine people participated in that program, a number that’s doubled for 2020, Stilley said.

That works to increase minority candidates, she said. For example, if a Black candidate had a biology degree, he or she could start working as a biology teacher while gaining a certification, which helps bring skilled employees into the teaching field non-traditionally.

The biggest hurdle, though, is the Praxis exam those certification students need to take at the end of their year in the program, Stilley said. It’s a difficult test, one she likened to a law student taking the bar exam.

“We have teachers who are uncertified who are some of our very best teachers, they just have that natural knack of being a teacher and building great relationships but they cannot pass that Praxis exam,” she said. “I just wish BESE (the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education) would consider some kind of other option for when you have a rockstar uncertified teacher who has great evaluations.”

Another issue in teacher attraction and retention is pay, which is something the district hoped to solve with a tax proposal to voters this year. The pandemic has delayed that until at least next year, Stilley said.

One promising statistic is that, while the district’s teacher makeup is 26% Black, its leadership staff is 50% Black, Stilley said. That shows that, once in the school system, there’s a strong opportunity for and commitment to career progression, she said.

Winder, who’s in the 10th grade, said he hopes the district continues its commitment to diversifying and making sure students see themselves represented in leadership roles.

His mom, Fhemica Winder, grew up over the parish line in Springfield in Livingston Parish. She said that, other than in football and choir, Justin doesn’t see many Black teachers, and she’s proud of him for standing up to voice his opinions.

“I guess I wasn’t faced with those issues that he’s facing,” she said. “I didn’t have any teachers either that looked like me, but it’s a different time and place now and it’s noticed and a priority.”

The pandemic has delayed the desegregation lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Louisiana, and most recent hearings have been held via Zoom.

If approved by the judge, the mutual agreement drafted by the plaintiffs and school district will go into effect and the district will essentially be in a probationary period for three years to ensure it’s adhering to the agreement before the suit is officially closed out.


Email Emma Kennedy at ekennedy@theadvocate.com.