Though the race of a student shouldn’t matter at any public school in America in 2011, it matters to this story that former McGehee High School student Kymberly Wimberly is black.
Back in May, even though officials at her high school determined Wimberly’s grade point average was the highest in her graduating class, and even though the superintendent of schools actually informed her she would be named valedictorian — the first black valedictorian at the school since 1989; a dream she’d been working for since grade school, and which she had fought to keep after finding out she was pregnant in her junior year — the high school principal came back a day after informing Wimberly’s mother of the honor and told her they’d been mistaken. Another calculation had been made, taking into account the fact that the second-place student, a white student, had taken exactly one-half credit hour more than Wimberly. Given that, officials told her, Wimberly would have to share the honor with a white co-valedictorian.
With the help of Little Rock civil rights attorney John Walker, Wimberly filed suit in federal court on July 21, alleging that there was a pattern of racial favoritism at McGehee Schools, with teachers pushing whites into advanced-placement courses while blacks —who make up 46 percent of the student body — were encouraged to take “regular” classes. School officials, the lawsuit alleges, had taken away Wimberly’s status as sole valedictorian because she was “an African-American young mother.” The lawsuit seeks a declaratory judgment naming Wimberly the sole valedictorian of her class, $75,000 in punitive damages, and “other relief to which she may be entitled.” School officials, meanwhile, say the co-valedictorian status was solely academic and had nothing to do with race.
Bridgette Frazier is an attorney working with John Walker’s firm on the Wimberly lawsuit. She said that attorneys for Wimberly tried to resolve the issue without filing suit in federal court. She said she finds Wimberly’s experience disappointing.
“I can’t believe this still happens in Arkansas,” Frazier said. “I can’t tell you how many people have called up our office after this story broke and said, ‘that happened to me, or that happened to my niece.’ “
Frazier said attorneys have since uncovered similar cases of disenfranchised black scholars in several places around the state. She doesn’t buy McGehee Schools’ explanation of why Wimberly wasn’t the sole valedictorian, and believes a rule allowing for a student with more credit hours to share the honor with a student with a higher GPA isn’t reasonable. “Her transcript says that she’s number one,” Frazier said. “They pointed to this rule, but the counselor is familiar with this rule, and the counselor is the one that always decides the GPA. With this rule in mind, the counselor declared Kymberly first. And then, a day later, the principal goes to the superintendent and somehow gets it changed.”
Thomas Gathen is the superintendent of McGehee School District. Gathen — along with McGehee Schools as a whole and McGehee High School principal Darrell Thompson — was named in Wimberly’s lawsuit. Gathen denies that Wimberly being made co-valedictorian was due to her race. He said the reason it came down to one-half credit hour was because Wimberly’s GPA was less that 1/100th of a point higher than the next-highest GPA. Wimberly’s GPA was 4.0943.
Gathen said there was a similar situation in 2006 in which four white students there were named co-valedictorians, due to “equivalent” grades. He said that he didn’t know if he could adequately explain the GPA calculation method in layman’s terms. “If two or more students have similar or equivalent grades,” he said, “then you don’t penalize one student because that student has more courses or credits than the other. … By dividing the smaller units of credit into the points, you come up with a slightly different grade point average.”
The GPA computation method used in determining the 2011 valedictorian in McGehee — and, Gathen says, “about 75 percent of the school districts in the state of Arkansas —was also employed in the 2006 case.
“We had four valedictorians in 2006 following this same rule,” Gather said. “It just so happens that these four were not African-American. They were all of the same race, and as a result of that, there was no contention and no one contended it was racially motivated.”
When Arkansas Times talked to Kymberly Wimberly, she was boxing up things to move to the dorms at UAPB, where she plans to study biology with the hope of eventually becoming a doctor. It says something about her that her first thought is to make sure people know that her hometown isn’t a bad place. “Just because this situation happened with the administration — or a few people [in the administration] — I’d hate for that to reflect on the entire town as a whole. I don’t want their decision to make everyone in McGehee look like an awful person.”
Wimberly said that from an early age, she was taught that education was important. Her grandmother, who passed away in 2009, would make her count coins as a child, getting her ready for math. By the time she reached high school, the drive to succeed was ingrained in her. She was ranked first in her class in her freshman and sophomore years.
Wimberly said that she often noticed white students and black students were treated differently at McGehee High School. “One kid may do something, and he’s black, and he’s suspended for three days,” she said. “A white kid may do [the same thing], and he kind of gets a tap on the wrist and goes to in-school suspension.”
Some teachers also treated blacks and white different academically, she said. In one instance, while waiting in line to get a packet to enroll in an advanced-placement course, Wimberly heard a white teacher tell a white student, “Honey, you’ll be OK,” when the student expressed concern that she might have trouble passing the course. When Wimberly got to the head of the line, however, the teacher had a different tune.
“I walked up to get my packet, and she’d run out,” Wimberly said. “She said, ‘Well, are you sure you’re going to take my class? Because, like I said, Kym, it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be a hard class’ … Do I feel like that was because I was black and that was a discouragement to take her class? Yes, I do. By all means, I do.”
The summer before her junior year, Wimberly found out she was pregnant. Her baby is now 19 months old. Her initial response to the news, she said, was that it was the end of her academic life.
“Every teen mom’s response, I think, is that it’s the end of the world,” she said. “But, like I said, with God, with my family, with my church family, with my friends, it was easier for me to cope with it. They let me know: It’s not the end of the world. You’re not the first teen mom. You’ll be okay.”
That year, Wimberly made the only B of her high school career, which she said caused her to cry off and on for a week. Because of that, her GPA fell to third in the class ranks. Wimberly said she buckled down and tried even harder. “My junior year was the hardest I’ve ever worked,” she said. “I had a lot more to prove now. I wasn’t just doing it for me.”
Eventually, Wimberly was able to pull her GPA back up to number one in her class.
On Tuesday of the week of graduation, superintendent Gathen approached Wimberly’s mother — who works at McGehee Schools — and told her Wimberly would be named valedictorian. The next day, principal Darrell Thompson came to Wimberly’s mother and told her Wimberly would have to share the honor. While Wimberly said she was “devastated” by the news, she handled it with grace, even sitting down to talk with her co-valedictorian to let her know she wasn’t mad about what had happened, and re-writing her speech to acknowledge the girl who shared the stage with her. After graduation, Wimberly said her family held a meeting to decide how to proceed. Soon after, Wimberly’s father called attorney John Walker.
Wimberly said she’s willing to pursue the case as long as it takes. It’s about more than a title, she said. “What if the president had to be co-president?” she said. “That’s just a title.”
Given that she had the highest GPA, Wimberly said that it was her right to be recognized as the sole valedictorian of her school. She believes that was taken away from her because of her race. Just because a person has the power to do that, she said, doesn’t mean they should.
“This is not the first time something like this has happened to a black person in McGehee,” Wimberly said. “With me being the first to actually stand up and say, ‘This isn’t fair, we don’t want to take it anymore,’ that’s sending a message out. A lot of people are backing me up because they’re sick of taking it too. It’s my right to have equality, so why can’t I have it?”