Blue Lagoon Children: A Hard Landing Into Key West’s Racial Divide

Bhajan and Naomi

Naomi and Bhajan grew up on boats anchored behind Wisteria Island.  Like many other kids living on the anchorage, they explored the island, sang for tips at Mallory Square, and rowed back and forth on kayaks to boat sleepovers.   When Hurricane Wilma sunk most boats, the families moved onto Wisteria Island for a time.  With no TV or computer, Bhajan and Naomi became avid readers and, of course, in keeping with the tradition of their bohemian lifestyle – they never went to school – until this year that is.

In 2013 they both decided that at 16 it was time to start wearing shoes and meddling with those “house kids”.  They both enrolled in Key West High School.  But, this new experience was met with very differing results.  At this point it is important to mention that Bhajan is white and Naomi is black (at least half black; her father is steel band musician and singer Toko Irie.)

The reader is invited to have a look at the video interview above – shot not long after Bhajan and Naomi had individual meetings with a Key Wet High School guidance counselor.  Neither of them had any school records, they hadn’t taken any entrance exams, yet Bhajan was offered and encouraged to sign up for as many “honors classes” as he could while Naomi, the black girl, was told that under no circumstances could she be placed in any honors classes.

“I was told I had to enter into the remedial reading class and that I had no choice,” says Naomi who claimed to be bored to death in the remedial class.  “I am in there with two or three Russian girls who don’t speak English and with Haitian kids and Cuban kids who barely speak English.”

She thought she could shine her way out of this predicament only to discover that the deck was stacked against her.  “I wrote an essay about Halloween, which I really worked hard on and I thought it was good.”  The teacher, however, assumed the essay had been copied, “She told me I was not allowed to use plagiarism and gave me a ‘C’.”

At 16, knowing about prejudice and experiencing its shameful affects are two different things. To the question, “Do you believe racism is involved?” Naomi answered:  “What else could it be?”  And this is the part where we write:  “This is hopefully an isolated incident.” After some intervention from above, Naomi is now in an “English Honors” class.

We were surprised to see that segregation in Key West schools is alive and well and in full swing.  Through districting, bussing, and ‘parental choice’, the old prejudices somehow manage to creep back out of the walls.

This is not a new problem.  In 2006 Mandy Miles wrote an in-depth article in The Citizen about our segregated school system.  She wrote:  “Enrollment is becoming a black and white issue in Key West elementary schools, where officials want to balance a growing disparity in the ethnic makeup of the four schools.”  Quoted were both Frank Spoto, then principal of Horace O’Bryant Middle School and Amber Bosco, then principal of Poinciana Elementary, who both agreed that the time had come to take a hard look at desegregation.

Children of Bahama Village were bussed to Gerald Adams on Stock Island, meaning some children travelled across the island, past two other schools to get to Gerald  Adams.  “Basically we had segregated schools,” said Andy Griffiths who has been a member of the school board since 1992.  It goes back to desegregation, bussing kids from Bahama Village six miles to Gerald Adams which was then called the “dump school” [a play on words because of its proximity to the trash dump].

Today, while the gap has closed somewhat, the district map has changed very little and the bussing of Bahama Village children continues. Gerald Adams now has a 25% black student population while Poinciana, much closer to Bahama Village, has only 14.5% black students.  Part of the problem stems from parents insisting that their sons and daughters enroll in what’s perceived as the “better” elementary school, Poinciana.

Andy Griffith deplores this state of affairs.  “The way it is now, some of these kids don’t even meet each other until they get to 9th grade.  There are some white girls (from up the Keys) who may not have ever seen a black boy before!”

One of the major culprits, says Griffith, is the state of Florida which encourages “school choice” and the creation of charter schools.  “Charter schools have a huge advantage:  they don’t have large numbers of minority and “special needs” children to attend to.  They don’t have to work as hard to get that ‘A’.”

Charter schools also appear to feed segregation undercurrents.   In fact, student demographic data made available by the school district shows that Key West Collegiate (charter high) has only 4% black students and Montessori has only 1%.  Likewise, Sigsbee Charter school which caters to some 500 students, and like all public schools receives around $8,000/student each year, has only 7% black students.

Are we, in subtle and not so subtle ways, recreating a system that was long ago deemed unfair and the cause of social inequality? It looks that way… The paradox however is that the school with the highest percentage of black students in many regards is doing better than some of the predominantly white schools. At Gerald Adams, not only have students generally performed well when compared with state standards [for example a higher percentage of 5th grade students scored at level three or above on the reading FCAT than the state average in 2013], but black and white student performance on the reading FCAT was nearly identical with 65% and 67% respectively achieving scores at level 3 or above.

Poinciana, on the other hand, last year showed remarkable disparity between the two races with 79% of white (non-Hispanic) 5th grade students and only 40% of black students scoring in the level 3 or higher range.    At Sigsbee Charter School 64% of 5th graders scored at level 3 or above in reading last year.

“My students may be living in poverty,” said Gerald Adams principal Dr. Fran Herrin [back in 2006], “and they may be of color, but every single one of them is just as important as every other student in this district.”  By putting her ideas into action Dr. Herrin has turned Gerald Adams, the old “dump school,” into a grade “A” school.

“Yes,” says Mike Mongo, a longtime advocate for racial integration, “It’s not so much a question of organizations or even resources. You have to take it personally.  It means that every person, not just school teachers, but employers, neighbors, politicians, everyone has to make a point of bridging the gap and that is the only way to fix it.”