The promise of the ruling remains largely deferred

Education: Decades after the landmark court case, the nation's schools are resegregating.

Brown Vs. Board Of Education - 50 Years Later

May 16, 2004|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

As the bell rings at 7:35 on a Monday morning, 16-year-old Anthony Wiggins settles into his usual seat in the back row of a half-empty English classroom at Randallstown High School.

Nine of the 19 students wander in over the next 40 minutes as teacher Patty Courtney lets them retake an open-book quiz on A Raisin in the Sun. Anthony writes something for each question before turning to last night's science homework. Courtney has little success stopping student conversations throughout the quiz, or these outbursts from two girls on opposite ends of the room:

"Ms. Courtney, I don't feel like writin'."

"Ms. Courtney, it's fourth quarter. I already passed."

"Ms. Courtney, I'm not doing it."

This first class on the first day of the week sets the tone for much of Anthony's schooling. And his experiences over the next seven hours illustrate a grave national problem: Many black students are not fulfilling their academic potential - even in prosperous communities such as Randallstown, where household income surpasses county and state averages.

FOR THE RECORD - A pie chart in Sunday's editions contained incorrect information about the racial breakdown of students enrolled in Howard County schools. The county's overall racial composition is 68 percent white, 18 percent black and 14 percent other.

Fifty years after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that segregated schools are unequal and therefore illegal, the dream behind the lawsuit remains deferred.

In school districts across the nation, in struggling cities and booming suburbs, black and Latino students consistently post lower test scores than whites.

Meanwhile, many schools are resegregating. Randallstown High, for example, is 98 percent black; Towson High, 14 miles away, is 78 percent white.

"When I say I go to Randallstown, some people laugh," says Anthony, 6-feet-2 with a sturdy build, a boyish face and a deep but quiet voice. He wishes he were being challenged more at school, and imagines what people would say if he attended Towson High: "They'd be like, `Oh, you go to Towson. You must be smart.'"

Over the past six months, The Sun conducted more than 100 interviews and visited a dozen schools in Baltimore County's Liberty Road corridor, where black enrollment exceeds 80 percent. Students, teachers and parents described a host of factors fueling a culture of underachievement.

Though they try mightily, teachers often are inexperienced and have trouble controlling their classes. Though they care intensely, parents often aren't monitoring their children's academic performance. Though they show much promise, students often aren't working to the best of their abilities.

Such problems are most acute in majority-black city schools. But they are spreading rapidly through suburbia as black families migrate in search of safer streets and better education, and white families move away.

In Baltimore County, the number of black students has jumped tenfold since the Brown decision, from 3,800 to 38,000. At Randallstown High, which opened in 1969 to serve a virtually all-white suburb, only 23 white students remain in a school of 1,540. Though the school is reeling from a May 7 shooting that wounded four students, its greatest long-term challenge is low achievement.

During legal segregation, blacks attended school in primitive buildings, using books discarded by whites. In the Brown opinion delivered May, 17, 1954, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that "a sense of inferiority affects the motivation of a child to learn." Segregating black children "generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone."

Today, the fight for access to equal resources is largely over, at least in the suburbs. Baltimore County has a black superintendent for its 108,000-student district, three black school board members and a black PTA Council president.

Still, students in majority-black schools feel a different kind of inferiority.

"They know they don't always have the best teachers," says Amy Stuart Wells, a Columbia University education sociologist. "They know they don't have the most challenging curriculum. They know they're in a separate building from the kids going on to Ivy League colleges."

Move to Randallstown

As a little boy in Baltimore's Liberty Heights community, Anthony slept on a mattress with his three younger siblings while their mother, Cheryl Pratt, worked two full-time jobs. Anthony attended Grove Park Elementary through third grade, then got a scholarship to All Saints School.

By 1999, fearing neighborhood drugs and violence, and desperate for more space, his mother and her now-husband, cabinet-maker Reno Pratt, bought a brick rancher on Randallstown's quiet Janbrook Road.

These days, the children have their own bedrooms and computers. Their mother works full time in the processing department at K Bank in Owings Mills and owns two assisted-living homes for the elderly in Baltimore. She hopes her family's upward mobility will continue.

"I'm really looking forward to [Anthony's] going to college," says Pratt, 37. "He will be the first in our family to attend college."

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