Judge Finalizes Mississippi School Desegregation Settlement

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A federal judge Monday finalized a settlement in a 52-year-old Mississippi school desegregation case, merging historically white and black high schools and middle schools in a district.

The 3,500-student Cleveland school district had sought to maintain historically black and white high schools. But U.S. District Judge Debra Brown ruled in May that the plan maintained illegal vestiges of segregation, agreeing with the U.S. Justice Department and private plaintiffs.

The Mississippi Delta district agreed Jan. 30 to have one high school on the campus of historically white Cleveland High School and Margaret Green Junior High School and one school for seventh- and eighth-graders at the site of historically black East Side High School. Sixth-graders, who mostly attend Margaret Green or a separate middle school, will remain at elementary schools.

Like many Southern school districts, Cleveland is governed by a decades-old desegregation order, with Monday's order concluding the latest round of litigation in the case. The district will remain under court supervision.

Previous desegregation orders allowed the district to keep two high schools and two middle schools, even though white and black schools were forced to merge in scores of districts across the South in the 1960s and 1970s.

One previous plan allowed students to choose which high school or middle school they wanted to attend. Over time, Cleveland's traditionally white schools became integrated—Cleveland High is 48 percent black, 47 percent white, and 5 percent Hispanic this year. But in a district where 68 percent of students are African-American, some schools remained almost all black. For example, all but two of the 377 students at East Side High this year are black.

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Brown ruled consolidation was also the right answer for Cleveland. The district filed an appeal, citing testimony that white students would flee. Beyond Cleveland, only four of 22 other districts in Mississippi's Delta region have student bodies less than 80 percent African-American.

But officials also went ahead with planning for the mergers anyway, hiring principals, adopting new names and even new mascots and colors for the schools. In January, the Cleveland school board voted to accept a settlement that only slightly altered Brown's original order.

District lawyer Jamie Jacks said in January that the system decided to settle because it had growing confidence in the new schools moving forward, and because it would relieve uncertainty over the appeal.

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