Living History in Covington High School

Before visiting a school in Kansas, I stopped by the Topeka schoolhouse museum dedicated to the desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, decided in 1954.

Before visiting a school in Arkansas, I stopped by the iconic Central High School, integrated by the Little Rock Nine in 1959.

So before visiting a school an hour north of Memphis last week, naturally I went to the National Civil Right's Museum at the Lorraine Hotel, the site of the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

That is all to say that the history of the civil rights movement and its decades-long quest for equal rights and educational quality was at the top of my thoughts when I stood in the hallway of Covington High School during morning announcements.

School morning announcements are usually a list of club and sports activities, but Marcus Heaston told me later that when he'd become principal he'd wanted to do something that would set the tone for the day.

So every day, including the day I was there, Heaston tells his students to keep in mind the many men and women who sacrificed their lives and money and resources to secure their right to a free and equal education and who made this the greatest country on Earth. "It is 2014," he says, "and we are truly judged by the content of our character, displayed by how we dress and how we act and the decisions we make. "

"We all make mistakes," he tells the students and invites each of them to make a decision that day to live a more "character-filled" life.

To understand the power of his message, it might help to understand a little of the context of the school.

Covington is the "city" school of Tipton County. Heaston, himself an African American graduate of Covington High School, told me that the school has suffered from a long period of "white flight" by families who could afford to transport their kids to the county schools.

For a long time, Covington has been the school attended by black students and white students who couldn't afford to leave. At the same time, the area suffered a loss of industry. And the school suffered. Ten years ago the school's academic achievement was low and current staff members who were there then describe the school as nearly out of control. The students, they told me, "lacked respect" and "didn't want to learn."

That was then. This is now.

Today the student body is on the move. Graduation rates have risen to a very impressive 96 percent and college enrollment rates are rising; math achievement rates are far above the state, and reading achievement is on the rise. The make-up of the student body hasn't changed. "It's still Covington," Heaston says. About half the students are African American and half are white. Three-quarters meet the qualifications for free and reduced-price meals, but Heaston said many don't apply.

"We're very high poverty," he told me, adding that many of his students suffer from a variety of ills. That is why, he said, he tells his students in that morning announcement that bad things happen to everyone but that "we can choose to live a joyful life or a bitter one, where we hang onto bad things that keep us from growing and learning."

Heaston's announcement is a way of establishing that everyone in the building is valued and expected to do important work, work that was made possible not only by the civil rights movement but, as he told me later, by the entirety of American history from its colonial fight against tyranny onward.

When I talked with teachers and staff later, they told me that the announcements, backed up with many other things that build a supportive academic culture, have made a difference, and they are seizing the opportunity to make instruction more rigorous. They embrace Common Core State Standards and helping students think about their next steps, whether it be two-year college, four-year college, or technical training.

In other words, teachers are working hard to improve instruction. But, Heaston says, "Bad culture trumps good curriculum every time," so he has worked very hard to build a good culture, where students feel welcomed, respected, and valued.

"He loves us," I was told by many students, white and black. "He'll do anything for us."

And this year, a few middle-class white kids trickled back from the county schools. Not many, but a handful of sophomores in the fall and a couple more during the year, attracted by the dramatic improvement in students' academic achievement.

Culture may beat curriculum, as Heaston says, but culture plus curriculum is a powerful force indeed. Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, as both the South and the North have settled back into racial isolation, it might be the only force that can move us forward.