Boston city schools: once a battleground, now a model

Boston appears to be shedding its popular image as the site of the nation's most bitter battles over school desegregation.

Boston also has become a model for restoring quality classroom instruction and improving interracial and intercultural understanding, says US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity.

Judge Garrity, who ordered the desegregation of the city's schools in 1974, is quietly relinquishing direct control of the school system after eight turbulent years. He hopes to remove himself from the case before the end of December.

His 1974 decision was received with hostility - he says he has been harassed and picketed, and still receives ''hate mail.'' But he adds that he looks upon the past eight years with fondness.

''I'll miss the case,'' he says. ''It has been positively rewarding, an inspiring experience personally. And I have seen some marvelous leadership from parents and from the current (school board) administration.''

Garrity is writing a final court order detailing plans for the completion of Boston school desegregation. The order could be issued as soon as Dec. 31. Yet, he says, ''I hope that everyone involved will work out a consent decree based on working together to replace my court order to settle the case.''

He listed the basic requirements of a good settlement in a brief Nov. 20 valedictory to parents:

* Public schools require involvement of parents as well as teachers if the schools are to offer quality, desegregated education.

The judge described a pact between parents and the school board as ''the only one of its kind in the nation, an agreement preferable to a set of court orders.''

* Desegregation is ''not a numbers game'' of percentages of blacks, whites, and minorities in a school building. ''Equal educational opportunity for each child is the key,'' the judge said.

''Students should be able to attend school and study without fear in every school of the city, regardless of the racial makeup of the local community.''

* Freedom of choice may become ''acceptable'' in the future as an option in desegregation, Garrity says.

Traditionally, the free choice option has been opposed by civil rights groups. But it's being offered by Larry Johnson, an attorney for Boston parents who are offering a counterplan in anticipation of Garrity's final order. Garrity rejected the ''free choice plan'' Nov. 12, but called it ''a bright idea'' that would be approved if a court sees it as ''workable.'' He calls the city's magnet school program a form of free choice that attracts more than 30 percent of the Hub's students.

''Winding down does not mean abandoning the case,'' the judge told the parents. ''The court will retain its jurisdiction. I plan to remain in the background. I plan to urge the business and educational establishments of the city to do more than they have done in the past to help Boston schools.''

During an interview, Garrity played down harsh criticism of his ruling and the harassment he's encountered. Nor did he mention upheaval in the school system that brought the jailing of two school board members, the parade of seven superintendents in eight years, a drop in enrollment from more than 90,000 to 57 ,000; a decline in the number of white students from more than 60 percent of total enrollment to 30 percent; violence that culminated in 1979 with the shooting of a black athlete during a high school varsity football game, and a growing national image of Boston as a racist city.

Judge Garrity lauded the Boston School Committee (school board) for its ''progressive attitude'' in favor of quality schools. Since 1974 the school committee has changed from all white to three whites and two blacks in citywide at-large balloting. Test scores rose in Boston last year.

Judges and cities involved in other school desegregation cases around the nation have consulted with the judge and local school officials on creating workable plans of their own, he says. Ideas borrowed from Boston include:

* Involvement of the higher education, business, and cultural sectors in public school education. The judge assigned specific colleges, businesses, and cultural institutions to work directly with individual schools and school districts to improve the quality of the curriculum. He praised the private sector for signing the Boston Compact, an agreement to designate jobs for high school students and graduates.

* Use of educational experts in helping the court develop a policy for integrating schools. The judge used two, Robert Dentler and Marvin Scott, former dean and assistant dean of the Boston University School of Education, in his planning and supervisory activities.

* Development of magnet schools to soften the impact of desegregation. The magnet school idea is not new, but educators around the nation rate the Boston process a model for successful implementation.

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