TOPICS > Education

Have we abandoned the goals of Brown v. Board of Education?

BY Kyla Calvert  May 16, 2014 at 5:36 PM EDT
Students in an integrated classroom attend Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C., in 1957. Photo by Warren K. Leffler, Courtesy Library of Congress

Students in an integrated classroom attend Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C., in 1957. Photo by Warren K. Leffler, Courtesy Library of Congress

When 17-year-old Jessica Black walks to school, the neighbors she sees mirror her city’s diversity. There are white, Asian, black and interracial families living on her block, which sits at the Northern tip of Washington, D.C. But at Calvin Coolidge High School, where she is a senior this year, the tableau is different.

“I wish my school was a reflection of my neighborhood, and I feel like it should be,” said Black, who is African-American.

Coolidge is what’s known as a “doubly segregated” school, where an overwhelming majority of the students are both minorities and from low-income households.

A new report from UCLA’s Civil Rights Project says the number of doubly segregated schools like Coolidge has grown in the last 25 years. The report, released just days before the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, confirms that schools were at their most diverse in the 1980s, but have since slipped back toward operating as two separate systems: one for low-income black and Latino students and another for more affluent white and Asian students.

“The country has turned away from the goal of Brown and accepted deepening polarization and inequality in our schools,” the authors write.

The Brown v. Board ruling set the stage for the Civil Rights movement and the desegregation of American society, which met with often violent opposition. The court ruled in favor of 13 African-American parents from Topeka, Kansas, including Oliver Brown, who wanted to send their children to the city’s all-white schools. In the opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren concluded “that in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place and “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

The decision applied to five separate school segregation lawsuits all rolled under the Brown v. Board of Education title. One of those, Bolling v. Sharpe, specifically sought the end of segregated schools in Washington, D.C.

At two high schools in Washington, D.C., students experience different versions of the Brown legacy. At Coolidge, Jessica Black has no Asian or white classmates, and the school struggles to attract families with other academic options. Just four miles away, Woodrow Wilson High School is the kind of multiracial campus the Brown decision made possible.

ISOLATED BY RACE AND POVERTY

Coolidge High School opened as a white-only school in 1940, and it wasn’t until a few years after the Brown ruling that the first African-American students enrolled. Over the years since, the demographics at the school has shifted dramatically. In the 1960s and 70s, white residents left Washington in a mass exodus to the suburbs known as “white flight.” By 1987, federal data show Coolidge High School’s more than 1,200 students were all African-American.

Today, 85 percent of Coolidge students are African-American, 12 percent are Latino, and nearly all live in low-income households.

Students fill a hallway at Coolidge High School in Washington, D.C., between classes May 1, 2014. Coolidge opened as a whites-only school in 1940, today it's students are almost exclusively African-American and Latino and from low-income households.

Students fill a hallway at Coolidge High School in Washington, D.C., between classes May 1, 2014. Coolidge opened as a whites-only school in 1940, today it’s students are almost exclusively African-American and Latino and from low-income households.

Despite the Brown edict that schools be desegregated “with all deliberate speed,” the number of schools across the country like Coolidge — where students are isolated not only by race, but by economic status — is actually growing. In 2011, 72 percent of the country’s African-American students and 68 percent of Latino students attended public schools where more than half of their classmates were living in poverty, according to the Southern Education Foundation. The same was true for only 30 percent of white students and 35 percent of Asian students.

Schools with concentrated poverty face numerous obstacles to educating students, according to Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project, which studies school segregation trends.

“They have more kids with all kinds of different problems related to nutrition, violence and instability of housing, which are related to almost all important educational outcomes,” he said. “A lot of these issues are not caused by schools, but impact schools, and the effect is enormous.”

Last year, only 53 percent of Coolidge seniors graduated on time and just 6 percent of students were enrolled in AP classes. And as neighborhood families have chosen charter schools and the city’s more prestigious application-only schools over Coolidge, the school’s enrollment has dropped to about 440 students — a third the size of its student body in the late 1980s. And fewer students means fewer resources.

An article from the Wilson High School Beacon about the drawing of Washington, D.C. school boundaries to further integrate schools in 1968.

An article from the Wilson High School Beacon about the drawing of Washington, D.C. school boundaries to further integrate schools in 1968.

While reviewing a set of worksheets in his environmental science class, Coolidge sophomore Erik Rodriguez praised his teachers, but wondered if more diversity might translate to more money for the school.

“Like in this class, we don’t even use textbooks,” he says. “We just use these papers because our textbooks are so out of date.”

ANOTHER LEGACY OF BROWN: THE MULTIRACIAL SCHOOL

On the other side of the spectrum and four miles away, is Wilson High School, the most sought-after of Washington’s non-application high schools. Families buy homes based on the school’s boundaries or enter lotteries for open seats in elementary and middle schools that feed into the school.

Past the metal detectors at the school’s doors is Wilson’s centerpiece — an atrium where students linger around cafeteria tables, perch on planters filled with trees and other plants and lounge on a set of oversized concrete stairs. The atrium looks like the kind of multiracial American high school likely envisioned by integration’s proponents.

Wilson, too, was a white-only school until it integrated in the late 1960’s. Since then, the affluent northwest neighborhood known as Tenleytown that Wilson serves remained largely white. The student body today more or less reflects the city’s racial demographics — 46 percent of students are African-American, 17 percent are Hispanic, 25 percent are white and 8 percent are Asian. And while about three-quarters of Washington public school students live in low-income households, only 31 percent of Wilson students do.

About half of the student body lives in the area. The rest commute from all over the city to Wilson’s campus.

Since the school’s renovated buildings opened in 2011, enrollment has surged from about 1,460 to more than 1,700 students. With that larger student body comes a larger pool of resources. Wilson is able to offer more AP classes than a school like Coolidge, and students can choose to enter one of six specialized academic academies.

Students socialize in Wilson High School's atrium in Washington, D.C., April 30, 2014. The school's principal, Peter Cahall, said the atrium has become a place where student of all races hang out.

Students socialize in Wilson High School’s atrium in Washington, D.C., April 30, 2014. The school’s principal, Peter Cahall, said the atrium has become a place where student of all races hang out.

The renovation not only attracted students, according to Principal Peter Cahall, but changed how they interact.

“In the old building, all of the black kids would hang out downstairs and the white kids would hang out in the upstairs hallways,” he said. “But with the atrium, we don’t see that as much.”

When Cahall arrived at Wilson in 2006, another obvious division bothered him even more.

“When I got here, you could tell which classes were AP and which were on-level just by looking at them,” he said. “The white kids were enrolled in AP classes, the African-American and Hispanic students were in the on-level classes.”

Now the school’s counselors and administrators are more proactive about pushing all students to take AP classes. In 2012, 29 percent of the students taking AP exams at Wilson were African-American, 11 percent of test takers were Latino, 39 percent were white and 10 percent were Asian.

“We’re not quite there in terms of having the AP classes reflect the school population,” he said, “but we’re getting there.”

At Wilson too, the 60th anniversary of the Brown ruling was a topic of conversation in Julie Caccamise’s D.C. History and Government class. Her students hesitated when asked whether Wilson and other Washington schools are integrated today.

An ambivalent answer came from 17-year-old Uyanga Mungunchimeg, whose family is from Mongolia. “It depends on whether you mean formally, or like inside, culturally,” she said, adding that social groups are largely segregated.

Diversity is important, said Rachel Reuther, 18, who is white: “It’s letting experience rather than opinions or stereotypes determine how you feel about other people. If there were 60 kids in your grade and there are two black people that you know, that’ll be how you view all of black society. Like walking around this school you can meet 20 black people and none of them are like each other, so it allows you to see the breadth inside each individual group, too.”

But some of Caccamise’s students were skeptical of efforts to deliberately recreate the diversity they value at Wilson.

“It sounds good, but I don’t want it to take the wrong turn,” said Adriel Miller, whose family is from the Dominican Republic. “Like if Jackson (a white classmate) gets a letter in the mail that he’ll be going to Anacostia. Why? To integrate schools. I don’t think it makes any sense. I think it should be their own decision, honestly.”

Peter Cahall, the principal, agrees.

“I’ve experienced forced integration, and when you force it, it doesn’t work. People tend to be resistant,” Cahall said. “I try to foster it through activities. If kids are on the baseball team, then they start hanging out with the baseball guys.”

That philosophy was on display during Wilson’s lunch hour. There, cafeteria tables surrounded by only Latino boys and the gym where kids can play basketball was filled exclusively with African-American students.

But in the library, where a spoken word club holds lunch time performances every other week, the tables were filled with students of all races. This week, the performers included white and African-American girls and an Asian duo singing along to a violin.

This diversity at Wilson is more of an anomaly today than it would have been in the 1980s, when U.S. schools were most integrated. That came after two decades of programs that deliberately carried out the Brown directive to desegregate schools. Those efforts included student busing and the redrawing of school attendance boundaries. Today, hundreds of school districts have had federal desegregation orders lifted. Cities like Seattle and Louisville, where school districts voluntarily bused students to increase racial integration, saw those programs struck down by the Supreme Court, which argued race should only be used as a factor to assign children to schools if diversity cannot be achieved through other means.

BUILDING DIVERSITY BY CHOICE

Back at Coolidge, the building’s age shows. In one science lab, unused sinks are papered over. Benches are missing from bolted-down bases at some school cafeteria tables. The wooden staircases have deep bends worn into them.

“Do you know how many people have to have walked on those stairs for them to look like that?” Jessica Black asked.

Black is headed to Grinnell College in Iowa in the fall with a scholarship for students with leadership skills who have the potential for academic growth. Despite the flaws she sees, Black has a deep allegiance to Coolidge. She attributes her academic success and scholarship at the prestigious liberal arts college to the support she’s gotten there.

“We have a great staff that’s always pushing opportunities like scholarships, internships — all kinds of things,” she said.

Her Washington D.C. History and Government class, for example, had just returned from a field trip to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’ chambers.

Trips like that are all part of Coolidge Principal Richard Lawrence’s grand plan. His office is a cool, quiet room painted in the school’s orange and gray colors. Gospel music plays from his computer. Lawrence, who is African-American, grew up in San Diego,where he was bused to a multiracial middle school 25 miles from his home as part of that city’s integration efforts.

“It gave me a different perspective,” he said, “Understanding different approaches to circumstances — that has been valuable to this day.”

He said he hopes that adding to the opportunities Black has taken advantage of, a city-funded building renovation slated for the 2015-16 school year, along with building on the school’s successes — he flips through a stack of college acceptance letters on his desk — will make Coolidge a school that can compete against the city’s many other options.

“I think of it in terms of the Hyundai car corporation,” he said, “where years ago it was not known as the best car company, but they rebranded and did some things, and now they’re a bit better and have a better standing.”

In the meantime, Black expects to do some catching up when she gets to college.

“People always say we’re ‘Coolidge smart,’” she said. “But there’s an entire world out there of children that have a range of knowledge and experiences that we’ve never heard of… I feel like learning comes from not just books but the diversity. Now I have to catch up and see more of the world.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been changed to reflect that Adriel Miller is of Dominican decent. He was previously identified as African-American.

This story and PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.