The strengths and challenges of Tulsa’s premier public high school.
Imagine attending a high school where cliques do not exist. Where high school cheerleaders aren’t always the peppiest at pep rallies, football players aren’t necessarily voted most popular, National Honor Society members are crowned homecoming kings and queens, and students from all areas of a culturally diverse city attend the same school. The black jock, the Asian class president, the Caucasian artist and the Hispanic science tutor share the same school pride and treat one another with mutual respect.
This ideal high school is a reality, and it’s found in Tulsa at Booker T. Washington High School.
As a graduate of “Booker T.,” I like to claim that my academic high school experience was more challenging than my college education. Although I spent hours reviewing notes, preparing for presentations and leading student groups at my collegiate alma mater, I spent (what seemed to be) more oil lamp hours at Booker T. working toward excellent grades and participating in extracurricular activities so I could be prepared for university life.
And I was more than prepared, as were most of my former classmates. Education is key to a successful future, and students who are selected to attend Booker T. know they must make a silent promise to themselves and to the school that they will give their all.
Booker T. graduates can attribute many of their academic high school and post-high school successes to the school’s faculty. Because of small class sizes, teachers and students can form close relationships, and teachers exude their passion for the classroom onto their curious students, who hunger to learn more, even as they enroll as college freshmen. While Booker T. students receive all the national attention for their academic performances, it’s the faculty who lead them to that level of accomplishment.
Besides a dedicated faculty, Booker T. requires a strong administrative leader to keep producing top students. Its principal must understand the community of people who populate Booker T., and it’s pivotal that the principal reaches out to the school’s diverse communities — whether it’s the academic, athletic, black or white community — to maintain the school’s integrity.
Perhaps Booker T.’s greatest achievement, besides its academic accolades and athletic titles, is its ability to integrate its students no matter their culture, race or social affiliations. Students from different backgrounds are teammates in sports, partners in chemistry labs, leaders of clubs and, most importantly, they are friends.
Despite attending a state university and serving an internship that took me to the melting pot of the United States, New York City, I experienced more culture in the Booker T. classroom and at school dances, football games, art shows, Key Club meetings and assemblies. When I did attend college, I felt as if I had taken a step back from my world of cultural assimilation and acceptance. For the first time in seven years (I also attended Booker T.’s feeder middle school, Carver), I noticed color — or the lack thereof — in my classrooms and social settings. It was a reverse culture shock.
But just like any other school, Booker T. isn’t perfect. Although there is a social comfort amongst the students, they tend to gravitate toward students who are of their own race. This is not to be confused with racism; it just so happens they are closer friends with those who share cultural similarities.
During my time at Booker T., the topic of “race” came up only among the parents. Not all students who lived south of 15th Street were allowed by their parents to “cross the railroad tracks” for sporting events after dark. Some black parents saw white students imposing on their neighborhood school. And both races sometimes felt difficulty connecting with adults (never students) of the opposite race because of previous decades of strained relationships in Tulsa. If parents followed the students’ examples, Booker T. truly would be close to the perfected, integrated institution that school officials anticipated almost four decades ago.
I look forward to watching more Hornets graduate, including my sister, who follows her three older siblings. Although the old Booker T. building is no longer abuzz with eager minds, the new building assures the school’s presence is here to stay for many more classes to come. With every graduating senior class and every incoming freshman class, there is a greater promise of achievement and appreciation of a colorful, multicultural world — a world that is a reality at Booker T. Washington High School.
If the world were in Booker T.’s classroom, we would certainly be a more accepting and respectful community.