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Published in Print: May 26, 2004, as Louisiana District ‘Color Codes’ Teacher Job Openings

Louisiana District ‘Color Codes’ Teacher Job Openings

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The St. John the Baptist Parish public school district in Louisiana has instituted a system to "color code" teaching positions to track the transfer of teachers from one school to another.

The coding program is part of the district’s new effort to comply with a federal court order to desegregate its faculty. It comes at a time when the nation is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which overturned laws enacting racial segregation in public schools. ("Equality Goals Remain Unmet, NAACP Argues," this issue.)

Located in southeastern Louisiana, on the Mississippi River, the St. John the Baptist district has been under a federal court order to desegregate its schools—including its teaching force—since the early 1960s.

But like many other districts in Louisiana and elsewhere around the country, the 6,200- student school system is still trying to meet the mandates set forth in the court order.

"We are not working to get out of the desegregation order at this time," Ann LaBorde, the director of personnel for the district, said last week. "We are just trying to comply."

For the district to do so, the racial mix of the faculty in each of the district’s 12 schools must come within 10 percentage points of the makeup of the district’s entire teaching pool. Forty-one percent of the district’s teachers are minority members, mostly black, which means that 31 percent to 51 percent of each school’s faculty must be from a minority group.

Seventy-five percent of the students are African-American, 22 percent are white, and 3 percent are Hispanic, Native American, or Asian, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Color-coding open positions means that some jobs will be available to white teachers only, and some to teachers from minority groups only, Ms. LaBorde said.

Other districts, under orders to desegregate, have followed similar practices over the years.

The voluntary transfers will start this coming fall.

The district attempted to desegregate its teaching corps once before by forcing some teachers to transfer schools.

"In 1991, all these teachers were moved," said Ms. LaBorde. "And the next year, they all moved back" to their original schools. The mandatory placements lasted only a year. "This new order prevents that from happening," she added.

This time around, the transfers, besides being voluntary, must last for three years, she said. Those changes have made the process much more palatable for the teachers, she added.

"The reaction has been OK," she said. "I have had few complaints."

Before the new system was devised, teacher transfers were based on seniority. Now, a teacher’s race will play a major role in determining transfers, Ms. LaBorde said.

Seeking Unitary Status

St. John the Baptist is one of about 60 school districts in Louisiana, out of 68, still working to comply with a desegregation order, according to James Hrdlicka, the general counsel for the Louisiana education department.

Elsewhere, school systems have attained "unitary" status, meaning they’re free of the vestiges of segregation and so have been released from desegregation orders and the subsequent federal oversight of some district policies.

Still, the process has been slow, despite a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision, in Board of Education of Oklahoma v. Dowell, that made it easier for a school district to attain unitary status.

Since then, fewer than 200 districts, out of 700 with desegregation orders, have done so.

The advantage to a district in being declared unitary is that the local school board has complete control over such issues as transportation, students’ access to extracurricular activities, and the racial makeup of schools and faculty. "The court no longer supervises the district," Mr. Hrdlicka said.

When districts are declared so, however, students tend to return to neighborhood schools. According to Chungmei Lee, a research associate at the Harvard Civil Rights Project, that "usually results in resegregation."

Assistant Editor Bess Keller contributed to this report.

Vol. 23, Issue 38, Page 12

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