Brown v. Board, RIP?

by Jordan Green

As the Guilford County School Board reviews a handful of redistricting plans to accommodate population growth, the half-century educational mandate to create racial and socioeconomic diversity in public schools appears to be ebbing, with parents from affluent, white suburbs providing a chorus of advocacy for neighorhood schools and support voiced for diversity notably muted ‘—from both white and black parents.

Under public attack, the board abandoned the High Point school choice plan in December. The plan would have created magnet programs for each of the three High Point area high schools: a research and technology program at Andrews High School, an international studies and language program at Central High School, and a visual and performing arts program at Southwest High School in the growing northern suburbs of High Point.

Among the three schools, Central fared the worst in state and federal education measures, receiving a ‘priority’ designation in the state ABCs accountability program ‘— second from the bottom, after ‘low-performing’ ‘— and failing to meet federal ‘adequate yearly progress’ goals in 2004. Andrews and Central are currently majority non-white schools in which 50 percent or more of the student body qualifies for free and reduced lunch. Southwest is a majority white school where less than a third of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

The choice plan aimed to address those disparities; a stated goal of the plan was ‘“to increase academic achievement by providing an economically diverse student population in each of the three schools.’” Central and Southwest are represented by District 2 board member Susan Mendenhall, Andrews by District 1 board member Walter Childs. Mendenhall was a proponent of the school choice plan.

Two related studies released last fall suggest that more than 50 years after the Supreme Court struck down so-called ‘separate but equal’ public schools as unconstitutional in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the era of educational integration may be effectively coming to a close.

‘“Since the 1980s, the tremendous progress in the South has been slowly eroding year by year as black students and the exploding population of Latino students become more isolated from white students,’” reported ‘“New Faces, Old Patterns? Segregation in the Multiracial South,’” a study produced by the Harvard University Civil Rights Project.

In School Resegregation: Must the South Turn Back?, a book published by the University of North Carolina Press, the authors wrote, ‘“Even states like Florida, North Carolina and Delaware where stable metropolitan desegregation plans existed for three decades are now rapidly re-segregating.’”

While none of four redistricting maps for Guilford County match the ambition of the abandoned High Point school choice plan, they would have varying effects on the racial and socio-economic makeup of the three high schools and the middle schools that feed them.

Map D leaves the 1999 redistricting plan intact for all High Point schools.

Map C, which was dropped from consideration last fall and restored to the board’s agenda in January, leaves Central High School’s demographics the same, according to an analysis of data provided by the school district. It would even the demographics between poor Andrews High School and affluent Southwest High School, along with the demographics of the middle schools that respectively feed them: Welborn and Southwest.

Map A, described by board Chairman Alan Duncan as ‘“the culmination of all the maps that were presented this past fall,’” also evens the demographics between the two sets of schools, albeit with less dramatic results.

Map B, known as ‘“the closest to home map’” and drawn up from scratch to promote neighborhood schools ‘— a concept championed by District 5 board member Anita Sharpe ‘— would have mixed demographic results for elementary schools across the county. But for High Point middle and high schools Map B would deepen racial and socioeconomic divisions more dramatically than the other three plans on the table.

Map B would increase the non-white student population of Central High School from 63 to 66 percent, and tip the balance of free-and-reduced lunch students to a majority, from 49 to 58 percent. By the same token, Map B would produce a student population whiter and more affluent at Southwest High School. The plan slightly increases the share of non-white students at Andrews High School, but leaves the proportion of free-and-reduced lunch about the same.

On a recent Sunday afternoon a dozen or so parents, mostly white, attended a school board retreat to monitor the board’s incremental redistricting decisions on various schools. A number of them were concerned about maintaining local attendance zones around Southwest High School. Their aggrieved sensibility was summed up by one man who privately described constituents in the suburbs between High Point and Greensboro as ‘“the Palestinians of the school district.’” He contended that Mendenhall and High Point at-large board member Dot Kearns are trying to address the troubles of Central High School by borrowing students from Southwest.

The board put off deciding the fate of the High Point schools and instead plunged into a tense discussion of how to balance the student populations at Eastern High School in Gibsonville and Page High School, a Guilford Greensboro school close to capacity. Under Map A, students from neighborhoods north of Cone Boulevard bracketed by Church Street and Highway 29 would be shifted from Eastern to the more proximate Page. To offset the population increase at Page, students from the Phillips Avenue area who currently attend Page would be bused out to Eastern.

Diversity did not enter the discussion. Instead, the board was faced with a decision that contemplated allowing one group of low-income students to study close to home at the expense of another low-income group. At the end a split board voted 6-5 to table the swap. The board found itself at an impasse trying to negotiate the needs of two or three neighborhoods against the requirements of the school system as a whole. Neither diversity nor neighborhood schools seemed easy to accomplish under the circumstances.

District 8 board member Deena Hayes noted that the Phillips Avenue area includes Claremont Homes.

‘“I understand these kids are coming to school needing the resources,’” she said. ‘“Until we can do that I wouldn’t want them to be moved to Eastern.’”

‘“Couldn’t they be moved to Dudley [High School],’” asked board member Kris Cooke, whose District 7 includes Page.

Hayes: ‘“This is a public housing community.’”

Cooke: ‘“I don’t know what you do with them.’”

Hayes: ‘“Well, we’ve got to work that out.’”

Cooke: ‘“Right.’”

Duncan noted that parents at Rankin Elementary have voiced the desire to have their children attend high school closer to home, but that the board had not heard from parents on the other side of Highway 29, who would be affected by the change. With Hayes and Mendenhall raising concerns about such a move, he called for a vote.

Afterwards, Cooke and Superintendent Terry Grier protested that students from the area north of Cone Boulevard were having a difficult time getting to Eastern, and are not participating in athletics and other extracurricular activities as a result.

But the public interest generated in the fate of these two attendance areas in northeast Greensboro has paled in comparison to the uproar over high school attendance lines in High Point. Grievances against Mendenhall and Kearns became so passionate before the school choice plan was scrapped that effigies of the two were hung on telephone poles on Halloween Day. Mendenhall, whose term expires on December, has announced that she does not plan to run for reelection. Kearns, long a staunch supporter of diversity, appears to be wearing down.

‘“I have never equivocated,’” Kearns said in a recent interview. ‘“I have never believed it is in the interest of the children or the future of education to re-segregate.’”

She acknowledged that hers is an unpopular position, and wondered aloud how long an elected official can defy the public will.

‘“If you simply count the votes, I’m not sure why you need elected officials or leaders,’” she said. ‘“There might be a majority of constituents who favor neighborhood schools. They’re certainly the most vocal. You have to ask yourself, where is the tipping point between what will fly and what will backfire?’”

Several black leaders did not return calls or respond to e-mails for this story, including representatives of the state and county NAACP, and board members Childs and Amos Quick. Mendenhall also did not respond to an interview request.

One leader who did respond suggested that the grassroots efforts by white parents in north High Point to maintain Southwest High School’s local character is not a matter of great concern to African-American parents. Ed Whitfield, a community activist, has participated in the Community Dialogue on Education, a round-table discussion that includes business and religious leaders, since it was initiated at the Beloved Community Center in 2000.

‘“I’m sure those parents are speaking from a narrow self interest,’” Whitfield said. ‘“I’m not nearly as bent out of shape about diversity as some others. I think what they’re saying about the utility of neighborhood schools is true for theirs, and ours as well.’”

He added, ‘“The most important thing about education is to have a nurturing, supportive atmosphere. That is somewhat independent of diversity. In fact, it is sometimes damaged under diversity.’”

Whitfield argues in a 2004 collection of essays entitled ‘“Diversity: What Schools Leave Out’” that diversity is a method of masking the failure of the educational system to be relevant to students with low socio-economic status.

‘“I would contend that when low [socio-economic status] students are distributed throughout the schools, there is no substantially better outcome for them as individuals,’” he writes. ‘“That is to say, if we concentrate the data on the children, rather than concentrate the children, we would see the same grim results that can be observed if the children are placed together.

‘“These are the children who, even in a mixed setting, have the highest dropout rates, the highest suspension rates, the highest retention rates, the lowest grades, the worst attitudes about school, about society, about each other and about themselves. When they are spread out, there is just a little of this negativity in a lot of places and it becomes a self-curing problem because many of these children drop out of school as soon as they can and the statistics of the institutions they leave improve.’”

Whitfield is a member of one of the first generations of black Southerners to be educated in the post-Brown era. He graduated from Little Rock Central High School ‘—’ which was famously desegregated in 1957 by nine black students protected by federal troops. He went on to study at Cornell University.

The activist does not look back with nostalgia on the half-century American experiment with forced educational integration.

‘“I chose to go to an integrated school; my brother did not,’” Whitfield said. ‘“Each of us made the choice that was right for us. We took that choice away from children and did incredible damage to them.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at