For those of you that are unaware, many cities in the South still fall under a federal desegregation orders as a result of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. This means we have to be evaluated by a federal judge consistently until we meet the court’s approval that we have tried to unify our school districts creating an equal opportunity for equal education no matter what your race. This has been a long and controversial journey in Huntsville and while there has been a lot of white flight from some of our school districts, I continually feel pride in the efforts that have been made and that are continuing being made as we work with the courts to diversify our districts.
Now, there are as many approaches to getting out from under these desegregation orders as there are school districts. Some have gotten their orders lifted with minimal effort, due to judges who maybe disagree about the point of the orders in the first place. One example is Gadsden, Alabama.
In 2000, a judge released the Gadsden, Alabama, school district from its desegregation order, even though court records show the district still operated a 90-percent black high school, hadn’t adopted any specific policies to address segregation, and had refused to consider removing the name of Ku Klux Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest from one of its schools. Among other things, the district had been ordered to develop a multicultural curriculum, hire more minority teachers, increase access to advanced courses for black students, and eliminate curriculum disparities between schools.
According to court records, U.S. District Court Judge William Acker said he had considered ordering the district to do more to comply with its court order, but decided against it because it would “only invite another dispute.” He said the district had “done a pretty good job of meeting the standards it agreed to.” He offered that the “level of cooperation, open mindedness and acceptance” in Gadsden “beats by a mile” the situations in Northern Ireland and Kosovo. Acker did not respond to an interview request.
Eventually, this judge’s decision was overturned in a court of appeals and a new agreement was reached in 2005 to release the school system. But, there’s no current oversight to that system while Huntsville is still being evaluated on a regular basis to meet the goals set before the district.
Another examples of an area that has struggled is Birmingham, Alabama. Nikole Hannah-Jones, who has been writing about segregation in our public schools for years, did an in-depth piece for the New York Times about the situation in Jefferson County. Basically, schools in that district – to avoid the rezoning that would need to be done to meet a the desegregation recommendations – seceded from the district all together to create their own. You can’t be forced to diversify if your entire district is white.
Secession supporters had argued that their tax dollars should go to educate their own children instead of children who lived outside their community, that their shared responsibility stretched no further than the arbitrary borders of their town, even though for the vast history of the state, black taxpayers paid for white schools that their own children could not attend. The activists did not acknowledge that the public schools in Gardendale do not belong to Gardendale. They are paid for by the tax dollars of the entire county, including the parents of black children bused in. Moreover, students from neighboring Mount Olive also attended Gardendale schools, but Gardendale residents voiced no concerns about these students leaching resources or looking different from the community that showed up at Gardendale’s sporting and church events. Instead, the conversations among Gardendale activists revolved around whether the town should annex Mount Olive so that its children would remain in the system. Mount Olive is 98 percent white.
These are two extreme examples of how different communities can respond and be evaluated under these orders. Let me tell you a little about how Huntsville has responded.
One thing that I think has been key to some of our success is that we have a Desegregation Advisory Committee (DAC) – a neutral party of parents and students that act as the go-between for the court and the community. Our federal judge – Judge Madeline Hughes Haikala – has commended the use of DAC and encouraged our community to use it as a resource. I’ve been to DAC meetings and they are an amazing group and they really do seem to understand how this order is a good thing for our city, but they also manage the concerns of the community well and I was really impressed with them. It’s a very thankless job, but they have been instrumental. A report from one of our recent updates said,
She [Judge Haikala] said the court knows there are many issues to be addressed, but she is hopeful of what she heard today. She became emotional discussing how glad she is to see both sides embracing the consent order and what it stands for, as long as each is transparent about the challenges that remain.
In the last few years we’ve built new buildings/facilities in majority-minority districts. This is an effort to make those districts more appealing to white people. That’s now specifically how they explain it, but I’m not going to waste time calling it something it’s not. There was some community unrest when some schools were shut down and one in particular that I don’t love, combining a middle school and high school to share the same facilities. But, for the most part, we now have a better equipped (in terms of facilities) school system today than we did several years ago.
We also rezoned a lot of the predominantly white districts. This has been met with expected conflict. Here is a quote about our district:
At predominantly white Blossomwood and Jones Valley elementaries, the district has seen a high number of students withdrawing from the schools. As part of the federal negotiations, both schools saw their zones expanded west of Memorial Parkway to increase student diversity.
“Blossomwood and Jones Valley are two of our most integrated elementary schools,” said Pape. The schools struggled through multiple changes to the student code of conduct over the past few years – four different codes without the past four years.
Hamilton said the feedback the DOJ has received indicated the climate at Blossomwood has stabilized, and that while Jones Valley initially better adapted to the new code of conduct, behavior issues have cropped up again more recently. The DOJ has requested more information “about the situation there.”
Y’all? That flight is NO JOKE. We didn’t realize how many people in our neighborhood went to private school until the August after we bought this house and one morning the local Catholic school put signs in the yards welcoming their students and our neighborhood was COVERED. I think there are more kids in my neighborhood in Catholic school than in public schools and I am pretty sure they’re not all Catholic. It’s really sad because our Principal has embraced the challenges and constantly talks to the school (and comes to the DAC meetings) about how this is so good for our community. He even introduced a point at one meeting that I hadn’t considered. He talked about how his school needs more counseling staff because we took poor students living in the housing projects and yanked them from their old school district with their neighborhood friends and dumped them in our affluent district and we expect them to just cope and be model students? He expressed the importance of extra counselors to help all of the students adapt to change because even adults misbehave when we’re stressed, why do we expect children to be different?
Anyway…my school and my principal is awesome. We are now only 75% white students and that’s closer in line to the city demographics than it was several years ago, and that means we’re moving in the right direction.
NOTE: To see your school’s demographics, check out Great Schools, but be careful which charts you look at. Some charts break down performance by race and it can be misinterpreted as the population. Look for the chart like I included above.
Here is the breakdown of our city’s racial distribution:
SIDENOTE: You should check out the demographics of your city at that website I linked on the map above. I was recently blown away to find how many cities and counties in our country have only 5-10% of the population classified as “non-white”. I discovered this when I looked up Portland, Oregon after a person from there was APPALLED that we were under a desegregation order. She was acting as though Portland was so much further advanced than Huntsville, Alabama because they had no such thing. Yeah? Well? Huntsville has 5 times the black population that Portland has so I decided not to let her self-righteousness get to me.
Our school also created more magnet programs inside some of our disadvantaged schools to lure white students into the district to diversify a predominantly black student population. My daughter goes to one of the new programs (she is only the second class to start in it) in a school where she – as a white student – is a minority. It requires a long bus ride (as opposed to our neighborhood school which is 1 mile away) but we have been 100% pleased with the program and the school. I hear that not all districts in the country manage their magnet programs well, but I feel like ours have been excellent and while there’s been changes in how students get “selected” into these programs, I feel like it’s a small – but important piece – of the big puzzle that is diversifying our schools.
Here’s where we come to the part where the rest of my community will disagree: I want us to stay with this federal desegregation order indefinitely. Forever. Permanently. Into infinity and beyond.
**Author dodges eggs being thrown at her from the crowds.**
I started thinking about this after our last glowing progress report from our judge. I thought, Yeah, but if we weren’t reporting to her, would we be making these efforts?
Because if our school district is not trying to diversify the entire system, we are going to resegregate ourselves. This has been proven in districts across the country were orders have been lifted decades ago.
The study used three measures of segregation that have been used by other researchers in the past. One of these measures, the dissimilarity index, measures the proportion of students of one racial group who would need to switch schools in order that all schools would have the same racial composition. Among the districts that were under court order in 1990, the white/black dissimilarity index averaged 25.5, meaning that, on average, a quarter of black (or white) students would have had to switch schools in these districts to bring the schools into racial balance. After being released from court oversight, the dissimilarity increased by an average of 6.4 points over a 10-year period, to an average of 31.9. Among elementary schools, the index grew by 9.8 points, to an average of 35.3.
“While the increase may not appear that large at first glance, it indicates a worrisome trend, as it is very large compared to recent trends in school segregation levels,” said Reardon. “School racial segregation levels have been relatively stable on average for the last several decades, rising modestly in some districts and declining in others. The average district released from court order, however, saw segregation levels grow faster than 90 percent of other school districts.”
Here’s where I speak to my own ugly laziness in terms of my progressive ideals.
Nikole Hannah-Jones was on Pod Save America last week. Her segment was at the end and you should listen to it if you are a white progressive who preaches about diversity and equality. She starts about the 1 hour, 20 minute mark I think. (Warning: Pod Save American is VERY liberal and they use a lot of curse words.) Here is a taste of what she discusses.
…for those of us whose children already have every advantage, the most important thing is keeping all of that advantage, and denying even a semblance of that advantage to those kids who have been disadvantaged generationally. I understand that most people are still going to make that choice to advantage their child. I see my work as saying, I’m going to at least force us to confront the hypocrisy of that. To hold up the mirror and acknowledge…we actually don’t want equality.
TRUE STORY: I don’t see me fighting to keep the schools diverse if we start to resegregate. I’m sure it won’t happen overnight, but I’m betting the city council – to appease their voting donors – will change the zoning the next chance they get. Magnet programs might not be as important when they’re not needed to shift our diversity numbers. Facilities might not be improved in the poorer districts where people don’t pay as high of property taxes. Over time, without oversight, we are just going to naturally resegregate again.
I need my school district to continue valuing diversity because I love my house and I love being by the trails and I love being 1 mile from downtown and I want my city to just do the work for me, to be honest. I want my city to try to draw school districts to make each district as diverse as possible. I want them to continue valuing programs that inspire diversity.
Here’s the thing, as Nikole Hanna-Jones discusses in the podcast I linked above, we give our children advantages at every turn. From the basics like never having to worry about the utility being turned off, to the advanced like regular trips to museums. We can pay for piano lessons or tutors. We have time and energy and money for travel and adventure.
Some kids – the ONLY advantage they get handed is in their schools. All kids show up to preschool wanting to learn, it’s our system that changes that by putting poor black kids in shitty schools.
This is the truth we must face: Middle class white kids come with their own oversight in the form of involved parents who are not emotionally beat down by systemic racism or overworked to trying to outrun poverty. Middle class white parents get pissed if there’s not enough textbooks in their classroom or if there’s no heat in a building, and they have the energy to act on it because they’ve not been shut down by generational racism.
We all want to give our kids every advantage we can, but we have to be careful that we’re not setting up their academic life for advantage by taking away advantage from others. And I’m not sure we will naturally choose to spread out the advantage if we’re not being examined by Judge Haikala for our efforts. I know the rest of the city looks forward to these orders being lifted, but I do not.