Are American schools returning to segregation?

The Supreme Court launched the desegregation of schools with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Now, once diverse districts like Goldsboro, N.C., are reverting to segregation, concerning civil rights advocates.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Black and white residents of Goldsboro, N.C., mingle at a farmers’ market. Natasha Hopkins (r.), a new resident, says the school district told her that the city’s schools were predominantly black and many parents preferred to drive their children to suburban schools. School segregation is a rising concern in the US.
Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor
Goldsboro High School is the focus of a civil rights complaint charging inequity and racial isolation for the student body, now 99 percent black.

Fronted by tall, proud columns, Goldsboro High in North Carolina was once a flourishing school reflecting the city's 50-50 black-white mix. But the nearly 100-year-old school has verged on academic failure in recent years.

Particularly troubling to civil rights advocates, the student population has become racially and economically isolated – to the point that the high school is now a symbol of "resegregation" in America's classrooms.

In the central attendance zone for Wayne County's schools – a zone that includes Goldsboro High – 93 percent of the students are African-American, and 90 percent are low-income, according to county statistics. By contrast, another attendance zone in the county is 69 percent white, 41 percent low-income.

This past December, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) filed a civil rights complaint against the Wayne County Board of Education. Now, a federal investigation is under way to assess charges that the school board has maintained a segregated, high-poverty attendance area rife with educational inequities.

Earlier this month North Carolina Governor Beverly Purdue told members of the North Carolina Legislative Black Caucus that the state was "in a war" against school resegregation.

School-system officials blame both white and black flight for Goldsboro High School's educational slide.

Yet Wayne County is not an obvious setting for concerns about resegregation. Amid the pines and hog farms of eastern North Carolina, it's home to the racially diverse Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. Black and white residents of Goldsboro mingle easily as they pick up tomatoes and collards at a small farmers' market.

The lack of integration at the high school surprised the Rev. William Barber II when he moved here in the early 1990s.

"If you can't get it right in Goldsboro ... you can't get it right anywhere in the country," says Dr. Barber, president of the state chapter of the NAACP.

The case is a test of how aggressively the Obama administration will pursue such complaints. As such, it could resonate well beyond Goldsboro.

"I'm hopeful that ... other school [districts] in the state and potentially around the country would see that it's no longer acceptable to allow the students in these high-poverty, racially identifiable schools to get a lesser-quality education [than] their white, middle- or upper-class peers," says Mark Dorosin, an adjunct law professor at the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

Nationally, 39 percent of African-American students attend intensely segregated schools, where at least 90 percent are students of color, according to an analysis of 2007 data by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. And it's no longer simply a black-white issue: Forty percent of Latinos are in such schools as well.

In North Carolina, 18 percent of black students and 13 percent of Latino students attended these intensely segregated schools in 2008.

"Resegregation is a national trend [that has been building] for over a decade," says John C. Brittain, a law professor at the University of the District of Columbia.

Among the reasons: white families moving out of central cities or removing their children from the public schools there; school districts being released from court-ordered plans, or abandoning voluntary plans, to promote integration after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision; and a series of Supreme Court decisions since the early 1990s that have limited the tools districts can use for integration.

The most recent Supreme Court case came in 2007 and struck down integration plans in Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky. The court ruled 5 to 4 that districts could not assign students to schools solely on the basis of race, but it held that diversity was a compelling interest that could be pursued in other ways. While some districts have come up with alternatives using a variety of demographic factors, including family income, many have dropped their integration plans.

In Wake County, N.C., less than an hour's drive from Goldsboro, the school board recently voted to end an assignment plan based on socioeconomics, once seen as a national model.

As for the Wayne County case, investigators from the civil rights divisions of the US Education and Justice Departments visited Goldsboro last month for a compliance review related to Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination by entities that receive federal funds. Officials won't comment on the investigation.

Typically, school districts cooperate to come up with a remedy if there's a finding of discrimination. Absent such cooperation, the government could sue the district and ultimately withhold federal funds.

Broadly speaking, "we wouldn't want to see schools become increasingly segregated again," says Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights in the US Department of Education. "Diversity is important for lots of reasons. There's evidence that it improves achievement. Certainly [it helps students] to be prepared for this new and interconnected global marketplace.... Damage [is] caused ... when those tools for desegregation are taken away."

The issue of segregation doesn't necessarily resonate strongly with the public, however. Nearly 8 out of 10 Americans said they favor letting students go to their local school, even if it means most of the students would be the same race, according to an Associated Press/Ipsos Public Affairs poll in 2004.

Fletcher Cobb is a Goldsboro High alumnus who is now a janitor there. When he asked his niece, a current student, why she wasn't doing homework, she told him there aren't enough books for students to bring home. Other schools in the county have books that students can take home, a teacher told a local newspaper.

Other disparities, according to the complaint, include lower test scores; lower participation in advanced classes; higher suspension rates; and lower graduation rates (50 percent of Goldsboro High students graduated within four years in 2009, compared with 72 percent for the county schools as a whole).

"It should be mixed," says Goldsboro High junior Kaban Costello. A parent waiting to pick up a student after school says, "The kids need to be together, or else they're going to be always stuck in this framework of black and white."

School-system officials say they fund the Goldsboro High attendance zone just as well as the county's other schools, and there's nothing intentional about the racial makeup.

Wayne County is a low-wealth region trying to deal with a population drain from Goldsboro's 1940s-era downtown, says Ken Derksen, spokesman for the Wayne County Public Schools.

"The city of Goldsboro is comparable to a lot of cities around the nation looking at issues of black and white flight," Mr. Derksen says. "To turn around 30 years of flight overnight is not going to happen, and it's going to take a lot of effort on everybody's part."

One part of the civil rights complaint is that a waiver policy allows some families in the central attendance area to drive their children to schools in other zones. Out of 197 white students, 152 are shuttled to other schools. Among black students, 419 families have waivers, while about 2,000 stay in the central zone.

To improve opportunities for kids in the central attendance zone, officials three years ago started the Wayne School of Engineering on the Goldsboro High campus. Students from various zones attend the school through a lottery system. Thirty-seven percent of the pupils are from the central attendance area.

About 40 percent of the students at the engineering school are white. Students from the two schools mix on sports teams, but not in classes or at lunch. Many parents are scared away by rumors of weapons and violence at Goldsboro High, says Phylicia Nelson, a student at the engineering school.


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