Protesting school resegregation

Published: Saturday, January 17, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 16, 2004 at 11:37 p.m.

If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. returned for the annual celebration of his birthday Monday, who would the martyred civil rights leader see in a peaceful protest of the resegregation of Alachua County schools?

On that day, he could salute both African-American and white protesters marching down University Avenue in the annual Martin Luther King Jr. parade. Their signs would demand "Stop the closing of Prairie View school."

Among the marchers, he would see Prairie View teachers and parents; African American Ministerial Alliance clergy and their church members; NAACP members with their president, Dr. Michael Bowie; ACTION network members; eastside Gainesville residents and elected black officials.

The protesters charge that the School Board will use the closing of Prairie View as an excuse to build more schools on the west side. So far, the board has not announced any official decision on the fate of that school.

The organizers cite the recent history of 750 empty classrooms in eastside schools, while children from that area were bused to already overcrowded westside schools. They say the School Board has yielded to white westside parents.

In other words, Alachua County schools are joining the national return to segregation, this time in the name of neighborhood schools.

It's a safe bet that King also would agree, sadly, with the conclusions of Harvard University's Civil Rights Project: "Resegregation in American Schools."

"We are floating back toward an educational pattern that has never in the nation's history produced equal and successful schools. There is no good evidence that it will work now," the report says.

At the time of King's assassination in Memphis on April 4, 1968, African- American children were 23.4 percent of the students in majority white schools.

By 1988, their numbers had risen to 43.5 percent of the population of those schools. It was seen as a successful beginning to a major change.

During those early years of desegregation, the Harvard study says, black-white educational gaps had begun to shrink. It credits the strong support for multiracial schools from American presidents John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.

The tide turned under President Ronald Reagan and President Bush, the first. They strongly opposed multiracial schools and appointed hundreds of conservative judges. They brought the law closer to the original "separate but equal" system.

President Bill Clinton took no steps to halt this trend, and the increase in resegregation continued. He favored affirmative action to bring more minorities into colleges, but the study notes that if more minority students attend fewer competitive schools, they will not be ready to succeed in college.

The authors strongly link poverty and inferior schools, but other studies have shown that is not always true. A local example of an outstanding school despite poverty is Duval Elementary.

That school's grade jumped from an ``F'' to an ``A'' in one year. It took state financial aid, many volunteers, after-school teachers tutoring and an innovative music- and art-based curriculum, but it proved it can be done.

They stress the importance of leadership at all levels, from local school boards to state education departments to education officials at the federal level. The latter is lacking now, but basing decisions on the loudest community voices does not guarantee quality or fairness.

In spite of constant rhetoric about diversity, one obvious fact is ignored in school resegregation. The U.S. is becoming increasingly interracial.

Yet, as the study emphasizes, even the states (California, Texas) where minorities already outnumber whites have made no plans to accommodate the change.

In those two states, instead of building a multiracial community, the end of a white majority has led to attacks on Latinos' civil rights and eliminating affirmative action at the college level.

In Florida, whites are expected to be a minority somewhere in the 2040s. The governor has ended affirmative action in colleges and in state hiring.

Public school resegregation means African-American, Latino, Asian and Native American students will have little contact with non-white


Reversing resegregation of the schools will be difficult, the study

points out, "but the community that passively accepts this trend will face immense costs."

Students who learn only with others of the same race and similar economic backgrounds do not achieve as well as those in more diverse classes.

The coming political clashes among citizens with so little understanding of each other can only be imagined. Present interracial conflict pales in comparison.

To oppose these changes, the Harvard study calls for leadership by the president and education and Justice Department leaders and an aggressive defense of remaining court orders. This is not likely in the present political climate. However, some of the recommendations are possible at the local level.

Ironically, as school resegregation spreads, other changes are taking place that improve the chances of multiracial school success. In Gainesville, the University of Florida College of Education is changing the education of teaching students

As national experts agree, teachers need to be trained to deal with multicultural classes. This basic need has not been met in most education colleges in the 50 years since the Supreme Court ordered school desegregation "with all deliberate speed."

The college also collaborates with high-poverty, high-minority schools and has special institutes for both teachers and principals. The goal: a better understanding and better methods of teaching culturally different students.

Is it too late for interracial cooperation on education within the Gainesville school system?

Harriet Ludwig is a retired journalist who lives in Gainesville.

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