School busing debate evolves Neighborhood schools gain increasing favor among black parents

January 18, 1998|By Candus Thomson and Andrea F. Siegel | Candus Thomson and Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Not long ago, "neighborhood schools" was a phrase used by white segregationists clinging to their Jim Crow ways.

But increasingly, black parents who had once sought integrated schools, even if it meant busing, are demanding a return to neighborhood schools.

In Annapolis and neighboring Prince George's County, some black parents have embraced proposals for their youngsters to attend schools closer to home, even though that means going back to de facto segregation.

But in Odenton and Severn, two Anne Arundel communities, black and white parents have gone to the federal government to stop neighborhood school plans they say amount to segregation.

"You can't pin the term [neighborhood schools] down," says Dennis Parker, deputy counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. "It can mean schools within walking distance of home, and it can be a buzzword for backsliding."

Racial segregation has long been at the center of the neighborhood schools issue. But economic segregation is emerging as a significant concern.

Educators and judges in Maryland have tried since the early 1970s to end segregated classrooms by busing youngsters, manipulating attendance boundaries and creating specialized curricula to lure students into specific schools.

Now, many black parents say they are fed up with being guinea pigs in a social experiment. Worse, hopes for an integrated and well-educated society as a result of the Supreme Court striking down "separate but equal" schools in 1954 have not been fulfilled.

"One of the reasons neighborhood schools resonate in the black communities is that a lot of schools in those communities were older and got closed during busing," Parker says. "Black students were forced from their neighborhoods and carried a disproportional burden of busing."

That happened in Annapolis, where mandatory desegregation and urban renewal a generation ago tore the heart out of a black community and scattered children to schools miles away.

Black parents rejoiced in the early 1990s, when Anne Arundel school officials started talking about neighborhood schools.

The first plan was shelved, but black parents persisted until the school board last year redrew Annapolis school boundaries so their children could attend schools closer to home. Racial balance was no longer the overriding concern.

"Aren't neighborhoods segregated? Have people learned to live together?" asks Sheryl Banks, a leader of the Adams Park and redistricting efforts. "Hopefully, this is an understanding that we can have equal education no matter who they sit next to."

The director of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation warns that parents are fooling themselves if they adopt a separate-but-equal philosophy.

"All things being equal, most parents would prefer having their children attend school close to home," says Dr. Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University. "But that is the key word -- equal."

Orfield's 1997 report on desegregation notes that only 5 percent of the nation's predominantly white schools have large numbers of poor children among their students, but more than 80 percent of predominantly black and Latino schools do.

"We're resegregating with the expectation that we know how to make racially isolated schools equal and fair. But we do not," Orfield says.

Those arguments have not swayed parents -- black and white -- who have abandoned urban public schools by moving farther from urban areas or enrolling their children in private schools.

Since 1971, Prince George's County public school enrollment has slipped from 163,000 to 123,000, despite a near-tripling of the county population, and the racial makeup has gone from three-quarters white to three-quarters black.

Prince George's majority black leadership has endorsed a multiyear program to build neighborhood schools because, in large part, integration is impossible given the racial makeup of the student population.

"We're out of white kids," County Executive Wayne K. Curry says bluntly.

Alvin Thornton, a Howard University professor and president of the Prince George's school board, defends the neighborhood schools program he devised.

"Separation based on social class, on income -- that is the problem in Prince George's," Thornton says. "I think the race question still has a lot to be talked about. But social class is the emerging question, and it would be a major advancement if we could talk about that. It may be that neighborhood schools brings that to the forefront."

Class is driving a western Anne Arundel community's five-year battle against a neighborhood plan, says school board member Thomas E. Florestano.

Residents of Seven Oaks, a racially mixed neighborhood, want their children to stay in a more upscale, mostly white group of schools rather than be shifted into a less prestigious, half-minority cluster.

"You have elite blacks who do not want their children to go to school with rural blacks and poor blacks," says Florestano, former president of Anne Arundel Community College. "What you have is middle-class blacks -- like in Prince George's -- they left Anacostia, and they're not moving back."

Orfield says: "Many times, black parents are in their third or fourth move outward -- away from bad schools. They don't want new ghetto schools to start up. It's very important to not start the process of resegregation."

Anne Arundel could learn from 25 years of lessons in Prince George's, Orfield says.

"They are in the migratory path, and they are going to become more diverse over time. Not doing anything doesn't keep it from happening," says Orfield. "If you don't make a plan to deal with racial and social relationships, there's a place waiting out there. It's called ghetto schools."

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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