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Ensuring an equitable education for all students: Remembering the Little Rock Nine

crowd photo in front of a building

By Joni Wackwitz | August 30, 2019

In September 1957, nine courageous Black students, known as the “Little Rock Nine,” led the way to integrate Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas. Their determination in the face of opposition endures as a symbol of the movement to desegregate public education in the United States.

This past May, REL Southwest’s two-day Governing Board meeting began with a tour of the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. As added significance, the tour coincided with the 65th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation in public education in May 1954.

Three years later, in September 1957, Little Rock became a battleground in one of the nation’s early tests of school desegregation. Outside the high school, White opponents to integration formed a mob, harassing and yelling at the Little Rock Nine as they tried to enter. At the order of Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus, National Guard troops barred the students from entering the building. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was forced to send in federal troops to protect the Little Rock Nine and ensure they could attend school.

“After three full days inside Central, I know that integration is a much bigger word than I thought.”
— Melba Pattillo, member of the Little Rock Nine

In 1998, the U.S. Congress designated Little Rock Central High School as a National Historic Site. The work to ensure an equitable education for all students continues and plays an important role in REL Southwest’s mission.

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site Visitor Center

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site Visitor Center

“It was wonderful that the REL Southwest Governing Board tour of the Little Rock Central High School coincided with the anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. The tour highlighted for me the connections between education and civil rights and the critical work to promote opportunities and reduce inequalities in our field.”

— Michael Vaden-Kiernan, Ph.D.,
REL Southwest Director

peopel standing and talking

Arkansas Governing Board member Sarah McKenzie, Office for Education Policy, University of Arkansas

“The combination of the rich historical context provided by our tour guide and the contemporary context of the Central High students that passed us in the hall on their way to class was a powerful reminder that access to high-quality education is still not guaranteed for all students.”

— Sarah McKenzie, Ph. D.,
Arkansas Governing Board member

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site Visitor Center

From left: Michael Vaden Kiernan, REL Southwest director; Eric Flowers, Arkansas Department of Education and a member of the REL Southwest College and Career Readiness research partnership; Shannon Lasserre-Cortez and Brenda Arellano (obscured), REL Southwest researchers; Lynn Mellor, REL Southwest deputy director; site tour guide.

“I mentor a young man, now a college graduate, who attended Central and we have had conversations about how the influence of the Little Rock Nine impacted his educational journey as an African American. While I am well aware of what happed to those students back in 1957, to hear the stories during the tour was powerful. I will hold on to the emotions and memories that were created for me as an educator during my time on those grounds and inside Central High.”

— Eric Flowers,
Arkansas Department of Education

crowd photo shoot

From left: Shannon Lasserre-Cortez, Lynn Mellor, Jill Walston, Chris Boccanfuso (Institute of Education Sciences), Robyn Miller (Oklahoma Board member), Cary Cuiccio (front), Chris West (back; New Mexico Board member), Larry Friedman (American Institutes for Research), Gina Windle (Arkansas Board member), Michael Vaden-Kiernan (back), Janice Keizer (front), Brenda Arellano (front), Sarah McKenzie (back; Arkansas Board member), Lacy Wood, Eric Flowers (Arkansas Department of Education)

“Our visit to Little Rock Central High School was a powerful reminder that understanding our past is critical if we are to make a future where all students can access high-quality education. I’m proud of the work the REL Program is doing partnering with districts and states nationwide to improve educational opportunities and increase the diversity of the educator workforce.”

— Chris Boccanfuso, Ph. D.,
Institute of Education Sciences

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Author Information

joni Wackwitz

Joni Wackwitz

Senior Communications Specialist | REL Southwest

jwackwitz@air.org