2007 Youth Scholar — Khalil Johnson, S.V. Marshall High School, Lexington, Miss.

"The ACLU of MS recognizes Khalil as one of MS’s emerging leaders."
— Nsombi Lambright,
Executive Director,
ACLU of Mississippi
Learn about the other 2007 Youth Activist Scholarship winners > >

Khalil began his commitment to youth organizing in 1999 when he joined forces with Citizens for a Quality Education (CQE) in an effort to document illegal dumpsites near schools in Holmes County. Khalil worked with CQE to document all of the sites and submit a clean-up plan to the county board of supervisors. After a series of meetings with the board and community presentations, the board adopted the youths’ recommendations and implemented a waste management program.

Khalil has also worked hard to improve the school system in Holmes County. Because Holmes County is one of the poorest counties in the state and in the nation, the public schools are severely under-resourced. There is a lack of quality courses and insufficient and uncertified teachers; Khalil even had a physics class without a teacher. Khalil has worked to point out these problems and advocate for improvements despite confronting ridicule about his outspokenness. His outreach led to an audit of the school system’s problems, classroom discussions, and a state of emergency being declared in the school district. Khalil was interviewed in the local newspaper.

Khalil, with CQE, has also worked with the ACLU of Mississippi on two programs:  Teen Chat, which trains young people to conduct workshops on sex education, and Celebrating Our Queendom, a leadership development program for young women of color. Khalil is a peer educator with Teen Chat.

Khalil's Personal Essay:

My name is Kahlil Johnson. I am an eighteen year old senior at S.V. Marshall High School in Lexington, MS. I live in Holmes County which is one of the poorest counties in the United States. Holmes County is 78 percent African American and 41 percent of the population in the county live below the poverty level. with all of the problems in the county, I have become a vocal leader among the youth and adults in the community.

I am a youth coordinator with Nollie's Citizens for Quality Education, Inc (NCQE). NCQE is a leadership education, development, and training organization working to develop grassroots leaders and organizers to empower the African-American community in Holmes County. I work both in providing leadership and support of our youth organizing projects. This allows me opportunities to be a vocal leader and helps me to develop the leadership skills of other youth in the community.

For the past two years, I have participated with Southern Echo, Inc., a statewide and regional community-based leadership development and training organization, in demography training in an effort to enhance my ability to work inside of the community. I am a member of the Mississippi Demography Group with the expressed mission of training other community leaders and organizers in the Mississippi Delta in using the tools and skills of geographic imaging and Harvard Graphics to breakdown complex information.

We have found many teachers and other school district personnel did not understand all of the "jargon" or language used by the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) around the Subject Area Testing Program and Mississippi Curriculum Test. Therefore, a group of youth and I have taken the annual results of the Mississippi Curriculum Test data by individual schools in the Holmes County Public School District with help from people ham MDE and manipulated it into readable charts and graphs for parents, students, other community people and school officials to understand. Parents and students are now able to share and discuss this information with other parents and students and hold their local principal accountable to parents' demands for school improvement.

I attend S.V. Marshall High School outside of Tchula, Mississippi. There are about 700 students and 100% of the population is African American. The school has a lack of quality courses. We don't have enough teachers to have a variety of courses. We are only able to take the classes that are required to graduate. We have uncertified teachers teaching some of our core subjects like English and Physics. I am currently in a Physic's class that is without a teacher. We have been without a teacher since we came back from the Christmas break. We are doing definitions and questions out of the book daily; however, there is no explanation of the work. We have to do the best we can. The administration is still looking for a teacher but it is not going well. We have a hard time finding qualified teachers and retaining them inside of our district.

Our school changed administrators at the beginning of the 2006–2007 school year. Our current administrators have military backgrounds, but they are supportive of the students. They are fair but firm. Our previous administrator was a totally opposite of our new administrators. He thought that you get respect by inflicting afraid in the hearts of the students and teachers. He was cornering students in the hallway and pushing them against the walls. There were times when he would use profanity toward the teachers in front of the students. This would cause students to use inappropriate language around and toward teachers. Many students were constantly suspended while he was at the school. When he first arrived at the school, he was given a list of students that the teachers felt would be the trouble makers. Those students were immediately targeted by the administration. The administrator was not asked to come back at the end of the 2005–2006 school year. He was given the chance to appeal the Board of Education's decision. He had the support of most of our teachers and they rallied behind him at School Board meetings. They all felt that since the administrator had come to S.V. Marshall that he kept the halls free of students and made sure they were clean. However, no one stated the facts that test scores had not gone up, the school was at a Level 2, the suspension rate had gone up, and classroom instruction time was not being used wisely. His appealed failed and we have new administrators.

I was the focus of reticule in the school district in the spring of 2006. I was really vocal about all of the problems that were going on in the district for years. However it seem like my complaints were falling on deaf ear. In November 2005, I was able to talk, along with other students and parents, to the State Superintendent at the 2nd Annual Closing the Achievement Gap Conference at Mississippi Valley State University. The State Superintendent decided to look into the problems in the school district. When the audit was made public, I was interviewed by "The Clarion Ledger." My comments in the newspaper lead to a classroom discussion in my Advanced Placement Language and Composition class. There were mixed emotions but a majority of the emotions leaned toward I should have kept my mouth closed. I found safety in one of my teachers who told me to keep my head up and make sure that I did not give the personnel a reason to write me up. When the MDE staff came into the district to do an accreditation standards audit, the findings from the audit caused the Office of School Accreditation and Governor Barbour to declare a state of emergency in the district. The district was put under a conservator that came into the district to help the Superintendent with the day-to-day operation of the district. The school district has just been released from conservator-ship of the state in January 2007.

In partnership with Mississippi ACLU, I am now a member of their Peer-to-Peer education program. Holmes County has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the country. This program teaches students about reproductive health. In this program, I am able to talk to other students about sex, relationships, STD, and etc. Many students in the county do not understand the responsibilities that come with sex. I am helping to re-educate the students. Holmes County is apart of the Bible Belt and the only teaching that we get is about sex is a sin and practice abstinence. This would probably work if there were not televisions, music, magazines, books and other material that teach youth about sex. I have classmates and fiends that are teenage parents. I have to help them out with information that will benefit them and their child.

Living in the house with parents that are actively involved with the social justice movement has given me the opportunity to exercise my rights. Not all youth get this chance in this county, so I feel it is my responsibility to help enable other youth to become leaders. I believe that all youth have leadership qualities. I just wanted to be able to help bring those qualities out. It brings a sense of accomplishment to know that I have affected the life of one youth.

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