'Resegregation' On The Rise

Seventh-grade twins Keirsten, center, left, and Kirby Pope, chat with friends during lunch Friday, Nov. 8, 2002, at Marie G. Davis Middle School in Charlotte, N.C. The girls are two of a handful of white children at the school. AP

History haunts the halls of Marie G. Davis Middle School.

Plaques line the cinderblock walls boasting "School of Distinction," "School of Excellence" and "Exemplary Academic Growth."

But this is not the same school that won those awards. It may be the same group of buildings, but it's not the same school.

Before classes let out for the summer, the school's racial makeup was the picture of integration: 46 percent black, 44 percent white. A magnet program drew children from all over into this predominantly black, low-income neighborhood of government housing and cage-covered windows.

But when the opening bell rang this fall, the magnet program was gone - and so was the school's diversity. The black population leaped to 95 percent, the largest shift in the district of 112,400 students.

This is not the same school because this is not the same school system.

For years, Charlotte was known as "the city that made busing work." But that all changed this year, when, with federal court approval, the district began allowing parents to send their kids to schools closer to home.

Now, for many, Charlotte is a poster child for what they see as the "resegregation" of the South.

For principal Terry Cline and his students, this is a test of whether the once-hated concept of "separate but equal" can work in one of the most important battlegrounds of the integration era. At his opening day assembly, he told them some people were waiting for them to fail.

"We're being put up to a test," says 13-year-old Courtnie Mackey, a black eighth-grader new to Marie G. Davis this year. "We'll see if we're going to pass."

Charlotte's schools aren't the only ones where segregation is on the rise.

A study by Harvard's Civil Rights Project shows that the proportion of blacks in the South's white-majority schools has dropped markedly over the past 14 years, from an average of 43.5 percent to 32.7 percent.

The most segregated schools in the nation are still in the North: New York, California, Michigan and Illinois have the lowest percentages of black students in majority-white schools.

But the 20 most rapidly resegregating school districts are concentrated in the South, the Harvard researchers say. And the South was where the federal courts had to drag whites kicking and screaming into integration.

The fact is, the courts have stopped dragging.

"Racial balance is not to be achieved for its own sake," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in a seminal opinion in the case of a Georgia school district. "Where resegregation is a product not of state action but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications."

Supreme Court decisions in cases from Georgia to Missouri to Oklahoma have made returning "local control" of schools the constitutional priority. Lower courts have followed that lead, resulting in the lifting of court supervision in Charlotte and all but ending oversight in Little Rock, Ark., this fall.

Those who follow the trend say it's not avowed Southern segregationists who are leading the court fights for neighborhood schools, but affluent transplants who have settled in the region's fast-growing suburbs.

"They had not participated in the desegregation battles of the 1960s and 1970s," says Jack Boger, deputy director of the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights.

For them, he says, busing "is a relic of a distant past."

Charlotte's Mecklenburg County is a special place in the annals of integration.

It was the site of the groundbreaking 1971 Swann v. Board of Education case, which made busing a national issue. For the next 30 years, children would be shuttled from neighborhood to neighborhood, some across the entire county, to ensure each school reflected the county's overall racial balance.

But last year, in response to a lawsuit filed mainly by newcomers from other regions, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a decision barring the district from using race in its school assignments. That cleared the way for the school system's new four-zone "choice plan" that took effect this fall.

The impact was immediate, says Roslyn Mickelson, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. When the school year began, she says, there were 15 percent fewer racially balanced elementary schools and high schools, and 8 percent fewer balanced middle schools.

Of the district's 145 schools, more than a third have minority populations over 80 percent. Barely a quarter of all schools now reflect the district's overall racial balance - 43 percent white, 43 percent black, 14 percent other - the former standard for integration.

Majority black schools are in some cases just half-full, while some majority-white schools are stuffed to bursting, with children taking classes in trailers, storage rooms and, in one case, an elevator lobby.

Steve Johnston, head of a local group that advocates for integrated schools, fears Charlotte has only seen the beginning of the polarization.

Under the new choice plan, many children were "grandfathered in" at their current schools, and he predicts that when those students cycle through the next couple of years, their schools will be even less integrated than today.

"When the educational bankruptcy of this resegregation becomes clear," he says, "only then will we be in a position as a public to right the wrongs that we've created."

At rapidly changing Marie G. Davis Middle School, Terry Cline keeps a Bible open on his desk and a chrome whistle around his neck. It was immediately clear to him that he'd need both.

Cline ended the last school year with 64 percent of his students at or above grade level in math and 52 percent in reading. By the time school started again this fall, and more white students had bailed, those numbers had plummeted to 44 percent and 39 percent. A quarter of his students are in some kind of special education.

While his 600-plus students only half fill his buildings, "it's like having 1,200 because of the baggage that they bring with them." They came from 38 different schools and eight different communities, some of which have rivalries.

Cline patrols the halls like a cop, a police-style shoulder microphone clipped to his lapel. He yells to a boy with a drainplug earring, points to his own ear and asks: "What's this?" He is obsessive about anything that smacks of gang clothing.

Throughout the day, students rush up to Cline, throwing their arms around him. He promises ice cream for kids who make the honor roll.

"This population needs to see me, touch me," says the burly Cline. "My whole focus and theme has been a safe and orderly environment with an academic focus."

Cline came to Marie G. Davis from the racially mixed Smith Middle. He is personally responsible for what little diversity still exists at this school.

All of the dozen or so white kids followed him from Smith. Twelve-year-old twins Keirsten and Kirby Pope say their friends tried to dissuade them from going to a "black school."

They admit that Marie G. Davis was their third choice. But their parents had faith in Cline, and the girls are making friends.

"We need to work together," Kirby says. "I like that we are together. As long as I'm getting a good education, it doesn't matter."

Across the county in predominantly white Huntersville, things at Bradley Middle School have also changed dramatically.

Last year, blacks made up 41 percent of the student population. This year, it's just 20 percent, mainly because Bradley lost the satellite neighborhoods from which entire populations were once bused under the integration order.

Built to house 1,200 students, Bradley now has around 1,600. The school has brought in 22 mobile classrooms and has hired about 25 new teachers to handle the overflow.

Principal Ron Dixon is black and a product of Charlotte schools - and busing. He believes busing helped him learn to live with all kinds of people, but he doesn't think his students have lost anything in the move away from forced integration.

"I don't think any group of students feels isolated," he says. "I mean, even though it's 80 percent white, 20 percent other, the students still have a chance to get to know people who are not like them or their families."

At nearby Huntersville Elementary, the population has grown from 660 to 960, and from 60 percent white to 85 percent. Things are so crowded that one class was being held on the auditorium stage until six trailers could be brought in; Colleen Smiley's fifth-grade daughter, Torey, has one class in an elevator lobby.

As long as the education is good, Smiley and other white parents say they are willing to put up with it.

Dirk Leonard had contemplated moving his family out of Charlotte until the choice plan was adopted. And while he acknowledges the schools his three sons attend are grossly overcrowded and far from racially balanced, he would never return to the days of busing.

"You can talk to white kids and black kids. They all want to go close to home," he says. "They don't want to get shipped across town for equity purposes or for diversity. ... That's ridiculous."

Sharon Starks, a white homemaker and vocal supporter of the choice movement, thinks that, given time, people in all neighborhoods will come to embrace and nurture their local schools.

"If 30 years wasn't enough time to prove the other way, how can three months be enough time to say that this way's not going to work and that we're resegregating?" she asks.

Starks, who moved here from Kansas and has had three children in the system, says she and other choice advocates are tired of being portrayed as working to end integration.

"We were working to change our school system's focus from 'diversity above all else' to 'excellence in education for all."'

Cline would like to have more diversity at Marie G. Davis, but he's determined to work with the kids he's got. The central office is trying to help.

Under the district's equity program, class sizes at Marie G. Davis and about 50 other schools are being kept low. Nearly half of a new $224 million bond issue is being devoted to equity programs, such as equipment upgrades. Bonuses are being paid to master's degree holders who agree to teach at schools like Cline's, and incentives are being offered to others who want to get their master's.

Angela Green, a teacher who chose to work at Marie G. Davis, says she is confident the school system and her students will one day prove the doubters wrong.

"They need good teachers - and a chance," says Green, who is black. "It is not equal. It can be."

By Allen G. Breed
  • Bootie Cosgrove-Mather

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