White teachers flee black schools

Some see exodus in South as a new form of segregation.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Certain neighborhoods in the South are weathering a new version of an old phenomenon: white flight.

Across the region, white, often middle-class, teachers are leaving schools dominated by African-Americans almost as fast as they arrive. Many are moving to school districts with smaller populations of blacks, new studies show.

Critics see the exodus as a new form of segregation, encouraged by court rulings that no longer enforce racial diversity. But teachers say that cultural and economic barriers, not racial ones, are fueling the trend in a region where more than 40 percent of the public school population is black.

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At the very least, the growing shortage of white educators is creating a dilemma for black schools from Picayune County, Miss., to Decatur, Ga. Right now, there aren't enough black teachers to go around, either. "All the stars are aligned for white teachers to leave," says Gary Orfield, an education professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. "It's a combination of poverty and racial segregation, added to cultural differences, that all makes it tough for suburban teachers to figure out the black and Latino cultures."

In Georgia, the trend is as pronounced as anywhere: A new study from Georgia State University (GSU) in Atlanta says that 32 percent of white elementary school teachers left their posts at predominantly black schools in 2001 - up from 18 percent in 1995. Moreover, they left well-to-do black districts at about the same rate as poorer ones.

Recent studies in Texas, California, and North Carolina reach the same conclusion. The effect, critics say, is that black students aren't getting an equal shot at good schooling. The reason: As white teachers leave, many blacks are fleeing the profession, too, leaving a dearth of qualified teachers of any kind. "As a result, we have lots of classes being taught by substitute teachers, who don't usually have degrees and aren't licensed to teach anything," says Tom Clark, a former superintendent of the Picayune County, Miss., schools.

Other factors are contributing to the exodus. A recent school building boom in Georgia created more job options for teachers - many of whom wanted to work closer to their own neighborhoods. What's more, many qualified teachers tend to leave lower-performing schools at faster rates.

But the authors of a new Harvard study on the "resegregation" of the South believe the flight is rooted in something more ominous. They see it an inevitable result of a backsliding society where white and black students increasingly go to different schools. They trace that divide, in part, to recent federal court decisions outlawing civil rights-era protections, such as busing and affirmative action in college admissions. What's more, fewer and fewer Southern schools are under court order to end discrimination.

As diversity diminishes, the problems become exacerbated. Mr. Orfield notes that white teachers who grew up in integrated schools have less trouble adjusting to crowded hallways where most of the kids are black. Even practical complaints can mask deeper motivations. "It's race, not test scores, not income, that's the motivating factor, says David Sjoquist, a professor involved with the GSU study. "If there's a concern about safety simply because there are black people in the neighborhood, sociologists would say that's a form of racism."

STILL, not everyone agrees that faulty motives are behind many of the white teachers' decisions to leave. In many cases, it's more a matter of general frustration and unhappiness. "I don't think that the majority of these teachers [who leave] are racist," says Mike Worthington, the white principal of predominantly black Avondale High School in suburban Atlanta.

Cultural differences certainly play a part. Mr. Worthington notes that many of the white teachers who come to his school from white high schools and predominantly white colleges have trouble adjusting to the different speech patterns and classroom characteristics at Avondale. Among other things, he would like to see new teachers learn the Creole that many blacks here speak.

"I see my kids as bilingual," says Worthington, who received his cross-cultural training as a high school football coach. "There's a language that they use within their own culture that may not be used in the majority culture at large. My teachers should know that, so they can understand what's going on and allow it to be acceptable."

Today, there are signs that colleges are trying to address the exodus as a product of teaching methods rather than latent racism. "[White flight] is a major subject of debate in the literature right now," says Christine Sleeter, an education professor at California State University at Monterey Bay.

North Carolina Central University in Durham now offers a course in "dealing with classroom diversity." At one teachers' college in Milwaukee, some interns are required to "immerse" themselves in the neighborhood where they'll be working before taking over a lectern. "White teachers need all the help they can get," says Kian Brown, a black teacher at Durham's Y.E. Smith Elementary School.

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