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Earlier this year — half a century after black students first entered all-white Central High to begin integrating Little Rock's public schools — a federal court finally declared the school district officially integrated.
The 25-year-old desegregation case, and others before it, had hung over virtually every major decision the School District made since 1957. The release from court supervision should have been a landmark, liberating event.
But the Little Rock School District of 2007 is more racially polarized than it has been in years, possibly decades.
The process that began at Central 50 years ago has evolved into a school system where most black students go to majority-black schools while a dwindling white student population has retreated to a handful of magnet schools and campuses in majority-white neighborhoods.
Nor has the district managed to make much progress erasing perhaps the most important and most harmful legacy of segregation: The disparity between minority and white students' educational achievement.
And that's just the kids.
For those who weren't around to witness the screaming mobs outside Central in 1957, it can be hard to imagine a more tense relationship between blacks and whites than that which developed around the racially tinged, months-long effort of the School Board's first-ever black majority — repeatedly referred to as the “Gang of Four” on the Democrat-Gazette's editorial page — to get rid of Superintendent Roy Brooks earlier this year. Brooks, who is black, had been hired by a then-white-majority School Board. He drew support from an overwhelmingly white parents' group and Little Rock's white business community — including Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman.
A black majority on the board actually reflects the makeup of a School District in which nearly 70 percent of students are black and fewer than a quarter are white. But this hasn't prevented at least speculation that some whites in Little Rock feel uncomfortable, if not outright threatened, about having blacks in control of the district for the first time.
“The difficulties, the tension around the change from a white majority to a black majority for the first time on the School Board seems to be an enormous change to many people,” said Brownie Ledbetter, one of the original white advocates of integration during the Central High crisis. “It's a question of power. Some people feel that whites need to be in control.”
The School Board president, Katherine Mitchell, led the push to oust Brooks, and vote after vote on the issue broke down 4-3 along racial lines. Board members also were deciding how to proceed in the desegregation case — chiefly whether to negotiate a settlement with attorney John Walker, who had appealed the ruling that released the district from court supervision. The four-member majority, again voting together, chose to ignore the advice of the School District's attorney and seek a settlement.
The tension on the racially split board escalated through this spring and summer. Its black and white members often barely managed to speak civilly to one another at public meetings.
“We've pretty much gone backward, especially at the highest levels, in the way we do business and deal with personnel,” said board member Baker Kurrus, who is white. “The level of discourse has dropped. We've ceased to talk to one another.”
Kurrus and Mitchell disagreed on how much — and how new — a factor race had become in board members' relations and decision-making.
Mitchell, who's been on the board for more than 18 years, said white and black board members had frequently staked opposing ground in the past.
“It was never really characterized as voting along racial lines until the majority of the board became African-American,” she said. “Even when [Brooks] was elected, the two of us who are African-American — the only two on the board [at the time] — voted for Dr. [Morris] Holmes,” who had served as interim superintendent the previous school year. “The five who were white voted for Dr. Brooks. No one mentioned we voted along racial lines, but we did. That's not a new issue.”
Kurrus, however, said characterizing the board's split as purely racial is “really a great oversimplification.”
“The thing that is hard to get your head around is whether that ever really mattered,” he said. “I never personally made a decision based on race, although I'm always aware of it because I don't want to make a mistake with respect to it.”
Brooks is gone now and board members all agreed on his temporary replacement, veteran district administrator Linda Watson. Whether relations among board members will improve remains to be seen.
Also, the board's majority could shift again after the Sept. 18 school elections: Board member Micheal Daugherty, who is black, was running against three challengers — one black, two white. Daugherty is a 12-year incumbent, and his election zone is 68 percent black.
Regardless of what happens on the School Board, the Little Rock schools remain a long way from any ideal model of integration. Black and white children attend the same schools, but in nowhere near equal numbers, and with nowhere near equal results.
Little Rock's overall population is 55 percent white, but of the school-age population — ages 5 through 19 — just under 40 percent are white. In other words, white families with children have chosen to live outside the city in greater numbers than the general population. Even fewer are sending their kids to public schools: just 23 percent of Little Rock School District students are white, while 68 percent are black.
“Our schools are pretty much a reflection of the community as a whole,” said Virgil Miller, who chaired the committee that organized the 50th anniversary celebration of Central's integration. “When the community is divided up racially in terms of where people live, then our schools are going to be reflective of that lack of integration.”
The School District has not had to consider race in school assignment for nearly 20 years, and it shows. The recurrance of neighborhood schools meant a return to largely segregated schools. White students in the district are largely concentrated on a dozen campuses — seven magnet schools, including Central High, and five schools in predominantly white neighborhoods. Eighteen schools have minority populations of 90 percent or more. Three schools — Fulbright, Jefferson and Forest Park elementaries — are 70 percent white.
Even schools with attendance zones that include plenty of white families enroll few white students. Hall High, for instance, has a white population of just 8 percent; many white students zoned for Hall attend Central or Parkview through those schools' magnet programs.
Pulaski Heights elementary and middle schools are the most integrated non-magnet schools in the district: The elementary classes are 50 percent white, the middle school is 41 percent white.
Although it's much more common to see minority families in predominantly white neighborhoods citywide, Miller said segregation is worse now than in 1957 because economic divisions have widened so much and wealthier families are opting out of public schools regardless of their race.
“There wasn't as much of a gap in wealth and socioeconomic power (in 1957),” he said. “Now that you have these gaps of socioeconomic power and people live where they want to, you have people with the same socioeconomic power wanting the same type of educational opportunities for their children, black or white.
“What you have left behind are those at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder that tend to be majority black or brown. So the schools are just a reflection of that.”
Longtime civil rights activist Annie Abrams, who was Central High's first black Parent Teacher Association president 40 years ago, agreed. The new segregation, she said, is based on class and education rather than just race — although they often go together.
“What happens after white flight is economic flight,” Abrams said. “People live where they want to live, where they can afford it.”
The district's magnet schools came about as part of the desegregation case settlement to help draw white students to predominantly black schools, and vice versa. Little Rock's magnets have proven consistently strong academic performers and have successfully held on to white students, but their future is uncertain. The School District gets about $27 million a year from the state as part of the desegregation case, but the Arkansas legislature is looking to end that funding now that Little Rock has been released from court supervision.
The district's white population has been dwindling for decades. The recent disputes among School Board members have some people worried that more will leave.
“I'm extremely troubled,” Kurrus said. “The more we focus on our differences, the more we imply those differences are what's causing our problems, the more we're forcing out people who don't want to face those kinds of issues, who don't want to be involved in a system that's in that kind of turmoil.”
The reality is that the district's white students are doing very well, at least according to their scores on standardized tests.
Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Little Rock's minority students.
The “achievement gap” is a pervasive and persistent problem in school districts nationwide, particularly urban districts with high minority populations.
Without exception, white students do far better than minority students on standardized tests in Little Rock schools. The Benchmark exams, for example, which test math and literacy skills of grades 3 through 8, categorize students as scoring above or below “proficient.” Across the board, a much higher percentage of white students, than black or Hispanic, score proficient or above. On the 2007 tests, the gap ranged between 30 and 45 percentage points, depending on the subject and grade level.
Little Rock schools offer a host of programs designed to raise minority students' achievement — this was a large part of the requirement of the desegregation case — but none have done much to date to close the achievement gap. There have been small fluctuations year to year, but, overall, the gap remains stubbornly wide and unmoving. It's also worse in Little Rock schools than statewide.
Last summer, a group of educators and community leaders held a “community conversation” aimed at jump-starting an effort to address the achievement gap. Ledbetter said she was encouraged because the gathering drew several hundred people — some white, including Kurrus and another School Board member, Melanie Fox.
Still, Ledbetter said, it's going to take “some doing” to overcome the polarization on the School Board and in the district itself.
“It comes and goes,” Ledbetter said. “It was pretty awful in the '50s, and it got better in the '70s. We go through these periods of denial and awareness, and we make a little progress each time.
“But I don't think it's been this bad in a long time.”
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