Wilmington: a community pulls together to make busing work

At the inner-city Lewis School, second graders lined up for lunch heartily agree that they like their school, even though one adds that she doesn't much like the long bus trip to get here. About half of the class had ridden 30 to 45 minutes from their suburban homes that morning as part of one of the most extensive busing programs ever ordered to desegregate schools.

It is also one of the least-publicized programs because it has proceeded so smoothly. No burned buses, no angry marchers, and no violence greeted the Wilmington Metropolitan Busing Plan, which began a little more than two years ago under orders from a federal court.

Reporters on hand to cover the opening day found little trouble to report. Local leaders had already taped messages to broadcast over radio in the event of disruptions, but the messages were not needed.

Despite the fact that most opposed it, the majority of parents quietly accepted the plan, which merged the mostly black Wilmington schools with 10 suburban school districts. In its third year, the desegregation plan buses 20, 000 of a total 55,000 students.

The State of Delaware had fought busing in the courts for 22 years, but when its appeals finally ran out community leaders vowed to make the implementation as peaceful as possible. They had prepared the way in advance, sending representatives to Memphis and Louisville to find out what pitfalls to avoid, based on the experiences of those cities, and enlisting the help of virtually every civic group in the area.

"I don't think there's any doubt that our community got through busing with hardly a ripple," says Jeffrey Raffell, a sociologist at the University of Delaware who was closely involved with the desegregation effort. He organized regular breakfast meetings where parents, officials, police, and others could talk things out, especially when feelings were so tense that some of them could not be seen talking together in any other setting.

Even antibusing groups cooperated, in a way. They never advocated violence. "We don't even belive in demonstrations," says William D. D'onofrio, a busing foe who now heads a national antibusing coalition, the National Association for Neighborhood Schools.

Mr. D'onofrio calls the city-suburb busing plan an "American tragedy" and blames it for a "massive" middle-class withdrawal from public schools around Wilmington, for a breakdown in school discipline, and for a general rejection of the schools by their community. As evidence, he points to a recent vote for additional school funds, which lost by a 10-to-1 margin.

No one is saying that installing the metropolitan-wide desegregation plan, one of only a few city-suburban programs in the nation, has been easy. But by some measures it has succeeded.

Black and white students now are going to school together. Every school in the district has a white majority. And while many white parents have removed their children from the public schools in the past decade, the count of whites stands at 78 percent of the total student population, down only about four points from 1977.

In academic terms, school officials point to the latest standardized test scores, which show students here outperforming the national average. They have no comparable test scores for pre-desegregation days, but at least this year's tests show improvement over last year.

For individuals, the Wilmington Metropolitan Busing Plan has changed their lives in different ways.

"I've believed in civil rights since I can remember, but I never thought that I'd be involved in it," says Dorothy Ross, a mother of three from nearby Newark.

For her, busing has meant spending more time driving around because each of her children now goes to a different school. Under the plan, students spend three years in a city school and nine in suburban schools. So every three years they move to a different school.

Mrs. Ross's youngest rides a bus half an hour each way to the school in Wilmington where she will attend grades four, five, and six. A few years ago she would have walked to an elementary school near her home.

Mrs. Ross, who served on the board of her suburban school district before it was merged with the city, says her "rose-colored glasses" have been taken off because of desegregation. but she still says, "I want it to work." She and a number of other Newark parents decided to make the best of the situation.They adopted the inner-city school assigned to them just as they had their neighborhood schools. They moved into the city school as volunteers, came to meetings, and talked with the principal.

"It's in a poor location, but the education is good," she says of the city school. She particularly praises the principal, Phillip M. Reed, who she says responded well to the hordes of suburban parents wanting to check out the school after the busing order. "He made us all feel good," she says. "He's even been out to visit the [suburban] feeder schools."

For some suburban parents, the experience with inner-city schools was a disaster, Mrs. Ross says, and some have moved their children to private schools. But overall, "We've lost some things, but I think we've gained some things," she says.

Arthur Boswell, a black parent and executive director of the People's Settlement House, a social service agency in Wilmington, says the black community remains divided over busing. "Black parents are bearing the burden of busing nine years out of 12," he points out. "It doesn't sound like equity to the parents whose kids wait on a cold, dark corner for the bus at 6:45 a.m."

A survey of black parents taken before busing began showed 40 percent opposed , 40 percent in favor, and the rest unsure. A year after busing began a new survey showed 50 percent opposed.

On the positive side, Mr. Boswell cites and relative peace among the black and white students (although one high school was forced to close for a week following a racial incident), and good achievement test scores.

However, he says that his top worries are the high rate of suspensions of black students, which he attributes to "insensitive teachers and administrators, " and the clustering of black students is remedial "special education" classes.

At suburban Brandywine High School, principal Wayne Von Stetten deals with those problems almost daily. A school with high academic goals that has traditionally aimed to send its students to Harvard and Yale, it has changed from almost all white to 20 percent black.

Mr. Von Setten had just suspended a city student accused of stealing $40 from another student. He said he expected to receive a call from a suburban parent blaming the school for allowing the theft to occur. And he could also expect a visit from the inner-city "advocate," a professional representative whose job is to defend black students.

When asked if the schools will see good results from desegregation, Von Stetten hesitated. "We have to say that because of the huge sums of money [that have been spent]," he said. "I would say, yes, it is ging to work eventually. Not dramaticaly. Not this year or next. The youngsters who'll benefit the most are probably in our elementary grades at the present time."

He predicted that when those inner-city youngsters reach Brandywine High School, many will have the background for subjects such as calculus, honors physics, and fourth- year German.

"I'm positive as I sit here," he said. "I know we'll have black students in our honors program and competing for entry into Ivy League schools."

Meanwhile, his students are going through the painful first efforts of learning to get along with each other. Said a re-haired suburban senior of desegregation: "They should have started with grades one, two, and three." By high school the students are too set in their ways, he said. "I know I have been."

Added another white student of the black students: "They'd rather be downtown , where they belong. And we'd rather have them downtown."

A black student from Wilmington says she is unhappy at the suburban school. "I know I'll be glad when I'm out," she says. She concedes that blacks and whites at Brandywine fight less often than they once did and that she has made a few white friends. But those friendships don't always work, she says, because "when they get around their other friends, they won't speak [to blacks]. They walk past you and act like they don't know you."

And so the hope here in Wilmington turns on the younger grades, like those at the Lewis School in its somewhat dilapidated section of the city. As the youngsters pile into the lunchroom, they pick their tables, not according to black and white, but rather in the time- honored custom -- boys sitting with boys and girls with girls.

Principal Reed, who saw his school turn from about 80 percent black to only 15 percent black, pauses when asked about the possible effects of busing.

"From what I understand about desegregation, it's supposed to generate appreciation for each other's differences and the realization that, in many ways , we're all alike," he says.

"As I watch the boys and girls, I see that happening more and more."

Next: The Los Ange les experience

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