Students of color at Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High speak out as name change is considered

Students of color at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, are sharing stories of their school experiences — and what they say are racial inequities.

Several spoke Wednesday night at the first of what will be three virtual student forums this month.

The forums are part of a listening process as the Alexandria City School Board considers removing the name of former superintendent Thomas Chambliss Williams — a segregationist — from the school.

As the only Black student in an Advanced Placement class, Fina Owusu said she didn’t want to show her face on Zoom at the virtual start of the school year.

“I told my teacher, ‘I have some stuff going on at home so I don’t want to show my face’, but in reality, it was because I knew I was the only Black student, and me showing my face on camera … would cause a lot of things that I didn’t want to go through,” she said.

Owusu added that school field trips to Jamestown, Virginia, where English colonists arrived in 1607, have a profound impact on Black students.

“You’re taking us to a place where our ancestors had to suffer, and you call it a fun field trip,” she said.

Ashley Sanchez-Viafara had a similar experience to Owusu’s, as one of just a few students of color in her AP classes.

“I felt like I couldn’t really mess up or do anything wrong, because everyone was watching me,” she shared.

When it comes to the school system’s Talented and Gifted (TAG) Program, several students of color said watching so many white students get up from their desks and leave to attend separate TAG classes made them feel inferior.

One student said she was actually discouraged from applying for the program.

“If the message that we bring across to children of color, if that does not change anytime soon, the TAG Program no longer is a TAG Program, but it is a white student program,” said Karam Burjas. “Our society has told people of color, especially Black teenagers, male and female and gender-nonconforming, that they should not want to even test because they’re not good enough,” he added.

Alexandria City Schools superintendent Gregory Hutchings listened in on the forum, and praised what he called the students’ “candor” and “courage.”

“Students, I just have to tell you all I am so proud of each and every one of you to be able to speak your truth. It’s amazing,”  Hutchings said. “And for me to hear you all articulate your experiences and to be so raw about it, this is exactly what we wanted. We think it’s important for you all to have a voice. If you don’t have a voice, how are you going to make a difference?”

Two more virtual student forums will be held Oct. 13 and 20.

The process of considering a name change for the school is expected to last well into next year, and there’s a chance that the name will not be changed.

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