THE GAPS IN TUSCALOOSA: What made Central High “nearly hopeless?”


Part 4—Prelude to flight: Nikole Hannah-Jones covers a wide range of issues in her lengthy Atlantic piece, “Segregation Now...”

In our view, she finesses and simplifies almost all these issues. In the process, she brings the world of public schools in line with preferred tribal narratives.

In our view, the interests of low-income kids get shoved aside in the process. Your view may differ, of course.

Tomorrow, we’ll consider Hannah-Jones’ treatment of “white flight,” an important part of the story she tells about the “resegregation” of Tuscaloosa’s public schools. We’ll also consider black middle-class “flight,” a national phenomenon she doesn’t ever mention.

Hannah-Jones’ reporting about “white flight” is very much worth reading. We’d also have to say that her reporting is weirdly limited.

Hannah-Jones spent an entire year on this 10,000-word project. She says she spent two months on the ground in Tuscaloosa itself.

Despite this giant investment of time, Hannah-Jones interviews exactly no white families who took part in Tuscaloosa’s white flight. Why have these families fled these schools?

No one is asked. No one says.

Did black flight also take place in Tuscaloosa? Hannah-Jones never mentions this possibility. This leaves us with a simplified, pleasing picture of the familiar process of flight from low-income minority schools.

In the passage which follows, Hannah-Jones seems to describe the white flight which began after Tuscaloosa produced completely integrated, citywide schools at both the middle school and high school levels.

All students attended these citywide schools, black kids and white kids together. As one result, Tuscaloosa experienced white flight, although the time line here seems to be a bit off:
HANNAH-JONES (4/16/14): After Melissa Dent graduated, in 1988, Central [High] 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.
Based upon those enrollment figures, most white families hadn’t fled Tuscaloosa’s schools as of 1995. But many white families had. Based on Hannah-Jones’ figures, white enrollment dropped by 24 percent over 26 years.

Please note: That drop in white enrollment dates to 1969. But according to Hannah-Jones’ report, Tuscaloosa didn’t create its integrated citywide schools until 1979, ten years later.

How much of the drop in white enrollment occurred before this embrace of integration? Hannah-Jones doesn’t say, and we have no idea.

Whatever! As she continues, Hannah-Jones describes the process by which city leaders, black and white, agreed to create a system of neighborhood schools, hoping to stop Tuscaloosa’s white flight before the system became all-black.

In 1999, the system of citywide schools was abandoned. Using a striking phrase, Hannah-Jones describes what came next:
HANNAH-JONES: What happened was rapid and continual resegregation, in particular the sequestration of poor black students in nearly hopeless schools...

In 1999, less than a year after Blackburn’s public hearing, the school board voted to abandon its three single-grade, citywide middle schools in favor of more-traditional middle schools. It carved out two integrated schools to serve sixth-through-eighth-graders in the northern, central, and eastern parts of the city, and returned Westlawn Middle, in the West End, to its familiar historic state: virtually all black.


After the commission issued its report, the district created a plan for two large integrated high schools—Northridge, in the whitest and most affluent part of town, and Paul W. Bryant, along the city’s eastern edge—as well as a much smaller high school that would retain the name Central. School officials drew Central’s proposed attendance zone compactly around the West End, saying that an all-black high school couldn’t be avoided, because the district couldn’t help where people lived.
This is the process by which Central High became an all-black, low-income school. Just for the record, these are the enrollment figures in Tuscaloosa’s three high schools today:

Bryant High: 19 percent white, 75 percent black
Central High: 100 percent black
Northridge High: 35 percent white, 61 percent black

For whatever reason, Hannah-Jones never tells readers just how “integrated” Bryant and Northridge actually are. We’re invited to focus on the glass one-third empty—on Central High’s status as an all-black school.

Hannah-Jones tells an important a story about the way Central High was deliberately zoned to be a low-income, all-black school. She describes outright “gerrymandering” of district lines to make the new Central all-black.

According to Hannah-Jones, this gerrymandering allowed a neighborhood of middle-class white families to escape the curse of attending Central. That is an important story—which isn’t to say that this gerrymandering was necessarily “wrong” as a matter of policy.

We’ll set that question aside for tomorrow. For today, let’s consider a striking statement. Let’s consider what Hannah-Jones means when she says that Tuscaloosa’s “poor black students” were consigned, in this redistricting process, to “nearly hopeless schools.”

What constitutes a “nearly hopeless school?” More specifically, what made the new Westlawn Middle School “nearly hopeless?”

What makes a school “nearly hopeless?” Most specifically, was Westlawn Middle “nearly hopeless” because it was “virtually all-black?”

True to the way she finesses all issues, Hannah-Jones never quite explains this basic point. But she scatters other such descriptions around as she describes the various schools created by this process.

Here you see one way she described the new, all-black Central High School. She is quoting a principal whose view she plainly shares:
HANNAH-JONES (continuing directly from above): While a vocal group of white parents and community leaders supported the high-school breakup, large numbers of black and white residents fought against it. A poll of a few dozen parents who’d pulled their kids from the schools showed that most of them supported a shift to neighborhood high schools. But in a wider poll of more than 200 parents in the district, and another of Central’s teachers and other staff, most respondents wanted the [citywide] mega-school to remain intact. Robert Coates had just been named principal of the Central East campus, and he warned the board that if it went forward with the plan to split the schools, the new Central would be “relegated as a low-performing school from day one.”
In this description, the new all-black Central High would be “a low-performing school from day one.” Elsewhere, Hannah-Jones seems to praise other schools as “high performing schools,” without ever quite explaining what she means by that phrase.

What makes a school “nearly hopeless?” At one point, Hannah-Jones suggests that all-black schools are “nearly hopeless” because of the way they are run by their school districts.

What made the new Central High “nearly hopeless?” Near the end of her chapter-length report, Hannah-Jones finally explains, or at least gives that impression:
HANNAH-JONES: When school officials make decisions that funnel poor children of color into their own schools, they promise to make those separate schools equal. But that promise is as false today as it was in 1954. Indeed, in some ways all-black schools today are worse than [Tuscaloosa’s legally segregated] Druid High was back in the 1950s, when poor black students mixed with affluent and middle-class ones, and when many of the most talented black residents of Tuscaloosa taught there.


As a school’s black population increases, the odds that any given teacher there will have significant experience, full licensure, or a master’s degree all decline. Teacher turnover at segregated schools is typically high. And black students, overall, are less likely than any other group of students to attend schools with Advanced Placement courses and high-level classes like calculus.

The night the Tuscaloosa school board voted to split up the old Central, board member Bryan Chandler pledged that there would be no winners and losers. Yet while Northridge offered students a dozen Advanced Placement classes, the new Central went at least five years without a single one. Journalism awards stretch wall to wall in Northridge’s newspaper classroom, but for the better part of a decade, Central students didn’t have a school newspaper or a yearbook. Until last year, Central didn’t even offer physics.

The same superintendent who oversaw the 2007 redistricting reportedly called Tuscaloosa’s all-black schools a “dumping ground” for bad teachers who’d been let go from other district schools. Teachers hired from outside Tuscaloosa were, for many years, allowed to apply to specific schools, and some would not apply to black schools.
Finally, we get what we want—a picture of black kids getting the short end of the stick, just like in 1954! We get to believe that this explains why Central High was doomed to be “a low performing school:”

Its teachers wouldn’t be as good! It wouldn’t offer calculus!

Is Central High nearly hopeless because of the way it is run? In our view, Hannah-Jones describes some actual problems in that passage. In our view, she also includes some highly significant nonsense.

In that passage, Hannah-Jones makes an interesting statement. In some ways, Central High and other all-black schools today are “worse” than Druid High was in 1954.

In some ways, Central High isn’t as good as Druid High was! This raises a very basic question—what makes a good school good?

As a courtesy to Hannah-Jones, we’ll note that she isn’t an education writer. We’ll assume that she doesn’t know much about public schools—that she hadn’t thought a whole lot about low-income schools before starting this year-long venture.

We’ll assume that Hannah-Jones hasn’t thought much about public schools. In this way, we’ll avoid being angry with her at this point, as she pleases liberal readers and finesses the very large needs of Tuscaloosa’s low-income black kids.

Tomorrow: Various reasons for flight


  1. As a courtesy to Somerby we'll note he isn't an education writer. We know he hasn't had experience with public schools as a teacher or parent in over a quarter of a century.

    We know Somerby hasn't thought a great deal about the 85+% of students who are not black. Hs prescriptions for how to address the needs of those who are black are miniscule to the point of near invisibility compared to the abuse he heaps on others, both when they do address the issue and when they don't.

    In this way we'll avoid being angry with him at this point, as he grow more pathetic daily.

    1. He has made no prescriptions about how to address the needs of black school children. He has repeatedly said that we (and journalists and career liberals) ought to care how they are being educated. Who in their right mind can disagree with that?

      The only pathetic writer I see around here is you.

    2. Wow. So that was the point of this whole six-week exercise? To say something nobody disagrees with?

      But I am sure you were entralled by every word over these past six weeks which finally reached a stunning conclusion that nobody can disagree with!

      Here's the sad thing. Once upon a time, Somerby used to get linked to everywhere from Sunday by people all over the blogosphere, especially when he launched an important series.

      You know how much buzz this one's garnered? Zip.

    3. What is a career liberal?

    4. Hey Anonymous @ 3:27. I read and reread the comment to which you responded. It sounds like you and that person agree that Somerby isn't an education writer and that he has nothing to say about how to improve education for black kids.

    5. What part of this do you not understand: "musings on the mainstream "press corps" and the american discourse"

      Accusing someone of not being something they never claimed to be is just plain trollery.

      The biggest failure of our education system has been the inability to teach trolls how to read before letting them loose on the internet. Somerby is complaining about the choice of topic by journalists who ARE supposed to be education experts and who neglect the more obvious educational interests of black kids in order to focus on resegregation. He is not grinding any axe about what to do in the classroom or how to fix our schools. He is asking for more resources, including journalistic ones, to be directed toward that issue.

      It is very hard to see why anyone would take the time and effort to mock him for that concern. I wish I knew why the various trolls here are so invested in trashing this website when its message is entirely non-controversial. Why don't our major media figures and our paper of record join parents in calling for renewed focus on the educational needs of black kids, so that better solutions can be found and those persistent gaps can be further narrowed?

      It seems entirely obvious that people must start discussing that topic, as broadly and opening and seriously as possible, before it will be addressed more energetically. Somerby is arguing the case that this needs to happen. He has never presented himself as an expert on education nor has he offered any preferred solution.

      A career liberal is someone who gets paid for promoting him or herself as a liberal to liberal audiences. Rachel Maddow is a good example. Whether she is actually liberal or not is an entirely different question.

    6. Yes, indeed. "Musings on the mainstream "press corps" and the american discourse"

      Know what? For the past week we've had the spectacle of every architect of the mess that is Iraq appearing on every TV network except Nickelodeon to criticize Obama for not doing the same damned dumb thing they did.

      And where is our resident muser? Still stuck on a single story written two months ago in the Atlantic.

    7. 1st rule of blogging -- the blogger gets to choose what to write about.

      2nd rule of blogging -- if you want to discuss something different, get your own blog.

      3rd rule of blogging -- repeating what others say on their blogs (or in the media) is a waste of bandwidth. If others are saying it already, why add a me-too essay?

      4th rule of blogging -- making obvious statements about obvious situations is a waste of bandwidth.

      Personally, I think Obama deserves a whole bunch of criticism and scrutiny over his actions and that is the role of a functioning press, whether you agree with them or not. What malfeasance have they committed that you think Somerby should be addressing? What dishonesty or violation of journalistic ethics? What needs musing on?

    8. 5th rule of blogging -- when you put a comment box on your blog, expect people to call you on your bullshit, no matter how much it shocks and offends the True Believers.

      Yes, criticize Obama all you want. But trotting out the very same people who got us into this mess and who have been proven to be so utterly, completely and demonstrably WRONG about every word that came out of their mouths about Iraq? Including and especially the "liberators" and "seeds of democracy" things?

      Well, excuse me for thinking that "boots on the ground" to enforce a form of Pax Americana during a civil war in a nation in which these very same people showing up all over TV to urge "boots on the ground" might be the same idiotic idea in 2014, with the same predictable results, as it was in 2003.

      And no, it is not worth even one more American life.

  2. The way to help black kids is to establish a standard: they must learn calculus to graduate from high school.

    1. Do you know calculus? Just asking.

    2. I think everyone should have to learn calculus to vote.
      And show some state issued photo ID.

    3. Why not ask for a small fee at the same time, to buy lunch for the poll workers?

  3. "the blogger gets to choose what to write about."

    Does the same rule apply to magazine writers? After all, Bob has been howling daily because Hannah-Jones chose the wrong subject. He even called her "cruel" and "heinous" at one point over her choice of subject matter.


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