Schools in black, in white, in gray

Published May 6, 2007

For the first time in decades, the majority of students at a public school in Pinellas County will be black when the new year begins in August.

This is no surprise to those who have been paying attention. As the school district sails away from a system of court-ordered busing for desegregation to one that allows children to apply to schools they wish to attend, it is common sense that they choose schools close to home.

And in an urban county with largely segregated housing patterns - and make no mistake, Pinellas is one - that means some schools will resegregate.

To all of us living in an America of many colors, even if our neighborhoods are monochromatic, we must wonder how many, how fast, and how much we should care.

Oddly enough, this new world of majority black schools is about to begin at a place - Melrose Elementary - set up to aid diversity, to bring in white students from outside the predominantly black neighborhood in voluntary desegregation. It is a "magnet" school, pumped up with resources, teachers, programs and a focus (communication) that are used as a draw.

But just-released figures from the district show that the school's population will be 51 percent African-American when classes begin in August. It will be the first, and so far only, school to become majority African-American. It will not be the last. Several other schools are already pointing that way.

And that gets to the nub. In Pinellas, as in many urban districts across the country, you can have neighborhood schools or you can have desegregated schools. It's not easy to have both. And if you don't work hard at it, you won't. That became clear last week as the school district released racial breakdowns by school for the year ahead.

Social science research over the years suggests a "tipping point," that when a school or a neighborhood becomes majority black, it soon becomes predominantly black.

Before sanguinely accepting a trend toward some all-white and all-black schools, we all should be thinking about ways that voluntary desegregation can continue in enough schools to make a difference, because desegregation has made us better as a people. The school district, as the largest single entity in the county with a daily enrollment of far more than 100, 000 students, is a powerful agent and engine of change. This is true of schools across our nation.

Voluntary desegregation has occurred most easily and readily at schools like magnets, ones with special offerings. So what if those offerings are not enough? Does that mean the center cannot hold?

For decades, Pinellas operated under strict racial ratios and busing. As in many urban districts, a court order ensured that schools were desegregated. Under those rules, a magnet was a sensible way to attract white students (officially, a student is "black" or "non-black") to a school in a predominantly black neighborhood by choice rather than by force. It was win-win. White students willing to travel some distance got to attend one of the best schools in the county, and black students from the neighborhood got a great school nearby.

Pinellas created its first two magnet elementaries about 15 years ago - Bay Point for math and science and Perkins for the arts. (Melrose was added some years later.)

My eldest son, who has just completed his first year of college, was in the first magnet class of kindergartners those many years ago at Perkins. Our second son attended as well, and our family was at the school for a decade. Their education was second to none, and they benefited greatly from such a diverse student body.

But it was not always easy. During the street violence of 1996, a liquor store burned to the ground a coin's toss from the school. In fact, that ashen lot was purchased to become part of the school grounds when a new Perkins was built years later. The morning after the disturbances, smoke from arsonists hung in the air as we delivered our then third-grader to school, wondering if we perhaps were doing the right thing, but not the smart thing as we observed the empty desks in the sparsely attended classes that day. We were glad we stayed, and our kids thrived. (Full disclosure: Over the years my wife and I were heavily involved in the school and became good friends with the magnet coordinator.)

Times have changed. With a court no longer telling schools what their racial makeup should be, how do they measure successful integration, much less control it? Is there some magic percentage?

And here's this wrinkle, introduced this year: Students' race no longer matters when they apply. While that seems fair, how under that system can a school built for diversity figure out how to be Goldilocks' porridge - not too white, not too black, but just right?

Both Perkins and Melrose, located near each other in the Midtown section of St. Petersburg, have been and will remain good schools. This next year at Perkins about three in every 10 students will be black, compared with Melrose's slight black majority. Which is the "right" number? Either? (In a year, Melrose plans to open half of its seats to kids from anywhere in the county, up from the current 35 percent, which would open the door to more diversity.)

What if a magnet school in a mostly black neighborhood becomes predominantly white - or consists mostly of students from outside the neighborhood? Or what if a magnet becomes mostly black? Is either school still a magnet in the sense of attracting diversity?

And if these questions are hard to answer for schools built for diversity, how much harder are they for a school district at large? How does a district maintain both neighborhood schools and integration that reflects the larger society?

These are questions for America as much as Pinellas. Many large urban districts in America are facing these fundamental issues in the here and now. Some are waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule next month to see when, if ever, it's appropriate to consider race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status when kids apply to schools. Pinellas is revisiting its rules. As it does so, officials would be wise to decide what they want to do while there is still time to make a difference.