During my time at Whit Davis Elementary school, I was a short, unathletic, chubby kid who struggled to fit in and make friends outside of my Nintendo DS. Many times I remember falling asleep never being fulfilled or happy with myself. Admittedly, a large part of my inner conflict was the school I went to; I often felt ostracized in classrooms. I was scared to speak out loud or that I would be judged by my classmates who didn’t look or talk like me. Though my elementary experience was challenging, I now realize how this initial struggle taught me how to connect with all people.
Now I’m proud of who I am, knowing I’m expanding my knowledge past the books. Cedar Shoals High School is culturally and ethnically diverse, allowing me to learn from students from various backgrounds other than my own. This is an attribute of my school that many students who attend private schools or schools in the surrounding counties will never have.
Often when I meet fellow high school students around Athens (who claim to be “Athenians”), they are shocked to hear that I, a privileged white male, would choose to attend a Title I high school. Cedar Shoals is 85% minority students, and 93% of Cedar’s students qualified for free or discounted lunch in the 2018-19 school year. Historically, my school has a bad reputation in the local media, largely due to the reported violence and high administrative turn over in recent years. This stigma sets the precedent for other white students in Athens’ suburbs to judge my character. They ask me questions such as, “Isn’t that the black people school?” and “How many fights do you see on a daily basis?”
In response, I try to keep my composure and react normally, but I lose respect for anyone who judges my character because I didn’t participate in white flight. It’s become an unfortunate tradition for white families in Athens to move or send their children to neighboring counties’ schools.
Non-locals who come to Athens and engage with the community (outside of the University of Georgia) may question why Clarke County’s public schools don’t reflect the city’s 65% white demographics. A 2012 study by the state Department of Education found 1,381 Clarke County students chose to attend provincial private schools, whose diversity rates are 91% white (Prince Avenue), 85% white (Athens Academy), and 81% (Athens Christian), according to niche.com. It’s worth noting all three of these private schools were founded in or around the time Athens began desegregating their high schools in the early 1970’s: Athens Academy opened in 1967, Prince Avenue in 1978, and Athens Christian in 1970.
Many of these families who choose to send their children elsewhere are oblivious to their promotion of segregation in Athens. It doesn’t matter if they voted for Barack Obama or if they had a Stacey Abrams sign in front of their house; they still contribute to a larger problem. By sending their children across town to a private school or deliberately moving houses to attend a “better school system,” all to avoid the “riff raff” in Athens’ public schools, these families highlight an unspoken racism hiding in this city.
Although it frustrates me to see families move, to an extent, I can see their point of view. Many students benefit greatly from attending private or charter schools, and there’s an argument to be made about going to a familiar place with people most like you. It becomes a problem when people don’t recognize the choices they’ve made by foregoing the local schools. It’s unfair to point the finger at others for racism if you’re playing just as large if not a bigger role than the ones you’re accusing.
It’s important that these parents teach their children the correct values while sending their kids to majority-white schools, and it can be done. Recognizing the consequences of our decisions, our own ignorance, and checking our own privilege are vital to creating the diverse Athens we all want to live in.