Pressure for Community Schools Grows as Court Oversight Wanes

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In Kansas City, Kan., they're known as "comprehensive community schools." Boston calls them "walk-to schools." And in Denver, Oklahoma City, and San Jose, Calif., they're plain old neighborhood schools.

But whatever name they go by, schools that cater to students who live nearby seem to be making a comeback. In communities where students have long been bused for desegregation, officials are responding to demands to bring them back home.

The pressures are nothing new, and some districts that have resisted them for years are continuing to do so.

Gary Orfield

Still, the number of districts that have abandoned busing in favor of neighborhood-based assignment plans continues to mount. And that has some prominent desegregation advocates worried.

"My concerns are that we are going right back to where we were--only worse," said Gary A. Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University. "Many of the schools in inner-city neighborhoods are isolated in a way they've never been before."

Diversity vs. Quality?

Given that reality, some community leaders and educators, including some African-Americans, argue that neighborhood schools are an idea whose time has come.

Many contend that schools should focus less on integration and more on educational quality, given busing's mixed record in raising minority achievement. Allowing children to attend school closer to home can help, they say, by making it easier for parents to get involved and by freeing up resources.

Yet integration advocates say that pitting desegregation against quality sets up a false dichotomy. "I would include some measure of diversity as one factor in a good education," said Dennis D. Parker, an associate counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Other leaders do not take a strong position for or against neighborhood schools, but instead emphasize improving achievement. "I don't have a big concern about the return to neighborhood schools," said E. Gregory Pringle, the president of the Oklahoma City affiliate of the National Urban League. "For me, the real concern is that children get a good education wherever they go to school."

Cases Winding Down

Fueling the debate over neighborhood schools is the end of judicial oversight in a growing number of communities.

Some of these districts, such as DeKalb County, Ga., outside Atlanta, maintained neighborhood schools throughout their years under court order. More typical, though, are districts that required at least some students to travel for racial or ethnic balance. After their court orders were lifted, many have reverted to some version of neighborhood schools, including Austin, Tex.; Broward County, Fla.; Cleveland; Denver; Norfolk, Va.; and Oklahoma City.

Meanwhile, some districts that are still under court order have either returned to neighborhood schools or have plans to do so. They include Duval County, Fla.; Kansas City, Kan.; Nashville, Tenn.; Prince George's County, Md.; and San Jose.

And some districts are scrapping mandatory busing policies that they adopted without a court order. In Minneapolis, the district's move to community schools is coming under fierce attack by desegregation advocates. ("Protesters Derail Minneapolis Board Meeting," June 3, 1998.)

And Seattle is replacing a busing program it voluntarily adopted with a plan for neighborhood schools that nevertheless gives families their choice of schools throughout the city.

Seattle's emphasis on choice is not unusual among districts returning to neighborhood schools. Through magnet programs or voluntary transfers, many such districts can also offer parents the option of educational settings more integrated than those close to home.

That, some experts say, is a crucial difference from earlier days.

And in response to critics who say that poor families may lack the resources to exercise such choices, some districts are stepping up efforts to recruit minority children for choice programs.

Richard P. Nielson, the head of logistical services for the Cleveland schools, said that is the case in his 74,000-student district, where magnet enrollment has more than doubled, from 6,800 to 16,000, in the past five years.

"If a parent says, 'I want a school that is more desegregated,' then every parent has that option, black or white," he said.

Pressure Is On

Despite strong public support for the concept of integrated education, mandatory busing has long been the target of grassroots resistance--from some minority families as well as whites.

This public sentiment is a major source of pressure on districts to return to some form of neighborhood schools.

Another is money. In Kansas City, Kan., for example, officials saw the restoration of neighborhood schools as one means of adjusting to a court-authorized cutoff of state desegregation subsidies. The result: a reassignment plan starting next fall that is expected to save some $10 million a year in transportation costs.

Still, districts sometimes find that what they save in busing is offset by the need for new or updated schools in areas where students were bused out.

In Boston, for example, administrators cite a mismatch between where students live and where schools are as one reason neighborhood schools there would be impractical. Officials there are debating a district proposal to place students in schools closer to home but which advocates of neighborhood schools say does not go far enough.

When districts do make the shift, a loss of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity often results. To avoid such consequences, some districts have retained many elements of their desegregation programs after the court orders ended.

In Buffalo, N.Y., which was freed from judicial oversight in 1996, candidates who ran on a neighborhood schools platform lost their bid for the school board this spring. And the Christina district in Delaware--one of four districts with city and suburban areas that were created as part of the Wilmington desegregation case--has continued much of its busing since the case ended in 1995.

Such efforts make some analysts reluctant to characterize neighborhood schools as the wave of the future.

"I don't see it as a nationwide trend," said William L. Taylor, a Washington-based civil rights lawyer who represents plaintiffs in desegregation cases around the country. "I don't see in our society a large trend toward neighborhood anything."

Nevertheless, Mr. Orfield worries that too many communities are rushing toward neighborhood schools: "Cities where real integration could work are being swept along in the assumption that it's impossible everywhere because it's impossible in some places."

Vol. 17, Issue 40, Page 23

Published in Print: June 17, 1998, as Pressure for Community Schools Grows as Court Oversight Wanes
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