And about schools near you: In the current Atlantic, Nikole Hannah-Jones has written a lengthy, fascinating report about the racial history of the Tuscaloosa (City) public schools.
She describes the way Tuscaloosa integrated its dual school system after being taken to court in 1975. Starting in 1979, the city began operating a single high school for all its students, white and black, and a single middle school.
The new arrangement was “clumsy and unpopular,” Hannah-Jones writes, “but its consequences were profound.” Here’s the way it worked:
HANNAH-JONES (4/16/14): In the fall of 1979, Central High School opened to serve all public-high-school students in the district—no matter their race, no matter whether they lived in the city’s public-housing projects or in one of the mansions along the meandering Black Warrior River. The mega-school, a creative solution to a complex problem...was spread across two campuses—ninth- and 10th-graders at the former black high school, now called Central West; 11th- and 12th-graders at the old white high school, called Central East. (The judge’s order also created three single-grade middle schools.)Without any doubt, that was a “clumsy” arrangement. Presumably, it required a lot of travel by students. It also meant that students attended six different campuses in their last eight years of public school, starting in fifth grade.
No doubt, that’s a “clumsy” arrangement. But it also meant that all of Tuscaloosa’s kids, black and white, were attending citywide schools together from sixth grade on, black and white together.
In theory, that was a very good idea. At various points in her report, Hannah-Jones cheerleads for the positive aspects of this arrangement on the high school level.
Central High “was one of the South’s signature integration success stories,” she writes, citing the school’s National Merit Scholarships and its gridiron wins. As Hannah-Jones later notes, some of those successes were occurring because Central High was a very large school by regional standards.
You can win a lot of football games if you’re the biggest school in the region.
Central High won a lot of games and a lot of awards. But in the end, was it as big an “integration success story” as Hannah-Jones suggests?
A very familiar worm starts to turn in this paragraph:
HANNAH-JONES: The school was hardly perfect. Black students were disproportionately funneled into vocational classes, and white students into honors classes. Some parents complained that competitive opportunities were limited to just the very best students and athletes because the school, at 2,300 students, was so large. And the white flight that had begun when the courts first ordered the district to desegregate continued, slowly, after the formation of the mega-school. But despite these challenges, large numbers of black students studied the same robust curriculum as white students, and students of both races mixed peacefully and thrived.We’d recommend caution concerning some of those upbeat claims. We’d also recommend caution concerning some of those apparent complaints—the implied complaints about the “funneling” of students.
Next week, we’ll try to consider those claims and complaints in a bit of detail. For today, here’s our basic question:
Was Central High really an “integration success story” if “white flight” drained its enrollment figures in the way Hannah-Jones describes?
In this passage, Hannah-Jones describes the state of play across the system by the 1990s. Again, be careful about her first claim:
HANNAH-JONES: Central continued as one of the state’s standout high schools. But over time, local leaders grew more concerned about the students who didn’t attend the school than those who did.As she continues, Hannah-Jones describes the process by which Tuscaloosa decided to return to a “neighborhood school” arrangement for its middle and high school students. Today, the city runs six middle schools and three high schools, as described in this earlier post.
White students once accounted for a majority of the Tuscaloosa school district’s students. But by the mid-1990s, they made up less than a third. Total enrollment had dropped from 13,500 in 1969 to 10,300 in 1995. Many white parents had decided to send their children to nearly all-white private schools or to move across the city line to access the heavily white Tuscaloosa County Schools.
Tuscaloosa’s business leaders and elected officials had witnessed the transformation of other southern cities after their school districts had reached a tipping point—the point at which white parents become unsettled by the rising share of black students in a school, and pull their children from the school en masse. School districts in cities such as Birmingham and Richmond had seen their integration efforts largely mooted: just about all the white students had left. As white families had moved out to the suburbs, eroding the tax base, both the schools and the cities themselves had suffered. Many officials in Tuscaloosa obsessed about the rippling consequences of continued white flight.
One middle school in Tuscaloosa is 78 percent white. One middle school is all black.
In two of Tuscaloosa’s high schools, there are lots of black and white students together. But the city’s third high school is all black. All in all, for better or worse, a great deal of racial disproportion has returned to the city’s schools.
Essentially, “white flight” caused Tuscaloosa to reconfigure its schools. To do this, the city had to be released from federal school desegregation orders, a practice which began occurring across the South in the 1990s.
As such, Hannah-Jones largely tells this story as a Southern gothic. In the passage above, she compares Tuscaloosa to Birmingham and Richmond, failing to note that the basic problems being described have occurred all over the nation, in northern, midwestern and western districts as well as in the South.
We would say that’s a shortcoming in Hannah-Jones’ report.
In August 2000, Tuscaloosa’s school board voted to dismantle the citywide, unified single-school arrangement which created Central High and the city’s one middle school. Hannah-Jones tells this story in a fascinating, detailed way, but a problem lurks:
A northern liberal might get the idea that he’s reading a story about the South. Warning! Everything happening in this story has also happened near you!
We find a lot to criticize in Hannah-Jones’ approach to this story. We’re especially struck by her approach to the question of what constitutes a “good” or “bad” school—by her insouciance concerning the basic problems involved in running low-income schools.
In our experience, that insouciance will be found wherever journalists discuss public schools. We’ll take a look at this problem next week. For today, we’ll only say this:
It’s easy for liberal readers to roll their eyes as those hopeless mossbacks in the South. We even think Hannah-Jones has perhaps encouraged that reaction a small tiny tad.
In this case, we think that would be a strongly unhelpful approach. This story is about Tuscaloosa’s schools, but also about schools near you.