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Plan foes fear end to school diversity

Many say the system proposed to end the county's mandatory school busing could undo decades of effort to integrate.

By SARAH SCHWEITZER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 10, 2000


TAMPA -- The reactions have been nearly bipolar.

Since school district officials unveiled a school choice plan designed to lift federal court supervision of its desegregation efforts, the opposing sides in the 41-year-old case have butted heads like a pair of rams.

School board members have praised the plan as forward-looking and asked its architects to fill in needed details and report back in June, when they plan to vote on it.

The local chapter of the NAACP has condemned the plan, saying it will send the district back to the days of a dual school system, when black and white students did not sit side by side in classrooms or ride school buses together.

Could it happen?

Not possible, school officials say. The system has made too many strides to fall back so far, they say. The plan's school choice options and incentives designed to lure white students to predominantly black neighborhoods, they say, will move desegregation efforts forward.

But some experts are not so certain. Although a return to government-sanctioned segregation would obviously be illegal, a kind of de facto segregation may in fact surface, they say.

"In my opinion, the NAACP's concerns are well-founded," said Juan Parea, a constitutional law professor at the University of Florida. "Voluntary efforts to create any kind of racial equality usually fail, especially in Southern states with histories of segregation."

The ultimate arbiter is U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich. In October 1998, she ordered the school district to do more to desegregate its schools. Some progress had been made, but not enough, she declared. If the plan wins School Board approval, it will be submitted to Kovachevich for her approval.

What some black residents hope she bears in mind is that the segregated past was not so long ago.

With a kind of bitter nostalgia, Robert Saunders recalls his days in the late 1930s of trundling off to Middleton High School, Tampa's first black high school. Hillsborough High was closer, but off-limits because it was a white school.

At Middleton, the textbooks were old. Many had the names of white students etched in their covers. "We always knew who was going with who at Plant and Hillsborough," said Saunders, a 1940 Middleton graduate who went on to become the state's NAACP field director.

Class offerings were limited. Algebra was available, but not trigonometry. Chemistry, not physics.

Equipment was in short supply.

James Green, Middleton class of 1936 and an 83-year-old retired dentist, remembers having to go to a white high school to collect materials he needed to make a lawn chair for his industrial arts class. "I could go on campus and borrow a pattern, but I couldn't enroll there," he said.

Jump ahead a generation, circa 1958. Another black high school, Blake, had opened. The U.S. Supreme Court had declared segregated schools inherently unequal. Black parents in Hillsborough County had filed suit asking that the dual school system be dismantled.

Little had changed.

Blacks still attended black schools; whites still attended white schools.

The problem, school officials now concede, was that they did little to bring the groups together. The school district would continue its inaction until a federal judge in 1971 ordered kids bused across neighborhood lines.

So Hosea Belcher taught civics at Middleton in the late '50s and early '60s with little insulation from winter's cold, since the heat rarely worked. Bathrooms reeked at times, since the school's one custodian could never get to all the malfunctions in a day. A film or overhead projector was a rare treat, because the building had but a handful for the 40 or so teachers.

Henry Carley, Blake class of 1960, wondered what the white students were getting that he wasn't. He would never know.

"I never went to a white school. There was no reason to visit. Why would you visit a white high school?" said the retired Hillsborough Community College administrator. "The only reason you ever visit another high school is for events, and we didn't have events with white schools."

Willie Dixon, the band director of Booker T. Washington Junior High School from 1958 to 1964, had to make do with old instruments and no uniforms.

"It was a way of life. We didn't think too much about it. It was the law, and we made the best of it," said Dixon, who now heads a non-profit organization.

Black residents recall that despite black schools' material shortcomings, they lacked nothing in human warmth. Teachers, such as the beloved Frankie Berry at Middleton, are recalled with reverent fondness.

"I didn't have a void. I really didn't miss anything because we got a lot of love," said Gloria Taylor, 51, a Middleton graduate.

Taylor and others said they had the best teachers in the district. Because educated blacks were shut out of many professional careers, they headed to the black schools, places where they could stretch their minds and where they were welcome.

All of which, black residents quickly add, is not to say they can fathom a return to the old.

"I think they have made some changes; seems to me we're moving in the right direction," said Ruth Brown, 68, a former principal and teacher in Hillsborough who graduated from Middleton in 1949. "But I don't think we ever want to go back to segregation."

School officials say stories from days past are testament to how far the district has come in a short period of time.

Since 1971, black students have been bused to predominantly white schools. Black students who attend a majority black school and want to go to a majority white school may transfer, and in recent years have been encouraged to do so. Magnet schools in black neighborhoods have lured students from white neighborhoods.

The efforts have yielded some schools with proportional racial balances.

But increasingly, those schools are fewer in number. There are 26 schools that are more than 40 percent black. Schools like Cahoon Elementary, where 59 percent of the students are black. And Edison Elementary, where 80 percent of the students are black. And Franklin Middle School, where blacks make up 64 percent of the students.

Just six years ago, there were only 16 such schools.

Meanwhile, 24 schools are now more than 90 percent white. Schools like Eisenhower Middle, Wimauma Elementary and Westchase Elementary.

The burden of maintaining racial balance also has stayed with black students. As of 1999, 3,185 black elementary students were bused for segregation purposes, compared with 1,940 white students. At the middle and high school level, more white kids than black kids are bused for desegregation purposes, but more blacks are bused proportionately.

School district officials point to shifts in demographics for the changing racial makeup of the schools. And the time has passed, district officials say, for fixing the imbalances using racial quotas.

Federal courts around the country have in recent years struck down race-conscious plans, saying they are a form of reverse discrimination.

"The Supreme Court has never guaranteed racial balance as a right," said David Armor, an expert in desegregation who testified on behalf of the Hillsborough County school district during the most recent court hearings. "It has explicitly said it is not a right."

So it has come down to choice -- which blacks never had in the days of segregation. Under the district's proposed plan, the decision to desegregate will fall to parents and their children.

Will parents choose racially mixed schools without a court order?

History, some blacks say, suggests not.

"I seriously doubt, given the history, that this plan will work to achieve the goals that we would all like to see in the public system: a unitary schools system and one that fulfills the needs of people of colors and races," Carley said.

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