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.”

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15 thoughts on “Blue Lagoon Children: A Hard Landing Into Key West’s Racial Divide

    1. David, were the charter schools in KW and the Keys formed because of lack of religion in the public schools? That’s not a facetious question. Now is my next question: Where those schools formed because white people didn’t want their kids in schools with kids from black, brown or yellow families? I know private academies sprung up all over the south for those reasons, but that’s the first I heard it might have happened in Keys charter schools? From what I’ve heard, Keys charter schools were started because parents didn’t like the education practices in public schools, nor did they like the way kids often were treated in public schools by other kids and by teachers. I heard plenty about the problems in the public schools when I ran for the school board in 2012. So much did I hear, that I concluded every school in the Keys should go charter, to rid itself of the school board and the superintendent and the school administration, and thereby be able to hire their own principal and teachers, and fire them at will, without having to deal with the teacher’s union or school district bureaucracy. I still feel every school in the district should go charter for those reasons. I never did understand why Gerald Adams school was built way out on Stock Island, so far from most KW neighborhoods. If, in fact, it was predominantly for black school children, that would explain it. If Gerald Adams is as good as reported in this article, that’s a pretty piece of irony, perhaps boomerang karma is another way of saying it. I first heard Poinciana is a white supremacy school during the 2012 school board races. One of the candidates in my voting district (3) had two kids at Poinciana, even though he and his family lived up the Keys. I never did feel I got a good answer out of him about why his kids did not attend Sugarloaf School, which they were driven by every day on their way down to Key West to Poinciana Elementary School. I wondered why that was even allowed?

    2. lybrand perhaps charters schools are a choice for people who dislike and refuse curriculum that is forced down on thier children from the dept of edu-indoctrination in washington dc like ‘common core’. ya think? or is that ‘racist’ too. or perhaps have a course study in the comparisons of various religions. ya think? or is that ‘unconstitutional’too. the decay in the general school systems thruout or country is horrible with students getting high school diplomas without the ability to read them in some instances and mainly due to a ‘centralized collectivised’ department of education in dc pimping programs such as the current common core. keep um dumbed down equally and prime them for being company worker bees in life…ahh for the common productive good of course. that is the essence of public schooling of today. is it any wonder this nation is way down on the ladder.

      i recall by 3rd grade we all were completely proficient in reading writing and arithmetic in the early 50’s. what happened since then is YOUR socialism….where all the students need be ‘equal’ and the achiever must be repressed so as to not be ‘better’ then the under achiever! every student must have a trophy equally or thier self esteem might just be hurt and we can’t have that now can we? a real warm and fuzzy touchy feely goody kinda society but the kids can’t add 2+2 for in the brave new world 5 can also be the answer! bah!

  1. Dang, Andy Griffiths, what in the hell does Naomi getting racially discriminated against have to do with charter schools. Were the school district racists who did this to Naomi fired? If not, why not? Why do we only learn of this in the blue paper. Why did not the KW Citizen report it? It can’t be only the blue paper learned of it because they are friends of Naomi and her family. The school district and school board had to know about it. I know Naomi and her family some what. They are really nice people to spend time around. Maybe they are examples of schools today not knowing shit from shinola about how to educate children. Whatever, a black KW Conch friend once told me that white KW Conchs don’t view black people born in Key West as Conchs. There is a white Mason’s Lodge here, and a black Mason’s Lodge, tracing back to when racial discrimination in Key West was even more hidden in plain view. Tonight, riding my bicycle near the cemetery, I watched a white couple’s Jack Russel terrier, not leashed, try to run a black man off the sidewalk. The black man made to reach down and console or pet the enraged terrier and I told the man to not do that, if he didn’t wish to lose fingers. The white couple said the terrier would not bit the man. I laughed, said the terrier indeed would bite the man if it had a chance. It had charged the man from fifteen yards the way, on Angela street’s sidewalk, barking viciously, to within a foot of the man, who was minding his own business. My bad for not asking the white couple for their names and address.

    1. The school personnel that made this horrible decision can’t be fired. They are protected by civil service laws. Thank the democrats in the past legislatures for taking care of their union base at our childrens expense.
      I am glad Naomi’s parents questioned this decision .
      It was evident that Naomi was reading above level and this counselor still put her in reading recovery or a lower class for some reason.
      I am grateful for the past legislatures that have created Florida’s non union public funded charter schools as an alternative to the public school monopoly.
      Parents of boys have no idea how public schools are hostile to a boys style of learning.I will let my friend explain why this is in his video as well as the former president of NOW , Dr Warren Farrell
      Please watch the other videos on the sidebar

      1. Wow, what a powerful interview. Thankfully there are some advocates like Dr. Johnson out there. It just seems that there are so many knots in the system it might be easier to throw it out and start over. I do recall listening to an interview a while back where it was stated that black communities and businesses were thriving and the divorce rate was lower amongst black families than white before all this integration what not.

  2. My time at Key West High School was pretty black and white. Just one black girl in the honors/ AP courses and no whites in the remedial classes. I think the problem starts well before KWHS, but I’ve always considered my experience there as evidence of the institutional racism in our community.

  3. It has been a while since I was in high school….
    but it seems I remember there being courses in between remedial and honors, you know, the regular ones that most kids attended. It strikes me as odd that neither of these kids were offered regular placement. So, your either a dullard or gifted, nothing in the middle at KW High. It kinda strains the credibility of the video and article a little bit.

  4. Both of these kids were placed in some of the “regular” classes referred to. What’s being pointed out in the article and what Naomi took offense at was that the white boy was offered as many honors classes as he desired while she (the black girl) was told she could not take any honors classes and that she must take a remedial class. Both students were enrolled by the same staff member approximately two weeks apart based on a simple interview. No records or testing was available in either case prior to making decisions on which classes they would be placed in.

  5. To the Editor:

    No where in the article does it articulate that “regular” courses were an option for either student. The only options mentioned are honors and remedial courses. The girl is placed in remedial, then is promoted straight to honors, bypassing the standard course. If the article is trying to portray an air of racism at the high school, it does a very poor job; that is my point. Racism may indeed be a very real component of life at KW High, and this counselor may indeed need to placed under some scrutiny. However, the article fails, and fails miserably, to make that case. What are the other courses the kids are enrolled in? How are they performing? What is the racial makeup of honors courses to other courses? Are there other examples of this kind of placement in the past? By this counselor? Or is this an isolated case?
    If you are going to make the charge, then state your case, and back it up with facts. This article states the case and nothing else.

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