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Feds seek to merge schools in 49-year-old desegregation case

In a Mississsippi town that still has all-black schools, a federal court case is revisiting the decades-old subjects of school segregation and desegregation.

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    In this May 13, 2015 photo, the landscaped front of East Side High School in Cleveland, Miss., could possibly undergo a name and mission change depending on the results of a five-day hearing in federal court in Jackson starting Monday. A judge could settle whether one Mississippi town's two middle schools and two high schools are merged into one each as part of a 49-year-old desegregation lawsuit.
    Rogelio V. Solis
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A federal judge must decide whether this Mississippi Delta college town's school system is an oasis of integration or a glaring example of continued segregation.

The court hearing opening Monday before U.S. District Judge Debra Brown in Greenville is something of a dinosaur. Court desegregation orders were common in the 1970s and 1980s, but have become much more unusual.

On the surface, what's at issue is balancing the white and black population at different schools. But the case is also about whether racism has eased, and whether whites will flee Cleveland if ordered to shift schools as they did in dozens of other Mississippi districts following court-ordered integration. Many of those all-black school districts are in towns with moribund economies and free-falling populations, and white city leaders fear the same fate for Cleveland. The district instead is pushing integration by choice, relying on magnet school programs.

"Cleveland is such a viable community," said Alderman Gary Gainspoletti. He said that he left nearby Clarksdale for the better prospects of Cleveland, tracing Clarksdale's decline to the failure of court-ordered integration, which led over time to a school district that's 97 percent black.

With 3,700 students, the Cleveland district is about 30 percent white and two thirds black, with the remaining 4 percent of students Asian or Hispanic. Students are distributed unevenly, though. At Cleveland High School and Margaret Green Junior High School, whites are more than 40 percent of students. But there are no white students at East Side High School or D.M. Smith Middle School, which were all-black by law before courts ordered integration.

That disparity is why the 49-year-old desegregation lawsuit roared back from dormancy in 2011. The Justice Department said school officials failed to meet their duties to integrate East Side and D.M. Smith, and a judge agreed in 2012. That judge abolished attendance lines and said parents and students could choose schools. The Justice Department appealed, saying such freedom-of-choice plans have proved ineffective, and the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a fresh plan.

The government's solution is simple, and like those imposed on many small southern systems — merge the two high schools and two junior high schools.

"The United States' proposed plan ... would result in the immediate and effective desegregation of the district's middle school and high school program for the first time in the district's more than century-long history," the government wrote in its proposal in January.

Some black residents support that position, saying a single high school would provide better education for all. Some also cite a history of perceived slights.

"For some reason, the students who attend Cleveland High think they're better than students at East Side High," said Leroy Byars, a longtime football coach and principal at East Side. Now retired, East Side's football field is named for him.

Mack Sanders, who has twin sons who will graduate from East Side this spring, also backs a single large high school.

"I want better opportunities for all children," said Sanders, himself an East Side graduate.

But Boston University Professor Christine Rossell, working for the district, estimates as many as half the 500 white middle school and high school students will leave if schools are consolidated. Rossell wrote that forced reassignments of large number of students "are not stable solutions to racial isolation" in heavily black school districts like Cleveland.

"School districts with that racial composition should never mandatorily reassign white students," she wrote.

The district has offered three plans, all of which keep two high schools, though two would merge the middle schools. The latest plan, unveiled only last week, would create a series of magnet academies within the two high schools, allowing each student to choose a destination. The district argues that letting people choose will help retain white students.

White flight is legally tricky. Federal courts have ruled judges can seek to craft plans that will hold onto as many white students as possible, but that school districts can't use it as a dodge to avoid integration.

A government expert, Columbia University Professor Amy Stuart Wells, argued that if district programs can attract white students to East Side, then attracting them to a consolidated high school shouldn't be a problem.

Shaw cites polling evidence showing white attitudes toward integration have become more favorable over time. She wrote that it's unrealistic to believe most white parents in Cleveland can afford private school, or can move 50 miles or more to the next nearest public district with a substantial white population.

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