LAFAYETTE, Ala. (CN) — The inequities between LaFayette High School and Valley High School, both in Chambers County, were evident when Dr. Travis C. Smith was a student there some 15 years ago.
“My experience was great in high school,” Smith recalled. “It's a small school and it's a family oriented school. But going into Lafayette High, I always knew that there were certain things that Valley High students had access to that we didn't have access to and that's just the way it was. Once I went to college and saw the different opportunities that other students had in their own high schools, it dawned on me that we were missing out on a lot of opportunities.”
In 2021, the enrollment of LaFayette High School was 85% Black. Comparatively, Valley High was only 37% Black. That same year, 60% of students at LaFayette were characterized as economically disadvantaged and the school’s graduation rate was 80%. But by state standards, only half of LaFayette graduates were considered college and career ready.
On the other hand, 51% of students at Valley High were considered economically disadvantaged and 92% of seniors graduated. Two out of three were characterized as college and career ready.
“Anybody in LaFayette will tell you the same thing, they know that Valley High has always been a high school that has had way more opportunities and resources and than LaFayette and the same goes for other schools in the district,” Smith said, noting Valley has provided math, science, technology, arts and athletic programs beyond what is offered at LaFayette.
Smith went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology from Alabama State University and a doctorate in educational leadership from Clemson. He returned to LaFayette High for a brief teaching stint and then launched a nonprofit organization, Unite Inc., to help disenfranchised students at LaFayette and elsewhere prepare for college. Unite’s two-year program, introduced in 2011, has a 100% graduation rate and a 100% college matriculation rate. Its students have been awarded nearly $45 million in scholarships.
More recently, the Chambers County School Board hired Smith as a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant, tasked with helping craft a settlement agreement in a federal desegregation case dating back six decades. He’s also on the faculty of the University of Florida College of Education.
As the school year begins Aug. 8, the first implications of the agreement will materialize. Last month, U.S. District Court Judge W. Keith Watkins ordered the immediate closing of three primary schools in the district, along with the introduction of a STEAM academy and conversion of another elementary school to a magnet program for students in grades K-8. Chambers County will also establish a Desegregation Advisory Committee as a result of the order, which will monitor the agreement and begin the process of consolidating the two high schools.
The agreement remained contentious, Watkins noted, and the parties were faced with "the unenviable and impossible task of trying to please everyone.”
“But someone has to make a decision,” he wrote. “Or else this sixty-year-old case would last for another sixty years.”
Further up state, the Department of Justice reached a separate agreement in July with the Madison County School Board to provide equal educational opportunities for Black students there, while also prompting the board to fulfill the obligations of its own longstanding school desegregation case.
In Madison County, the DOJ determined Black students were disproportionately provided access to advanced course study, were disciplined more often and more severely than white students for conduct infractions and "the district’s recruitment and hiring processes left several schools without a single Black faculty member.”