Volunteers from the Spirit Church, which holds services at McCluer South-Berkeley High School in Ferguson, Mo., welcome students at the start of school on Aug. 25, 2014.
Photo by Amanda Sakuma for MSNBC

Finally, Ferguson students return to school


FLORISSANT, Missouri — The first day of school at McCluer High began with hugs and high-fives on Monday, as religious groups and community members welcomed students who returned to their classrooms desperate for a sense of normalcy.

“I almost got tears because this is so very beautiful,” Maurtaisha Mayo, a senior at McCluer, said of the groups cheering on the students as she dabbed her ring finger under her eyes. McCluer is part of the Ferguson-Florissant school district, which serves students in both communities. 

Students here had to grow up a little bit faster in the last two weeks after Michael Brown, a former student at McCluer, was shot and killed by a white police officer in broad daylight on Aug. 9. Brown’s death, and the crowds of protests that ensued, delayed school for students for more than a week. Since classes were originally supposed to start on Aug. 14, students have had to set aside their new clothes and textbooks as the entire community waited for the unrest to subside.

“If this man Darren Wilson doesn’t get justice, I know it’ll be a very hard time for Ferguson,” 15-year-old Mayo said of Brown’s shooter.

Corinna Ousley stood in the parking lot, coaxing her son to pose for a picture up against the family’s car on his first day of high school. 

The school delays have hit parents like Ousley especially hard. For the parents and guardians, finding two extra weeks of childcare for their youngsters puts a strain on family’s finances. Acknowledging the gap, the school district offered free lunches for the kids who would ordinarily rely on schools to feed them during the day. And a fundraising drive kicked off by a North Carolina teacher has raised more than $150,000 in financial assistance to help feed the kids in Ferguson.

“This is important for kids to get some normalcy back.”
Steven Lawler, Principal of McCluer South-Berkely High School

“It really helped out that they offered the lunches,” Ousley said with a sigh of relief.

“It’s kind of scary. I still don’t know what to teach them,” Ousley said of her three kids. “Police are supposed to be in place to protect them.”

Across town, thousands flooded around the Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis where mourners gathered to honor the slain teen. A Cardinals baseball cap laid Brown’s closed casket as family members, residents and celebrities came to say their final goodbyes.

The schools in the district are bringing in counselors to help the students be able to process Brown’s death and the greater meaning it has had on the community. Students were out of school during the height of violence and unrest in the city, when armored vehicles lined the streets and flumes of tear gas filled the air on more nights than not.

“This is important for kids to get some normalcy back,” principal Steven Lawler said.

“We’re not going to go out of our way to make kids talk about it today,” he added, “but if they need to talk or need that support we’ll be here.”

More than 20 volunteers and members of Spirit Church here in Ferguson cheered on the sleepy-eyed school kids as they walked in through the door. Women waved pom-poms and held signs, singing the hit song “Happy” to break bashful smiles out of the teenaged kids. The community members are there greeting the children every year, Pastor Aeneas Williams said, but this year their presence takes on a greater significance.

“It has allowed us to create an environment where we just talk, but also it allows us to listen to our children,” Williams said.

This is Lawler’s first year as principal at McCluer after he served at the top of the district’s middle school. He was moving into high school just as many of his former students were, Lawler said. But the time off from school and the unrest in the streets along W. Florissant Ave., just a stone’s throw away from McCluer, had him pacing the street of the protest.

“I was looking for my kids to make sure they were safe,” he said. “I was worried about my kids.”