Literacy lessons are still part of life for mother of six in Syracuse who never gave up on her education
A young black girl in Ellabell, Georgia, wanted to learn. It was the 1960s, and the Supreme Court had declared in the mid-1950s that separate was not equal.
She was bused from her tiny town, not far from Savannah, along with a handful of other black kids — children who were part of a national experiment to balance the country in the wake of Brown vs. Board of Education. She would get on the bus, in the back, eager to learn. But at school, she was taunted and spat on by her white classmates. Her teachers ignored her. She and the other black children were often sent home for made-up reasons, while their white classmates remained to learn.
She later left the South for another life in Syracuse when she was 17 years old. There, she was pregnant when she received her high school diploma from the now-defunct Washington-Irving School, a graduate reading on an elementary-school level.
Forty-seven years later, that young black girl is now a 63-year-old student at The Newland Center for Adult Learning and Literacy at 1443 E. Genesee St. in Syracuse.
Alberta Whitaker has been receiving literacy lessons from retired educator Ann Derr for almost five years. With consistent lessons and Whitaker’s determination to improve her reading, she has improved her reading level from fourth grade to eighth grade.
Derr provides Whitaker with books to improve her comprehension and to influence her writing. Whitaker often is tasked with writing letters as part of her homework, and she said that learning word endings such as –ing, -ed and –s give her the most trouble in addition to when it is appropriate to use “when” instead of “went.”
“I’ll be at home tearing up the paper,” Whitaker said, mimicking the tearing with her hands as she grins through her frustration. Her copper, black and gray curled hair dances with the fluorescent light that is above both her and Derr, backlit from a window as they sit in an alcove at the center.
“I came today and still got it wrong,” Whitaker said one day this spring.
Derr eases Whitaker’s self-deprecating nature, noting that the core of her trouble lies in that words like “when” and “went” sound the same to her student.
Whitaker’s homework is very similar to workbooks and lessons students use in primary schools, with lines to fill in next to illustrations or instructions that require her to circle the correct answer. Whitaker doesn’t mind.
“I missed out on phonics and (grade)-level words,” she said of her early primary education in a then-newly desegregated South.
Although students in Syracuse aren’t having the same traumatic learning experience as Whitaker had, it is still a highly de jour segregated city — the effects hemorrhaging into the school system, constricting equality.
Black students and white students still see color in their schools — 60 years after the Brown Supreme Court decision and the “experiment” into which Whitaker was thrown.
CNY Fair Housing’s 2014 report on impediments to equality found that an average black student in the city of Syracuse was likely to attend schools that were 49 percent black and 26 percent white in 2010. Meanwhile, the average white student in Onondaga County was more likely to be a student at a school that was only 6 percent black and 88 percent white.
In the 2013-2014 school year, 75 percent of Syracuse City School District students were eligible for free or reduced lunch, and some 72 percent of the student body was made up of minorities.
In school districts in the suburbs such as West Genesee, Baldwinsville and Skaneateles, white students make up 90 percent and more of the student population, leaving their percentage of minority students in the single digits.
Syracuse City School District is the victor in only the discouraging category of high school dropouts. In the 2013-2014 school year, 522 SCSD students dropped out, with no data showing that they enrolled into any high school equivalency test.
In the same year, for the West Genesee, Baldwinsville and Skaneateles districts, dropouts added up to only 48 students — combined. (West Genesee had 30, Baldwinsville had 15 and Skaneateles had three.)
Linda Green has been the executive director of the Newland Learning Center since 2004. She also played a hand in matching Whitaker with her tutor, Derr.
Green said the Newland Learning Center serves students from all sides of town, but most of them come from the East Side and the North Side’s burgeoning immigrant population. However, Green said she does routinely receive calls from schools like Nottingham, which had a meager 60 percent graduation rate in the 2013-2014 school year and where 68 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
Green said her own mother dropped out of school due to bullying, but her mother always stressed the importance of education to Green and her two sisters.
“It’s that influence to say, ‘You’re going to go to school. You’re going to learn. You’re going to make something out of yourself. … That’s what’s needed with these young people,” she said.
Green noted that there aren’t stark contrasts in the racial composition of the students at The Newland Learning Center. “It’s typically been split pretty close between Caucasians and African-Americans, with 48 percent African-American,” she said.
The numbers about black students’ experience in local schools are about as disheartening as Whitaker’s public embarrassment when her co-workers found out she couldn’t read.
Whitaker, a retired Auburn school bus driver who worked 17 years, was at a meeting with her co-workers when her secret was uncovered. She and fellow bus drivers had meetings two to three times a year, and at one of them they passed around a paper and everyone took a turn to read. When it was Whitaker’s turn, she couldn’t get through the page.
“Everybody felt sorry for me. They went to the next person. I think I got up and walked out.”
Years before, Whitaker had guessed her way through a 120-question test to get the job.
“I was shocked,” she said, shaking her head in awe of her own feat. “That was nothing but the Lord.”
Whitaker’s Lord presented her with another challenge while she was on vacation from her Auburn job, and that’s what prompted her to learn to read better. She and her sister, Eloise Benjamin, had traveled to Greenville, South Carolina, to see evangelist Ron Carpenter. Whitaker was most excited to hear him speak, and she was thrilled to be in one of his classes.
“I thought for sure that he would just sit there and explain it and talk and all that. When he handed me the paper after the class, he said, ‘Now, we’re going to have a test.’ I wanted to get up and walk out. That’s what I really wanted to do,” she said.
Feeling embarrassed and wanting to run away was enough motivation for her to improve her literacy. Whitaker’s mother and sister had attended the Newland Learning Center, and they encouraged her to attend, too.
“I really wanted to learn how to read and educate myself since I was in school,” she said, exhaling her delight in her accomplishments. “I got discouraged because of the way I was treated.”
Whitaker, a mother of six, said she was often taken advantage of because of her lack of literacy. And she was sad that she couldn’t help her children with their schoolwork.
Deborah Benjamin, the oldest of Whitaker’s children, said she became aware as a pre-teen that her mother had reading difficulty.
“I kind of had to step in and help my mom with a lot of business,” the 42-year-old Auburn tax preparer said over the phone. “I took on a lot of the responsibility. It made me mature and strong because I didn’t have to take a lot of stuff from a lot of people.”
Benjamin said she has noticed more confidence in her mother since she started going to The Newland Learning Center.
“She’s a strong, beautiful woman,” Benjamin said. “She had six kids, and she made sure she was there for us as much as possible. She never gave up.”
Today, not giving up on education is a message Whitaker tries to pass to the young people she often sees hanging around the third-floor apartment she shares with her husband of 42 years at Centennial Garden Apartments on the South Side.
She said she tries to urge students she sees out of school to go back, counseling that education is important for a better job.
But data suggests Whitaker’s guidance often is ignored, the goals beyond reach, as city neighborhoods such as hers are cloaked in ominous outcomes.
Minorities make up 80 percent of her neighborhood, according to 2012 data for that Census tract. The average household income in Whitaker’s tract is just $23,917. The poverty rate is an alarming 45.2 percent. Moreover, both the educational opportunity and the economic opportunity in her area are rated “very low,” the absolute lowest ranking, according to measures that range across five possible scores in the CNY Fair Housing report.
Whitaker is not deterred or embarrassed by anything now, and the PEACE, Inc. employee and grandmother of over 35 grandchildren and great-grandchildren sees herself continuing to improve spiritually and educationally.
“It’s a better life ahead of me. The future. I (arose), and I did something about it,” she said. “Don’t sit there and idle your time away. Time is very important.”
–Article and photos by Lateshia Beachum, Newhouse Urban Affairs reporter
For more stories on Housing in Syracuse visit MyHousingMatters.com