Finding the limits of integration

In Topeka, questions about racial progress

January 06, 2002|By Mike Adams | Mike Adams,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

TOPEKA, Kan. - City schools Superintendent Robert McFrazier stood on the playground of the modern Williams magnet school and gazed toward Monroe Elementary, a relic from the days of segregation that spurred the filing of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education lawsuit by 13 black parents here a little more than half a century ago.

Inside Williams, built at a cost of $4 million to meet a 1994 federal desegregation order, the classrooms seemingly mirrored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. Children of all races shared the same classrooms, books and educational materials. They are taught by an integrated teaching staff.

Just a block away, Monroe was being restored to its look on May 17, 1954, the date the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Brown case and outlawed public school segregation. Once an all-black school, it will soon become a National Park Service museum chronicling the school desegregation battle.

McFrazier, an African-American, was well aware of the symbolism the two schools embody but said appearances are misleading. The picture of racial harmony at Williams is merely a mirage created by extraordinary cost and effort, he maintained. At the end of the school day, the students will return to worlds still divided by race.

"Race is for the statistician, and race is for the politician, and race is for the people who dole out the money," McFrazier said, adding that high quality schools - not racial percentages - should be the primary concern of educators.

In Topeka and elsewhere in the nation, critics point to lagging test scores among black students as an indicator that desegregation has failed. They also point to white flight from areas with growing minority populations as a reflection of the nation's unwillingness to integrate.

You'd think that McFrazier's words would be blasphemous in this town forever linked to one of the most influential civil rights decisions of the 20th century.

A town where the school system's headquarters is named after the late McKinley L. Burnett, who was president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People from 1948 to 1963, and organized the plaintiffs in the historic case. A town that named the Scott magnet school after the family of lawyers who filed the suit on behalf of the plaintiffs and the Williams school after a black teacher who worked in the segregated school system.

`It's a disgrace'

But McFrazier, 61, who attended segregated public schools in Muskogee, Okla., and has worked in Topeka's schools for 35 years as a teacher, principal and administrator, is joined by others who say they are disappointed that school desegregation has failed to bridge the achievement gap between white and black students.

An angry William Richards, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, waved a copy of the local newspaper, The Topeka Capital-Journal, which showed that Topeka's black students had the lowest ACT scores in the school district.

"I think it's a disgrace," he said. "This indicates to me that parents aren't challenging the children to achieve or their expectations are too low. At the same time, the teachers' expectations might be too low."

Richards, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, also blamed black students for marching to the beat of the hip-hop culture, which he said preaches, "Man, it ain't cool to be intellectual."

He said black children who fail to value education and the opportunities for advancement it provides are "ensuring their second-class status."

"There's nowhere for them to go, except jail, and we have plenty of folks in jail for taking the easy way, selling drugs and things like that."

Topeka school officials point to another standardized test given in 1999, the MAT Basic Battery, to illustrate lagging test scores among black students. The test measures achievement in reading, mathematics and language. It was given to about 6,000 students in grades three through eight and 11.

Nearly 45 percent of the black students scored in the first quartile, the lowest grouping, and slightly more than 9 percent were in the highest grouping, the fourth quartile. Blacks trailed whites, Hispanics and Asians on the test.

Better ways to spend money

McFrazier said the Supreme Court ruling addressed a wrong. But he maintained that the high court's ruling resulted in social engineering - not higher educational quality for black students in Topeka. The school system he runs must spend an extraordinary amount of time and money playing "a numbers game" that ignores changing demographics, he said. The money could be better spent by using it for educational initiatives aimed at raising the test scores and grades of black students, he added.

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