This story is about Tuscaloosa’s schools!

FRIDAY, MAY 2, 2014

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.

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.
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.

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.


  1. You are correct. Our local district was combined by court order in 1982 with 13 community based schools thrown together. The single high school then was 60% white 40% minority but after 30 years, the high school has converted to a 60/40 split the other way. In one of the communities, only 25% of eligible students attend the public schools. Total population in the district is essentially unchanged, the shift is due to attendance by white students at private and religious schools.

  2. With kind regards. Last year catholic enrollment nationwide declined by 12%. How can you state that a racial shift from white flight has aided the religious school's enrollment?

    This may not be the race based issue as you discribe. It may be an educational issue. I live in a district with poor performing schools. Our children go to private, not because we are well off, but because of education. My wife teaches in the public schools and expresses the challenges she faces each day. It's a cultural issue. Some students want to learn and other students don't care to learn. Those that care little cause enough distraction which takes away from the very limited time a teacher has to teach.

    The common denominator is not race but a caring or non-caring parent. It has less to do about race and more to do on the educational emphasis from the parent. A nationwide campaign on the importance of education may be needed. When was the last time you saw a billboard stating such?

    1. You can't blame the parents. They're too busy working multiple jobs, for businesses who underpay labor, to put more emphasis on their children's education.
      Yes, there should be a billboard campaign stating that business has been stiffing labor for 30+ years.


    2. Please, my mother worked 2 eight hour jobs and she still had time to make sure I and my 4 siblings did our homework.

      My wife is a teacher, she knows just by the attentiveness of her students which household places an emphasis on education and which ones do not.

  3. "All in all, for better or worse, a great deal of racial disproportion has returned to the city’s schools."

    "For better or worse"?

    Somerby, the Supreme Court settled that issue 60 years ago, and did so unanimously.

    Earl Warren: "Does segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal, deprive the children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities? We believe that it does...

    "Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children. The impact is greater when it has the sanction of the law, for the policy of separating the races is usually interpreted as denoting the inferiority of the negro group. A sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn. Segregation with the sanction of law, therefore, has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system...

    "We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment."

    1. IMHO the Supreme Court made the right decision on Brown v the Bd of Education, but for the wrong reason. As 8:22 AM points out, the Supreme Court settled this issue 60 years ago. But, they settled it legally, not educationally. It's only a theory that segregated schools are inherently worse. That theory isn't necessarily correct -- certainly not in all cases. Here's a snippet from a data-based article:

      Back in 1899, in Washington, D. C., there were four academic public high schools-- one black and three white.1 In standardized tests given that year, students in the black high school averaged higher test scores than students in two of the three white high schools.
      This was not a fluke. It so happens that I have followed 85 years of the history of this black high school-- from 1870 to 1955 --and found it repeatedly equalling or exceeding national norms on standardized tests.3 In the 1890s, it was called The M Street School and after 1916 it was renamed Dunbar High School but its academic performances on standardized tests remained good on into the mid-1950s.

      Because of the Supreme Court's wrong reasoning, there's been too much focus on integration and not enough focus on educational excellence for black students IMHO.

    2. There were empirical studies presented to the court to back up the claim that segregation harmed black students. It was a theory supported by facts.

    3. Take it from me, facts are no match for DAinCA's "IMHO."

    4. Yes, Anon. No doubt there were some facts supporting the theory that segregated schools are inherently worse. But, there are facts showing that this theory doesn't always hold. No integrated high school in Washington D. C. has produced results as good as the segregated Dunbar HS. And, the black colleges have done a fine job of educating their students for many, many years.

  4. Anon 8:22, Who could we ask to explain the reason of the current successes of the HBC's today? Warren is correct in the sanction of law part. However, that is not the case today. It has been eliminated and yet you are attempting to use that same cause and effect of 60 years ago.

    1. You can go ahead and argue with yourself whether segregation de jure is wronke while segregation de facto is okey-doke.

      My argument that is with Somerby's "for better or worse, a great deal of racial disporoportion (nice euphemism) has returned to the city's school."

      I'd like to know the ways he thinks it could possibly be "for better."

    2. "wrong" of course, not "wronke".

  5. It's a devilishly hard thing to solve. Before anyone comes up with easy solutions, look at what has been tried in various states. One almost has to do a 50 state survey to see how this has been addressed since Brown before starting the discussion.

    It's really complex, because it touches on everything; racism, income, property values, school "choice". Even WITHIN the "property values" category there are sub-categories (discrimination in housing is one of them, and that has implications in both mortgage lending and rental contracts). This aspect is under-reported in my view. I wish the author would follow up with a report on efforts to integrate housing, and how discrimination based on race is still prevalent in rental and purchase of housing. That's a piece no one talks about.

    My state, Ohio, has "open enrollment". It's somewhat limited but I think it's the most expansive in the country. It wasn't done (to my knowledge) as a remedy for segregation but the idea was people would choose schools and that would at least offer "choice" rather than equity or diversity. But it's a bust on all three goals. It isn't a real choice because some parents can't manage travel or the "choice" process, it hasn't achieved more equity, and the schools are more segregated, not less. Worse, it creates winner and loser schools as far as funding.

    It's not just the south. It's everywhere, and people have tried all sorts of fixes, and there are huge negative consequences involved in all of them.

    The most frustrating aspect to me, a non-expert but interested outsider, is how we repeat the same mistakes because we refuse to look at what one state has tried before we barrel ahead with something that has already failed in another state. This is how K-12 education was deliberately crafted, it's state law, but that doesn't mean we can't LEARN from what another state has tried. If a fix didn't work in Ohio it's probably not going to work in Florida, so why can't Florida look at Ohio's failures and learn from them rather than trying the same thing that didn't work in Ohio in Florida?

  6. The one thing that has to be realized above all is that giving people access to schools, even good schools, does not instantly cancel cultural disadvantages. People still make the grievous mistake of thinking that a few hours in school five days a week can overcome what goes on - or does not go on - in students' homes or in their age-peer groups. And the cultural attitudes poison school itself, so that discipline rather than education takes up the time in school. When pro-learning and anti-learning kids are mixed in a class, the result is usually not a pro-learning environment (often depending on numbers).

  7. IMHO the cultural attitudes are central. One controversial aspect is the idea that some black students purposefully underachieve because they attribute being smart to "acting white". Although some dispute this, my half-black cousin David experienced pressure from his black friends, when he attended an integrated high school in Englewood, NJ. (David was a fine student, and went on to graduate from Princeton.)

    I have no way of knowing how deep or how widespread is the resistance to "acting white." But, I wonder whether students at segregated schools would be less prone to this effect. One might study and compare attitudes of black students at integrated colleges vs. students at black colleges.