Busing in Boston schools - 10 years after
Boston — ''I like riding the school bus,'' says Kelly Dudley of Roxbury, a senior at Brighton High School. ''I like where I'm going to school, and I'll be glad when school opens.''
Kelly began riding buses to school in September 1974, when she was in the third grade, after United States District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity ordered the city to integrate its schools and approved a busing plan to achieve it. Her twin sisters, Regina and Renita, who are Brighton High sophomores, never walked to the old neighborhood school in Mission Hill, a predominantly black community in Roxbury.
To Boston students like the Dudley girls, court-ordered busing is all they've ever known. But this academic year, which marks the 10th anniversary of busing, may be the last chapter in the long court case involving Judge Garrity.
Since June 21, 1974, when Garrity ordered the city to desegregate its schools , he has overseen the placement of students in schools to achieve racial balance. Recently the judge said he is willing to withdraw from his watchdog role ''by the end of the school year.''
When Garrity withdraws, full control over city schools will be returned to the Boston School Committee. Will that mean the end of school busing?
To ease parents' concerns that segregation would reappear in Boston schools, the judge has said he wants to be certain that the Boston School Committee and school administrators have a plan to ensure a desegregated school system and quality education for all students.
Robert R. Spillane, superintendent of Boston public schools, is the person who will be crafting that plan. He foresees an ''impending renaissance of our public schools. ... A wonderful 1984-'85 school year is a-coming.''
Dr. Spillane, the city's sixth superintendent since court-ordered desegregation began, ticks off reasons for his optimism.
''Boston schoolchildren have reached the national norm in (achievement) test scores. (Until last year, students had fallen below the national average.) School attendance is the highest in years. The atmosphere is inspiring. No racial battles. No school bus hassles. Quality education is our goal! Union contracts are behind us. No more talk about extra (police) security in our buildings. We can plan for our future - without Judge Garrity looking over our shoulders.''
Spillane, selected by the school committee three years ago to head a school system of 59,000 students, says he has engineered ''a teamwork effort to develop a plan for schools'' that is acceptable to the court, parents, and local officials.
Spillane has developed a long-range plan, subject to approval by the Boston School Committee, to present to the federal court in December. It calls for reorganizing the school system to reduce the number of districts from nine to four; for providing schoolwide standards for students in math, English, and reading; for requiring students to achieve specific academic levels before they pass from one grade to the next and before they graduate from high school; and for involving parents and teachers in major curriculum changes.
Some parents, however, have indicated dissatisfaction with some parts of this plan, especially the discipline code and the use of competency tests.
Hattie McGinnis has seen seven of her eight children finish school in the Boston system (one is still in school). She says the newly approved discipline code is ''too rigid.''
Mrs. McGinnis is urban education coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee, which works with parents of students in public schools. ''We find no basic fault with the new code of discipline, except for the attendance requirements,'' she says. ''Compulsory attendance regulations could cause more dropouts. A student may stop showing up to school after being absent beyond the ... maximum.''
In addition, she says she is not sure competency testing is ''best for children. Will teachers teach tests? Nearly half the students need remedial work. Can the city pay the costs?''
For now, Superintendent Spillane has planned to build a $35 million new Latin Academy; renovate Boston Latin School; reduce class size in elementary schools; add 37 staff members to high schools to improve students' reading skills; and increase the number of academic hours in middle schools.
''A different set of remedies is needed for 1984 than were required 10 years ago,'' Spillane says. In 1974, 66 percent of the children in Boston schools were white, and it was important to balance racial ratios in the classrooms, he says. But now that only 29 percent of the total student body is white, academic interests should be the key to assigning students to schools. ''Many black parents now want freedom of choice for their children,'' he says.
The phrase ''freedom of choice'' is the slogan of black parents who don't want the city to determine where their children will go to school. Instead, they want to select a school that best matches their childrens' academic interests (fine arts, science, business). Freedom of choice goes hand-in-hand with the concept of ''magnet'' schools.
Two years after busing began in Boston, the city decided to introduce magnet schools as a way to attract white children to voluntarily attend schools in minority communities. Magnet schools, which receive extra funds to beef up their academic specialties, today are the most popular schools in Boston.
Larry Johnson, attorney for plaintiffs in the continuing desegregation suit, has submitted a freedom-of-choice plan to Judge Garrity.
''I would like to see each school having its own specialty and each child having a choice of which school to attend,'' Mr. Johnson says. ''The success of magnet schools in desegregation in Boston shows what can happen if all schools have magnet programs. Compulsory assignments (of students to schools) would not be necessary with freedom of choice.''
Racial balance now exists in most Boston schools, but the initial steps to achieve desegregation attracted national headlines because of strong resistance to busing. In the all-white community of South Boston, school committee member Louise Day Hicks led the movement to keep ''neighborhood schools'' and prevent forced busing.
''Too many people recall the negatives of the past 10 years: the attack on a black man in front of City Hall led by a white boy who charged him with an American flag, the shooting down of a black player from Jamaica Plain High during a football game at Charlestown High, the hostility between blacks and whites,'' says Ruth Batson, a black activist who led early demonstrations for compulsory busing to achieve desegregation.
Desegregation has brought progress to Boston, says Mrs. Batson. ''Integration of the school system in a city that spewed protests against 'forced busing' is a feat we hardly expected so soon. In planning for our future we should take stock of the benefits of the past 10 years.''
She lists ''positive changes'' resulting from desegregation:
Integration. In addition to the student body, teachers and administrators were also integrated.
''In the 1960s Boston didn't have a black school principal, and hired only a few blacks as teachers and administrators,'' she says. Under the court orders, Boston now has 19 percent blacks at every level.
Parent councils. Parents today are more involved in what their children learn and do in school, she says.
Priority of education over politics. ''The school committee (now) takes a hard look at schools as centers of quality learning for students, rather than as a political football for those who get the spoils.'' The 13-member school committee (enlarged from five members last year) brings educational issues closer to people, she says.
Less racism in schools. ''Children of all ages are beginning to understand racism, but they are learning to face this and then turn to the basic task of meeting the need of getting a better education,'' she says.
''Our schools have reached stability,'' agrees Spillane.
''We have reached a level that we can expect to sustain, with children of the baby boom of a generation ago now going to school. High schools are losing students, but the lower grades are gaining. This means a steady population, good for planning of staff, faculty, and administrators.''
Now Spillane is concerned about another segment of the population leaving the system - affluent black people.
''If we lose our more affluent, middle-class blacks, and we have lost many of our whites, our school system could consist of students who have no place else to go. We can't afford to be the depository of merely the underprivileged. We are trying to keep more of those with ability in our system,'' he says.
This year for the first time, Kelly Dudley and her sisters will start school on the same day next Thursday, ''a far cry from the days when we had five different opening days to preserve the peace,'' says their mother, Hattie Dudley.
As Kelly gets ready for the opening day of school, she says she has no qualms about being bused into a predominantly white community. She often stays at school after hours for cheerleading practice and plans to run for president of the senior class.
Next year she wants to go to Northeastern University - within walking distance of her home.