Tiambrya Jenkins was just 14 years old when she got into a fistfight that would change the course of her educational trajectory. Following an after-school scuffle between Jenkins and a white classmate, the two girls—both freshmen at Rome High School in Georgia—were transferred to an alternative school as punishment. Her white classmate was allowed to return to their original school after 90 days. But Jenkins spent the rest of the year at the transitional academy, a place she describes as more like prison than school. "It was really, really boring. You just sat there all day until the bell rang," she says. "They didn't teach us anything."
At the academy, minor missteps such as talking out of turn or violating the dress code were used as reasons to delay a student's return to high school, Jenkins says. Simple organizational mistakes like showing up late or forgetting class materials were seen as acts of defiance and could turn the clock back to zero on a student's 90 days at the transitional academy. After forgetting her notebook one day and suffering the consequences, Jenkins began stashing spares in an abandoned house across the street from the school, "just in case."
Two years later, Jenkins is back at her old high school, but she still feels hopelessly behind. Once a top math student, she'll be lucky to achieve a passing mark in advanced algebra this year. "I don't even know what we're learning," Jenkins says. "The teacher, she'll be teaching something, and I don't even know what it is. I just see a bunch of numbers on the board."