They're in the same school, yet in different worlds
Published: Friday, September 13, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 12, 2013 at 7:27 p.m.
Forty-three years have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of America's schools and outlawed attempts to undermine or slow it.
Today, the Alachua County public school district is considered unitary by the courts, meaning integration was successful and busing programs no longer are necessary to maintain diversity in schools.
As the school district gradually shifted to a neighborhood model, in which students attend the school closest to their homes, the demographics of some schools started to shift.
Magnet programs, which pull students from all over the district for a particular course of study, have helped reintegrate high schools and middle schools on the surface level.
But students and parents say the two populations within one school don't always mix, an issue school officials acknowledge and say they are trying to address.
According to information provided by the district, 47 percent of students in Alachua County's public schools are white, 34 percent are black, 7 percent are Hispanic, 7 percent are multiracial, and 5 percent are Asian.
Those numbers aren't reflected at every school — not naturally, at least.
Gainesville is still somewhat segregated from east to west, with the east side of town leaning predominantly black and less affluent than neighborhoods on the west side of town.
About five years ago, the district floated the idea of reorganizing the high schools to alleviate overcrowding at Buchholz, said Karen Clarke, assistant superintendent for curriculum, instructional services and student support. Gainesville High, for instance, was under capacity at the time.
The community was not supportive of the idea.
But keeping the neighborhood model of designating which schools students attend creates some unintentional segregation, which magnet programs have done only so much to fix.
School Board chairwoman and former Eastside High School teacher Eileen Roy was on a task force in 2003 that debated criteria for zoning schools.
The major point of contention was whether diversity should come before efficiency.
"I was well aware of what would happen — it's common sense — if we had neighborhood schools," she said, explaining that schools would be effectively segregated between the poorer east side of Gainesville and the more affluent west side.
Although she and a few others argued in favor of keeping as much diversity as possible, several other members of the committee said in a busing program, black students are always bused to the wealthier schools, and that it was unfair for that population to bear the brunt of integration.
Since then, Roy said, courts have not upheld busing for racial or socioeconomic balance. Families do have the choice to seek magnet programs and other programs that would take their children to schools outside their neighborhoods.
"It doesn't seem like there's any appetite for changing the situation," Roy said, adding that there is, indeed, a problem.
"I don't know what the answer is to the fact that African-American kids and white kids are not mixing," she said.
The International Baccalaureate program at Eastside High School was Gainesville's first magnet program, graduating its first class in 1987.
Magnets have since popped up at every high school in the county, with Howard Bishop and Lincoln middle schools following suit in the mid-1990s and Oak View Middle in 2009.
"It was very heterogeneously put together in the '80s," in the years after Florida's court-ordered integration of public schools, said Don Lewis, who has been principal of Lincoln Middle School for 10 years and has worked in the district for about three decades.
As the only black high school in the district, Lincoln High was closed in 1970 and its students sent to Gainesville High to force integration. Lincoln reopened as a middle school in 1973, and students were bused from all over the district to ensure schools were properly integrated.
A U.S. district court declared Alachua County unitary several years later, and over the next 20 years gradually abandoned cross-county busing in favor of allowing students to attend the schools in their own neighborhoods.
When a housing boom on the west side of town made it necessary in the mid-1990s to build another school — Kanapaha Middle — "that took a big chunk of kids away from our school," said Lincoln's Lewis.
Lincoln has an academic magnet program called the Lyceum, which admits students based on high GPAs and test scores. As with all the magnet programs in the district, race is not considered as part of the admissions process.
The student body in the mainstream program at Lincoln is about 96 to 97 percent black, Lewis said. In the magnet program, it's about 9 percent black.
By comparison, 47 percent of students in the magnet program are white, 32 percent are Asian, 7 percent are multiracial, 4 percent are Hispanic and 1 percent is Native American.
At a minimum, Lewis said, those demographics create the perception of segregation in the school.
Wanza Wakeley, assistant principal for administration at Lincoln Middle, said teachers in the mainstream and magnet programs practice cooperative learning so their students can work together throughout the year.
"It's not like a one-time, special-event occasion," she said. "It's a part of the curriculum."
Amanda Morgan is an eighth-grader in the mainstream program at Lincoln Middle.
She has grown up and gone to public schools on the east side of Gainesville and has often been the only white student in her class.
"It shouldn't be like that," said her mother, Cynthia Ford.
Ford went to public school in West Palm Beach in the 1980s, when students were bused across town to achieve better integration, she said. Ford said she and her friends had about a 45-minute bus ride to school, and that's just the way it was.
"That way, there was a good mixture of kids," she said. "So I don't know why, here in Alachua County, they don't do it."
Amanda, 14, said the magnet and mainstream programs come together sometimes, but other times she notices how separate they are.
For example, she said, the school recently had a discipline assembly that Lyceum students didn't have to attend.
Curtis Smith, 13, started out in the mainstream program at Lincoln and entered the Lyceum after sixth grade. He's now in eighth grade, and one of only three black boys in his grade in the magnet, he said.
A lot of students in the magnet come from west Gainesville, and they tend to stick together because they know each other from elementary school, Curtis said.
That contributes to the segregation of the school, he said.
In the cafeteria, for the most part, white students sit on one side, and black students sit on the other side, he said. There's a little bit of mixing either way, but he said the division is clear to him.
Howard Bishop Middle, another east side school with a magnet, has a similar makeup to Lincoln.
While students in the Academy of Technology and Gifted Studies are racially diverse, albeit predominantly white, Principal Mike Gamble said the mainstream program has mostly black students, which reflects the neighborhoods surrounding the school.
"With a magnet program, there's always going to be that obstacle ... of not making it a little school within a school," Gamble said.
He said teachers and administrators do their best to bring students together and remind them that they're all equal.
Last month, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, a teacher from the magnet program at Howard Bishop and a teacher from the mainstream program combined their students all day to talk about the speech and current racial issues.
At the time, they said the forum was especially important considering that the school is not totally integrated.
"That issue is always going to be there" with the magnet programs, Gamble said.
Similarly, at Eastside High, 10 percent of students in the IB program are black, which jumps to 82 percent of students in the mainstream program.
To ensure students from the IB and mainstream programs are interacting with each other, Principal Jeff Charbonnet said teachers and administrators plan grade-level-wide events and special forums in which the students must work together in groups.
"We recognize that, and that's an intentional part of our school program, trying to create a culture where all students feel a sense of belonging," he said.
But there's only so much teachers and administrators can do to ensure interaction between magnet and mainstream students.
For the most part, students are going to stick with the friends they have in their classes, said Clarke, the district curriculum official.
If students have five classes a day with the same group of people and see students from the other program at the school only during band or PE, during lunch they're probably still going to sit with the friends they see all day.
While Clarke says this separation of magnet and mainstream students isn't a big problem in the district, it's definitely a challenge to bring them together wherever possible.
"Would you always like to have more opportunities? Absolutely," she said. "You have to capitalize on and maximize the opportunities you do have."
Contact Erin Jester at 338-3166 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.