Black Experience At Woodward Academy​

Published by Fiifi Frimpong on

Black Experience At Woodward Academy

When 20-year-old Shay Estelle transferred to Woodward Academy, her arrival continued a trend she was very familiar with. Her enrollment at the Atlanta private school became her fourth time being the “new kid” in school. She attended Whitefield Academy until sixth grade and spent seventh grade at Killian Hill Christian School. Grades eight to 10 were at Woodward. She studied abroad for 11th grade then returned to Woodward to graduate high school.  

The transition was supposed to be smooth, judging from the school’s mission statement. Woodward prides themselves on being “Atlanta at its very best.” They also “intentionally bring together students from diverse backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences, creating a richer learning community and exceptional academic opportunities.”

Shay Estelle (left) speaking with a protester during a Juneteenth sit-out in Atlanta.
Avant-Youth | Judith Y. Kim

For Estelle and her Black classmates, the experiences at Woodward Academy did not align with what the school promised. Instead, they were met with racism, prejudice, ignorance and hate from students and faculty members. 

“I would overhear people saying ‘Blacks look like apes,’” Estelle said. “The ideas about Black kids came from [White students’] parents. I did not speak up back then, but I would have said something now.” 

Woodward Academy is a private pre-k through 12 school with two campuses enrolling over 2,500 students. Tuition for grades one through six cost $25,650 annually. Grades seven through 12 cost $29,950 annually.  

Past and present Black students and students of color began anonymously sharing their racists encounters on a student-run Instagram page publishing over 300 posts. One student, from the class of 2023, wrote he and his friend informed the school’s administrators they were called “monkeys.” No disciplinary actions were taken after the administrators were informed. 

Estelle considered herself a “quiet student” at Woodward. But even if she wished to be more social, she mentions there were not many classmates she could relate to. 

“There were really only two Black friend groups at the school,” Estelle said. 

She recalls the school employing over 50 professors, and only two were Black. Woodward Academy’s website shows the campus’ student population is 44.5% Caucasian and 29.9% African American from the past school year. 

The school introduced random drug testing in 2018. Estelle said the gym was filled with mostly Black students, despite being the minority on campus. 

Woodward students did not have a Black Student’s Union until 2018. The organization, which is common in other schools across the nation, was not granted until students argued it was essential and could be documented on their resumes like other students from different schools.

Shay Estelle being interviewed at her snack station during a Juneteenth protest in Atlanta.
Avant-Youth | Judith Y. Kim

Estelle remembers a planned student demonstration after the 2018 Parkland school shooting as a standout moment. It stood out because it felt like one of the only times students, Black or White, united for a common goal, she said. 

But on the morning of the walkout, some students scolded those that planned to walk out, saying that firearms are protected by the Second Amendment. The scolding continued after the demonstration concluded.

For students like Estelle, an outlet was needed at times when they felt like they needed support. That ally was the only Black guidance counselor on campus at the time.

“Ms. Dedeaux’s office would be the only safe place for Black students,” Estelle said.   

Ms. Dedeaux’s efforts for Black students did not go unnoticed. Parents gave the guidance counselor gift cards and Edible Arrangements baskets for Teacher’s Appreciation Day. 

Estelle, along with fellow classmates, met the late civil rights activist C.T. Vivian during her senior year of high school. She remembers spending time at his home in Cascade Heights, sipping tea and viewing his art collection. She described him as a sweet man with an incredible sense of humor.

During her visit, Vivian spoke about ideas to end racism in America. He spoke about sitting White people down in a room and reeducating them on African American history. Estelle said his goal was to “shock their world” on the history of his people and have them realize there is more to learn than the lessons taught in school.

For Estelle, attending Woodward taught her what White people thought about their Black counterparts. It opened her eyes to what exactly is the “Black experience,” and how it permeates every facet of life. 

She said the “Black experience” caused many students to undergo an identity crisis. But Estelle’s time at Woodward served as a learning experience, as she never doubted her identity as a Black woman.

Estelle’s experience at Woodward is not unique. Racism does not need to be explicit to be harmful, by any means; more often than not, it is subtle and implicit in its damaging nature. Eradicating the harm that our biases and prejudices cause takes time, and here is what we can do to help suppress racism.  

Education About Racism Starts In Schools

Similar to what C.T Vivian told Estelle during her visit, the entire history of racism has to be taught. We usually do not hear from school administrators that teaching racism is wrong, but they do not make teaching the topic a priority. The first step is for teachers, especially those that are White, to educate themselves on privilege, structural racism and unconscious biases that are formed against Blacks and people of color everyday. 

Speak With Friends About Racism

No one wants to be uncomfortable. Speaking about racism is a very uncomfortable topic for people, but you should not shy away from the discussion. Arrange in-person discussions with friends — Black or White — to talk about racism. 

In-person discussions are more effective than talks through social media and text because there are less distractions to deal with. Meeting up to talk also eliminates miscommunication and allows for quicker, real-time responses. 

 Boycott Schools Complicit With Racism

Students at Woodward and other institutions have alerted administrators about racism happening on campus. Student’s complaints are often ignored while the school continues to operate like nothing is wrong. Teachers, administrators, parents and students who are against racism must make a concerted effort to change the behaviors of a school’s decision makers.  

Sports reign supreme in America, especially here in the South. Football is not just a game in the South; it is a culture, a way of life. Friday night football games are weekly frenzies to look forward to during the season.  

Accumulating wins and championships is one way schools remain relevant. They tout their trophies and Division I recruits each year. In February, Woodward celebrated their 22 student athletes signing to play collegiate athletics. 20 of them signed to play at Division 1 schools.

 A school’s athletic program can be so successful, it could overshadow the racist activities occurring within the school. This enables administrators to continue to turn a blind eye whenever Black students report racism. 

It is impossible that the high-ranking faculty members at Woodward have never had the topic racism brought to them. The 317 posts on the Black At Woodward Instagram posts suggest otherwise. President Stuart GulleyAthletic Director Jose FernandezPrincipals Jonathan MerrillEric MitchellBeth MarienDee Koscik and Andy Phillips would all have to reassess their decision-making about ignoring racist accusations if other schools decided to blackball Woodward.

Nearby schools refusing to play Woodward Academy and other schools enabling racism may spark change. The decision would cause shockwaves. The school loses out on games, resulting in less wins and relevancy. High school prospects, looking to be recruited by colleges, would transfer to schools playing a full season. The schools could also be at-risk to lose sponsorships that support them. 

Estelle is now an individualized studies major at New York University, hoping to one day attend law school and infect positive changes for Black people. She also is considering joining Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism’s social journalism program.   

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Fiifi Frimpong

Fiifi Frimpong is a 23-year-old graduate student at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY in New York City. He is a multimedia journalist and hopes to specialize his work covering sports teams in America. He is usually searching for food recipes to prepare a meal, but always ends up ordering takeout from his favorite Mexican restaurant. In his free time, Frimpong enjoys attending New York Yankee games and hip-hop concerts.


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