Black in Arizona: Education

Winner of the 2023 Rocky Mountain Southwest Emmy® for Diversity/ Equity/ Inclusion Long Form Content

It was only 80 years ago–segregation and education disparities haunted the halls of Arizona schools. Take a step into the lives of Shirley Sims, Frederick H. Warren, Ph.D., Christina Lucas-Sheffield and Leslie Ford, M.Ed. as they discuss segregation, desegregation and their struggles as Black students in Arizona. Plus, discover disparities and challenges seen in schools today.

Christina Lucas-Sheffield

Christina Lucas-Sheffield moved to Arizona in 2012 through an organization called “Teach for America.” As Black students in Arizona continue to experience a large achievement gap, Lucas-Sheffield believes her purpose is to help close the education and equity gap for students, especially those of color. 

In the past, Lucas-Sheffield explains, “Black students in Arizona experienced an education very similar to Black students in the South,” citing Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Mesa as an example. “Data shows us that students who spent at least five years in desegregated schools had increased attendance rates, had improved academic achievement and also had improved graduation rates.”

Lucas-Sheffield dives into the struggle behind segregation and integration for Black students and staff as well as the specifics of how Black schools were placed in areas that could not benefit from the community.

Frederick H. Warren, Ph.D.

One Valley resident who grew up here has first-hand experience. Frederick H. Warren, Ph.D. attended Booker T. Washington Elementary School, where he was surrounded by boys and girls that looked just like him. 

Discrimination went beyond the classroom though and affected his daily life as a Black Arizonan. “We knew where we could not go,” Warren explains. “We lived in central Phoenix at a time when housing was segregated. You could not live in suburbs. You could be a student at Arizona State, but you could not live in Tempe.” 

Warren adds, “A knowledge of the past gives you a fundamental understanding and brings significance to things that have happened previously.”

Shirley Sims

Shirely Sims grew up in a public housing community between LaRue and Colorado Streets in Flagstaff, Arizona, in an area where the majority of her neighbors were African American. Sims was in segregated classrooms from first grade through junior high. She recalls feeling like her teachers never understood her because of her skin color.  

“I had no Black teachers at that time,” Sims explains. “There was no administrators there.” Sims adds, “I did not feel that those teachers understood us like where we were coming from.”

Lesley Ford, M.Ed.

From a young age, Leslie Ford, M.Ed. knew she was good with children and that teaching was her calling. As a Black teacher, she is typically in the minority, but because she was once a Black student herself, Ford understands the struggles students may face. 

“Things that are said in class maybe aren’t directly discriminating, but it makes the child feel some kind of way or it kind of deflates their bubble for the day,” Ford explains. “Once they are at school, they may feel deflated and feel like they can’t succeed. They don’t feel like school is relevant to them.” She adds this has a correlation of being “one reason why the dropout rate is high, higher for us.

Ford has been an advocate of diversity in and out of the classroom. Ford says, “I may be the only one that is speaking up for the diversity or the lack of diversity in the curriculum. No one else sees it. So I feel like I have to speak up for our children so that they see themselves when they’re learning.”


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