An unforced desegregation

SUN JOURNAL

Shift: The costs of private academies and improvements in public education have caused white enrollment in local schools to increase in the rural South.

January 15, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

EAST FLORA, Miss. - When the federal courts forced desegregation on Southern schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s, white students fled in droves, exercising a "freedom of choice" that no judge could countermand.

A generation later, hundreds of academies and Christian schools across the rural South, many organized in the years after forced desegregation, still provide a haven for white families, leaving the public schools to African-American children - and leaving them with outdated textbooks, dilapidated facilities, poorly prepared teachers and fewer course offerings.

By the turn of the 21st century, according to a recent Duke University study, private schools enrolled more than half of all white students in heavily black rural counties where the social divisions of the Jim Crow era were strictly enforced.

But some cracks are appearing in this picture. A trend has yet to be made, but some whites are enrolling their children in the public schools their parents once abandoned.

Educators and parents at these schools say years of federal investment in the public schools are beginning to pay off. Parents are growing weary of the long drives to the academies, and the private schools are having trouble keeping up with the high cost of high-technology equipment.

"When these [private] schools were organized, we in the public sector really couldn't demonstrate that we were the superior option," says Mike Kent, superintendent in Madison County, Miss. "But we now offer the superior choice. There'll always be a few private schools around, but in general their days are numbered, to be honest."

At East Flora Elementary, near the west boundary of Kent's sprawling district, white enrollment has increased over two years from 2 percent to nearly 18 percent, says Martha D'Amico, the principal. Some are the children of newly arrived parents unconcerned about social traditions, D'Amico says, "but the ones I'm proudest of came over from Tri-County," the all-white academy nearby.

Twelve of her 45 kindergartners are white, D'Amico says proudly. "That's where you've got to start, with the young ones," she says. "And then you get a critical mass, so that other families aren't afraid to follow. Ideally, I'd like a 50-50 school."

Cathy Ford, treasurer of the East Flora PTA, made the switch, enrolling three of her children in D'Amico's school and one in the adjoining East Flora Middle School. Noting that her family could no longer justify the tuition at Tri-County, Ford says, "We felt there wasn't anything at Tri-County that we couldn't get here. And on top of that, we got Martha's leadership."

Ford says her children "don't really see race the way we adults do. I asked Madden, my first-grader, how many blacks were in her class. She said, `Some of them are kinda brown, but we don't have anybody black.' That told me a lot." Madden, 6, is one of four whites in teacher Jennifer Warriner's class of 20.

D'Amico says she has established a public relations committee and charged it with promoting East Flora Elementary, especially in the local paper.

"We have a lot to toot our horn about," says D'Amico. "A reading program that's second to none, tutoring for kids who fall behind, computers."

The relationship between public and private officials has always been complex, says Richard Thompson, former Tupelo superintendent and twice Mississippi state superintendent who left the state last summer for an administrative post at the University of North Carolina.

"When desegregation first came to the South, there was almost an encouragement by public officials for whites to flee," Thompson says, "and particularly in the Delta, the private schools drew almost all the white kids out."

But that's changing, Thompson says: "We're beginning to see some drifting back. It varies from place to place, but before I left, we even saw some movement in Greenwood in the heart of the Delta. In the current atmosphere, parents will change schools if they see someone doing a good job."

Enrollment in Mississippi private schools has been fairly steady since it tripled between 1967 and 1972, and it has held fairly steady at about 10 percent, according to Duke University researcher Charles T. Clotfelter. The pattern is similar across the South, where the private-school share of total enrollment is relatively small: about 11 percent, compared with the U.S. average of 12 percent. This suggests, according to a report from the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, "that there is no longer any substantial white flight in the South to avoid integrated public school systems."

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