Calif. District Strives To Mix Blacks, Hispanics

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In an unusual move, the Pasadena, Calif., school board has shifted the district's integration efforts to focus almost solely on mixing Hispanic and black students.

Moreover, the board has acknowledged that the primary purpose of the desegregation plan is no longer to remedy past discrimination, but to avert conflict--particularly gang warfare--between members of the two groups.

Black and Hispanic community leaders last week expressed little concern over the district's decision to largely abandon the goal of integrating students from other groups with white students, who now make up just 17 percent of its enrollment.

"You can't really integrate students if they are not really part of your population," said Delano Yarbrough, a member of the executive board of the Pasadena branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"We have to deal with things as they are today," said Elbie J. Hickambottom, the board member who proposed the revisions.

The new plan, which the board adopted unanimously last month, focuses on insuring that neither of the 22,000-student district's two largest groups, Hispanics and blacks, becomes the overwhelming majority at any one school.

"There are a lot of gangs in this area--both black gangs and Hispanic gangs," Mr. Hickambottom said. Thus, sending the district's black and Hispanic children to separate schools, where they would not learn to get along with each other, is "one of the most dangerous things that could take place," he contended.

"Teaching 'integration' is not enough. People have to be in proximity to one another," said George Van Alstine, a Baptist minister who is the school board president.

Without Mandates

The new plan is especially unusual in that the school board devised it on its own. The Pasadena school district has not been under a federal court order to desegregate since 1979. Although its release from court supervision was predicated on a pledge to maintain integration, the district actually did little during the 1980's to keep its schools from becoming more segregated, Mr. Van Alstine asserted in an interview.

The district has lost nearly a quarter of its enrollment since 1970, when a federal court found it guilty of racial segregation. White students, who then made up 54 percent of students, are now a minority at each of the district's 22 schools. Hispanic students now account for 43 percent of overall enrollment and more than 80 percent of the enrollment at some sites, while black students make up 35 percent of district enrollment and are the overwhelming majority at other schools.

Given such demographics, Mr. Hickambottom said, "it would be impossible and ridiculous" to try to evenly distribute the district's white students to each school.

Mr. Van Alstine also questioned the benefits of spreading white students so thin that they might feel uncomfortable. "Our idea is that a kid ought to be able to experience school with people who are like him and people who are not like him," he said.

The revised plan sets no floors for white enrollment--thereby allowing whites to abandon some sites--but stipulates that no school can have a white enrollment of more than 40 percent.

Little Opposition

Under the new plan, schools' enrollments of black and Hispanic students must stay within 20 percentage points of the district average. If necessary, the district plans to create magnet schools or redraw boundaries to keep its schools in compliance.

The plan will enable the district to address overcrowding and to enact school choice without fearing it will lead to segregation, Mr. Van Alstine said.

A few parents have objected to the plan because they wish to keep their children in their neighborhood schools. Over all, however, it has encountered little opposition, board members said.

While he is not opposed to the plan, Mr. Yarbrough, who is running for a seat on the school board in this month's elections, said it fails to address gaps in the achievement of white and minority students. He also warned that the district needs to do more to help students learn about each other if it plans to integrate blacks and Hispanics.

"There needs to be something to address cultural differences," Mr. Yarbrough argued, or "you could potentially run into problems with communications and with persons misreading responses."

Lydia Fernandez Palmer, the executive director of a Latino community organization, El Centro de Accion Social, said she believes the city's Hispanic population wants to see its children integrated. Otherwise, she said, "there are going to be a great deal of problems in the future."

Vol. 14, Issue 29

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