Segregated, again 

Brown v. Board of Education hasn't delivered integrated schools, but that doesn't mean it failed

Page 4 of 5

The DeKalb oversight was corrected in 1976 when Judge O'Kelly ordered the formation of the county's biracial committee, which served as his surrogate watchdog to make sure the system was doing all it could to integrate schools. He was concerned that the county was backsliding because, in just the few years since the 1969 desegregation order, several previously all-white schools in the south end of the county had become nearly all black.

When Bill Strain, then an elementary school principal, was named to the committee in the early '80s, he was warned by committee veterans not to be too optimistic about the eventual outcome.

"I was told many times," Strain recalls, "that integration is the period between when the first black comes in and the last white leaves."

In a perfect world, classrooms would resemble the '70s comic strip "Wee Pals," with black, white, Latino and Asian kids all learning side-by-side, Strain says. But this is not a perfect world.

Many of the efforts of the biracial committee were directed at tweaking system attendance programs to compensate for those school districts undergoing "transition," which was the polite way of saying it was rapidly changing from white to black.

Following the 1969 ruling, the DeKalb County Board of Education introduced -- usually in response to a court order -- various programs aimed at maximizing student diversity and balancing the racial composition of school staffs.

To ensure that integration even reached schools tucked away in the whitest neighborhoods, the system was compelled by Judge O'Kelly to launch a costly "majority-to-minority" plan that allowed African-American students in mostly black schools to transfer to mostly white schools. At its peak in the mid-'80s, nearly 4,500 students endured long bus rides to take advantage of the program.

When parents complained that the most experienced teachers were concentrated among schools in the north end of the county, DeKalb set up a lottery that sent many of the veteran teachers to south DeKalb.

And when it became obvious that schools were still undergoing resegregation, the system created magnet schools offering highly specialized curricula in an effort to lure top students of all races.

"Anything short of mandatory busing, we were willing to try," recalls Strain, who insists that, during the 27 years it spent under court supervision, the county earnestly tried to keep its black and white students on equal footing with regard to funding and facilities.

"Who had the best schools -- the north or the south, black or white? We argued that question for 20 years," Strain says.

But even as the system directed funding to schools in the south end of DeKalb and those with lower-performing student bodies, its victories over segregation proved to be fleeting.

Many veteran white teachers simply quit or sought jobs elsewhere rather than accept a posting at a majority-black school in south DeKalb. Harris says it angered her to hear teachers and other administrators refer disparagingly to the schools "down South."

And once a school district became integrated, it often quickly tipped toward majority black as whites moved out of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Minnie Duncan, a 35-year veteran of DeKalb schools, recalls that when she started teaching at Woodward Elementary near Brookhaven in 1977, she was one of a handful of black teachers in classrooms filled mostly with white kids.

By the time she was transferred to a south DeKalb school as part of a court-ordered teacher lottery in 1989, white students were the minority at Woodward, Duncan says. The school's current enrollment is 80 percent Hispanic, 12 percent black and 4 percent white.

When the school system finally was released from court supervision in 1996, it was with the acknowledgment that school administrators had done all they could. In the process, they had learned a sociological lesson that has become common, if unspoken, knowledge among cities and counties across the country. Namely, students, teachers and tax dollars can be shuffled from one school to another in the interests of diversity and equality, but desegregation will always be a moving target as long as people are able to vote with their feet.

"The schools were not as effective a tool for integration as we had hoped because of white flight," Strain says. "In retrospect, this shouldn't be a big surprise, when you consider that the most segregated institutions in this society are our churches."

These days, as any teacher can tell you, race is not the only criteria by which children can be segregated. The creation of magnet schools, "theme schools" -- where students are given nightly homework and parents are expected to be active -- and other specialized programs has left many ordinary neighborhood schools to deal with the slow learners and kids who have disciplinary problems.



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