Part 1—A strange journalistic claim: We’ve never been to Tuscaloosa, but we can assure you of this:
With the inevitable struggling exceptions, Tuscaloosa is full of good kids and fine young people.
They love their parents. They want to do good and do well in the world.
D’Leisha Dent, 17, is one such outstanding young person. She’s a senior at Central High, one of Tuscaloosa’s three public high schools. Extending back through three generations, her family’s educational history is described in “Segregation Now,” Nikole Hannah-Jones’ flamboyantly-titled, lengthy portrait of Tuscaloosa’s schools.
Hannah-Jones’ lengthy piece appears in The Atlantic. We strongly recommend it. Given our modern liberal values, you’ll see it discussed nowhere else!
Who is D’Leisha Dent? At one point, Hannah-Jones describes her as “the all-American girl—the homecoming queen dating a football player.”
However you feel about that honorific, Dent seems to be one of her school’s outstanding citizens. Along with being homecoming queen, she’s president of her senior class.
Like her mother, Melissa Dent, she’s also an outstanding athlete—“the three-time state indoor shot-put champion,” Hannah-Jones reports. Because she has achieved at that level, we’re going to guess that D’Leisha Dent knows how to apply herself.
We’re going to guess that D’Leisha Dent is a superb young person. At one point, Hannah-Jones sums it up like this: “D’Leisha excels in school and everything else she’s involved in.”
That strikes us as a slightly strange, but rather revealing, journalistic claim.
Does D’Leisha Dent “excel in school?” On balance, we don’t quite know why Hannah-Jones chose to say that. On an objective basis, D’Leisha Dent, a superb young person, doesn’t exactly “excel in school.”
We base that assessment on Hannah-Jones’ reporting. For starters, consider the passage where she describes Dent’s AP English class:
HANNAH-JONES (4/16/14): She [Dent] eventually broke free from a tangle of girls to enter Tyrone Jones’s Advanced Placement English class and take her seat at the front. She dropped two black bags taut with notebooks and binders beside her desk.Only two kids at Central High had passed the AP exam the year before. That tells us nothing about Dent’s scholastic standing, of course.
Jones didn’t waste time setting the boisterous class to task. The AP exam was approaching. Students who didn’t score high enough wouldn’t get college credit for the class. Even though the 17 girls and boys gathered in front of him made up Central’s brightest, their practice essay about a poem hadn’t gone so well.
D’Leisha raised her hand, her brow furrowed. How many kids had made the cutoff last year? she asked. Only two students had, but the teacher dodged the question. “I really do believe all of you can make those scores,” he said.
Based upon enrollment figures, those 17 kids in that AP class seem to be roughly the top twelve percent of Central High’s senior class. Dent’s inclusion in that group might lead you to say that she has “excelled in school.”
But at the very end of her lengthy report, Hannah-Jones profiles the college prospects of D’Leisha Dent, a superb young person who is one of her school's most respected seniors. The great disgrace of our American history is on display in the following passage, along with the great challenge our miserable history throws us:
HANNAH-JONES: Standing one day last fall outside the counselor’s office at Central, D’Leisha looked up at the college bulletin board. It was dominated by National Guard and Army flyers, with some brochures for small Alabama colleges tucked among them. Students with D’Leisha’s grades and tough honors coursework often come home to mailboxes stuffed with glossy college brochures. But most days, nothing showed up in the mail for her, and no colleges had come calling. She had taken the ACT college-entrance exam twice already. The first time she scored a 16, the second time a 17. Her mother’s alma mater, the University of Alabama, expects a 21, the national average. Many four-year colleges will not even consider students who score below an 18.If that 16 is a composite score, it places Dent in the 22nd percentile nationally. On that basis, we can’t help wondering about the slightly strange journalistic claim that Dent “excels in school.”
Because D’Leisha excels in school and everything else she’s involved in, her teachers and counselors don’t worry about whether she’s on the right track. They’re stretched thin trying to keep in class the seniors—roughly 35 percent of them—who fail to graduate each year. But in December, at home texting with her boyfriend, D’Leisha admitted that she’d filled out only one college application. Lately, she said, she’d been looking more closely at those military brochures, just as her grandfather had, something that angers her mother. “I am kind of clueless how to get stuff done for college,” D’Leisha told me, looking down and fidgeting with her phone. “They are supposed to be helping us, but they think because I am the class president I know what to do. Sometimes I don’t speak up, because I know people have expectations of me.”
Late last year, D’Leisha took the ACT for the third time, but her score dropped back to 16. So early on a Saturday in February, she got up quietly, forced a few bites of a muffin into her nervous stomach, and drove once again to the community college where the test is administered. A few weeks later, she got her score: 16 again. She contemplated a fifth attempt, but could see little point.
Hannah-Jones closes her report with a profile of Dent’s college prospects. “As of this writing, [her college hopes] largely hinge on the tenuous promise of a coach at a small, historically black college outside of Birmingham, who has told her that the school will have a place for her despite her score,” Hannah-Jones writes. “No official offer of admission has yet arrived.”
We’ll bet the farm on our basic premise; D’Leisha Dent is a superb young person. It’s astonishing, and a national problem, that she may not move on to college, even with her athletic success.
All through her lengthy report, Hannah-Jones attempts to explain this puzzling state of affairs. We’ll admit it! On balance, we aren’t fans of Hannah-Jones’ report, although we strongly recommend it as a fascinating history.
In our view, Hannah-Jones’ lengthy report is also a fascinating study of the way we liberals tend to approach public school issues. On balance, we don’t mean that as a compliment.
All week, we’ll review Hannah-Jones’s fascinating report about the Tuscaloosa schools—her fascinating profile of this superb young person about her family’s previous two generations.
By the end of the week, we may be calling Hannah-Jones a “Tuscaloosa liberal.” If we do, we won’t mean that as high praise.
Tomorrow: Familiar ways to feel good