The 1996 Profile in Courage Award was presented to Calhoun County, Georgia School Superintendent, Corkin F. Cherubini, Ed.D. for his courage in dismantling long-standing academic tracking practices that he believed amounted to educational apartheid. In 1992, Mr. Cherubini, who taught junior and senior English literature for 22 years in Calhoun County, was elected to a four-year term as superintendent of schools. Once in charge, he called attention to the district’s practice of academic tracking which Mr. Cherubini believed was created to circumvent desegregation and to establish a lower set of expectations for most black students. He invited the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and the Southeastern Desegregation Assistance Center to evaluate the legality of the tracking system. The OCR ultimately agreed that Calhoun County’s practices were in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Mr. Cherubini’s boldness in fighting the status quo inflamed many white parents and school administrators who did not want the in-school system of segregation to change. “What it’s going to take is some moral attitude-changing about the importance of what we’re doing, the necessity of what we’re doing, and the moral, ethical and legal obligations we have to all of our kids,” said Mr. Cherubini.
Dr. Corkin Cherubini taught junior and senior English literature for 22 years in Calhoun County, a two-school district with 1,200 students. Over time, he was increasingly disturbed by a new form of segregation he considered to be even more insidious than the old system of one-race schools. His selfless and courageous acts as superintendent to dismantle the status quo and end academic tracking in his school district serve as an example of the kind of educational leadership needed to guarantee equal access to quality education for children on any academic level.
In 1992, Dr. Cherubini was elected to a four-year term as superintendent of schools. Once in charge, he discovered that the district's "brutal" academic tracking system was even "more insidious than regular segregation" and set out to dismantle several of the district's practices that he believed amounted to a type of educational apartheid.
In Calhoun's four kindergarten classes, two had black students only, and two were largely white. Although integration came to the school district in 1970, white students in kindergarten, first grade, and second grade were "clustered" to maintain some white-majority classrooms, even though blacks make up about 70 percent of the student population.
In the third grade, Calhoun's students were tracked by perceived ability levels and placed in classes ranked A through D. Academic tracking is an attempt to group students according to educational ability. Dr. Cherubini and other opponents of academic tracking believe this system was created to circumvent desegregation and to establish a lower set of expectations for most black students.
The A and B classes were unofficially considered college preparatory and the C and D classes were considered vocational. Seventy-five percent of the black students were being channeled into the lower level classes, while the majority of white students were placed in the high ability classes. "Inevitably, the all-black classes of kindergarten became the lower level (C & D classes) by third and fourth grades," said Dr. Cherubini. Although some black students had successfully petitioned to move to a higher level, there was rarely any movement upward or downward once an assignment was made, regardless of actual ability.
His first act was to "clean up kindergarten" by proposing random sorting of children which would make the classes more balanced - an act that resulted in anonymous phone threats.
Facing increasingly heated opposition from the white community, Dr. Cherubini invited the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and the Southeastern Desegregation Assistance Center to evaluate the legality of the district's academic tracking practices and to make recommendations for alternative programs. Said Dr. Cherubini, "I saw the futility of one person trying to correct a long-standing tradition."
Dr. Cherubini also asked the federal agencies to investigate the school's basketball and football cheerleading squads, which had traditionally been all black and all white, respectively. "The white cheerleading squad received 30 times more money than the black cheerleaders," said Dr. Cherubini. "They could go to camp, learn all the new moves, have newer uniforms."
The OCR ultimately agreed that Calhoun County's practices were in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that black students were being placed in classes by race rather than by test scores, grades, or teacher evaluations. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars racial discrimination in federally financed education programs and prohibits tracking when grouping results in racially identifiable classes.
According to the Desegregation Assistance Center, alternative programs recommended to Calhoun include randomly selected mixed-race classes, ability grouping for specific subjects, and team teaching. Calhoun has abandoned the four-tier classification and the Education Department is sending teachers to conferences to learn how to end racial tracking, and is providing counseling. The investigators also ordered the integration of the cheerleading squads.
Dr. Cherubini's boldness in fighting academic tracking inflamed many white parents and school administrators who did not want the in-school system of segregation to change. Dr. Cherubini's family has received death threats, hate letters, and oral taunts from white parents and students. Anonymous fliers with racially antagonistic messages have been circulated throughout the community and a fabricated riot scare had hundreds of parents running to the schools to retrieve their children. Concerned Calhoun Citizens for Education filed a county injunction against Dr. Cherubini to have him recalled.
In addition, "white flight" from the district has increased the black student population from 70 percent to 80 percent since 1992. Dr. Cherubini estimates that at least half of the white students have left Calhoun County. There are virtually no white students left in the elementary schools and only two or three white students remain in each classroom.
Corkin F. Cherubini was born in Virginia and attended public schools in Massachusetts and New Jersey, graduating from Vineland High School in 1962. He received a Bachelor of Arts in English, history and aesthetics from Troy State University in 1967. In 1973, he received a Master of Education from the University of Virginia, and in 1989, he received a Doctor of Education from Auburn University. Dr. Cherubini also completed Post-Doctoral coursework in the areas of budgeting, financing, and facilities management, and participated in a two-year Governor’s School Leadership Institute.