Equity & Diversity

Balancing Act

By Karla Scoon Reid — November 22, 2000 20 min read
When the Georgetown County, S.C., district was forced to close an all-black school, the community learned some valuable lessons.

Daryl C. Brown knows what people said about Carvers Bay High School.

The principal heard the predictions that unruly students, race riots, and poor test scores would plague the new school. But the dire forecasts contrast sharply with the order and enthusiasm that Brown sees as he walks the halls of the state-of-the-art school, which opened this fall in the heart of rural Georgetown County, S.C.

The ugly warnings about the school reflect its difficult birth: Carvers Bay and a sister middle school were built to desegregate the county’s only all-black secondary school.

To many people here, the schools are all about black and white, although some may not like to admit it. To others, the schools symbolize a quest for equal opportunity for the education of all students.

Construction of the schools grew out of a 30- year-old desegregation case against the 10,000-student Georgetown County district by the U.S. Department of Justice. Students from all-black Choppee Middle/High School were combined with students from the racially mixed Pleasant Hill schools to form Carvers Bay.

“Carvers Bay [High] is a school nobody wanted,” says board member H. Jean Brown, who in 1968 was the first black graduate of the county’s former all-white high school. “But the school has not only brought people in the attendance area together, it’s bringing the entire community together.”

But whether Carvers Bay can heal the racial rift here is an open question, resident say. Since Carvers Bay’s enrollment is more than 80 percent black, some fear more white students will eventually leave.

Talking about race is considered impolite in this South Carolina county, which is 38 miles south of Myrtle Beach. About 40 percent of the county’s 54,800 residents are African-American; 60 percent are white. The county’s Atlantic Ocean beach community, where golf carts sometimes share the road with cars, is predominantly white. In town, which is home to paper and steel mills, the community is predominantly black.

Desegregation skipped rural Georgetown County. While the all-white and all-black high schools and middle schools within the city limits of Georgetown merged or were integrated, those in outlying areas remained practically unchanged. Most recall that desegregation in Georgetown County proceeded relatively smoothly.

Georgetown’s experience is typical of how desegregation unfolded in South Carolina, says Cleveland L. Sellers, a professor of African-American studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Since the state avoided much of the violence that racked other Southern states, Sellars says, South Carolina never really confronted racism. Many white families with means simply sent their children to private schools.

“It was assumed that if you avoid the violence,” Sellers says, “you’ve solved the problem.”

‘Carvers Bay is a school nobody wanted. But the school [is] bringing the entire community together.’

H. Jean Brown,
Georgetown County,
School Board Member

But as the city schools were desegregated and some white students left Georgetown County for private schools, children at the now-closed Choppee school were neglected by the district, advocates for black students say. Countywide, about 57 percent of the students are black, while 43 percent are white.

The consent decree that resulted in the two new schools didn’t just happen. Members of the Georgetown County chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, a historically black fraternity, along with other minority residents in the county’s rural communities, got in touch with the federal Justice Department in 1997 when the school board announced plans to seek a multimillion-dollar bond issue to build new schools and renovate others. They were concerned that the needs of all-black Choppee, which served students in grades 6 to 12, would go unmet.

The school had just one science lab, roaches, and no Advanced Placement classes—deficiencies that Johnny Morant, a local lawyer and a member of the fraternity, says hurt student achievement. Choppee high school students had the county’s lowest SAT scores, while middle school students posted the county’s poorest results on state tests. Although Choppee had many qualified teachers, he says, it was common practice to assign problem teachers to the school.

The Alpha Phi Alpha-led group wanted to make sure the Justice Department was “aware of both sides of the story,” Morant says of the group’s letter complaining of “substantial inequities” at Choppee Middle/High School.

That same year, the Justice Department found that the district had not complied with previous court orders and federal desegregation law in student and teacher assignment, school construction and expansion, and the equitable provision of educational opportunities for all students.

While desegregation orders are being phased out nationwide, 500 school districts are still covered by court orders. The Justice Department is a party in more than 200 such cases.

“The Justice Department’s order forced the community to deal with Choppee,” says George Geer, who served as the chairman of the county school board from 1992 to 2000. “They had to come up with a solution or have a solution imposed on them.”

Students at Carvers Bay have defied predictions of racial unrest—and fielded a winning football team in the process that has helped to unify the two communities. The Carvers Bay Bears posted an 8-2 regular season record and defeated the state’s No. 3 team in the playoffs.

“Every successful day is like a stab in the back to those who didn’t want this to take place,” says Brown, 29, the high school principal.

Armond Prior, 13, a black Carvers Bay 8th-grader whose brothers and sisters graduated from Choppee, describes the decision to close the school as “breaking a chain.”

Some black residents wanted to keep their community school, says Floyd Ruffin, a music teacher at both Carvers Bay schools. Although Choppee, where he taught for 10 years, was a close-knit family, Ruffin, who is black, says he knew it was time for a change.

“Our world is not all black,” he says.

Many black residents welcomed the Carvers Bay schools, because the larger enrollments would allow the schools to offer more courses. Last fall, Choppee served 520 students in grades 6 to 12, while Pleasant Hill enrolled 297 students at the high school and 295 at the middle school. The Pleasant Hill schools were 60 percent black and 40 percent white.

Today, Carvers Bay High School serves 584 students, while 499 students are enrolled at the middle school.

But most Pleasant Hill residents, who boasted about their students’ high SAT scores and good behavior, didn’t see any benefits for their children. Former Georgetown Superintendent Douglas Magann says busing was considered, but people opposed subjecting students to lengthy bus rides.

‘Every successful day [at Carvers Bay] is like a stab in the back to those who didn’t want this to take place.’

Daryl C. Brown,
Carvers Bay High School

“I don’t think we did convince the people in Pleasant Hill,” Magann says, noting that their high school building was only 15 years old.

About 70 percent of the voters in Pleasant Hill High School’s attendance area voted against the successful $109 million bond issue, in fact. As Pleasant Hill residents faced the end of their 61-year tradition, Geer says, “they felt like the heart was being torn out of [the town].”

More than 80 percent of the students at each of the new schools are black—an ironic outcome, some suggest, for a desegregation case.

The wrong, in terms of race, has not been corrected, says David J. Armor, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. The Carvers Bay schools would be considered “racially isolated” in desegregation terms, he says.

Meaningful integration, Armor says, would not encourage the use of “whites to sprinkle around like salt.”

While school mergers were used frequently in the 1960s and 1970s to integrate schools, they are uncommon today as districts favor magnet and choice programs, says Gary Orfield, a professor of education and social policy at Harvard University. He says the Georgetown County merger appears to be more about poverty and class than race.

While the racial balance here may not be ideal, the quality of the $28.4 million Carvers Bay campus, built on 100 acres midway between Pleasant Hill and Choppee high schools, is not in dispute.

To help residents determine what they wanted from Carvers Bay, the district formed a transition team made up of residents from both communities to foster support for the new schools. Al E. Eads, a retired South Carolina superintendent, was hired as a consultant to listen to their concerns and help them work through the merger.

Eads has been involved in five school mergers either as an administrator or consultant in South Carolina. He tried to serve as a catalyst for the group during the yearlong process, which he calls easier than most mergers.

To foster a feeling of unity, Eads says, members of the transition team, the Parent Teacher Organization, and the booster clubs for both schools joined hands on the field at halftime during the last football game between Pleasant Hill and Choppee—to an enthusiastic round of applause.

Despite that public display of harmony, some frank, emotional discussions marked the transition-team meetings.

Tena Ponteau, who is black and was a transition- team member, says she told one white team member: “You can work with black people. You can eat at a restaurant with black people. Why can’t your children go to school with black people?”

Ponteau, now a secretary at Carvers Bay Middle School, adds of the team member: “He knew he had to get to know us.”

‘Everything my students have is first-class. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not about black and white.’

Daryl C. Brown,

Eleven-year-old Brittany Williams couldn’t understand why her friends didn’t want to attend Carvers Bay. Brittany, who is white and a 6th grader, says some of her friends left the area almost two years ago to avoid the merger.

“They thought it was crazy to go to school with that many black kids,” she says. “But they’re just as nice as some of the friends I had, and maybe sometimes even nicer than them.”

Brittany’s mother, Tina Williams, who is the bookkeeper at Carvers Bay Middle School, calls those parents’ efforts desperate.

“If I felt my child was in danger, I would pull her out,” says Williams, a 1982 Pleasant Hill graduate. “I think people were scared that Choppee children had more discipline problems.”

Raymond Winbush, the director of the Race Relations Institute at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., says white parents must come to grips with what he sees as their fear of black people. He says many white parents believe that predominantly black schools are academically inferior and dangerous.

“White people do not make good minorities,” Winbush says. “They feel like they have to control whatever environment they’re in. They can have all black players [on a football team], as long as they have a white quarterback.”

At Pleasant Hill, Williams says, white parents and students were more involved in the school than their black counterparts, few of whom attended meetings of the PTO.

Some white Pleasant Hill parents, for their part, also went their own way—for example, hosting separate, private, off- campus proms for their children.

In the classroom, says Morant, who also is a county commissioner, black Pleasant Hill students weren’t encouraged to strive for college. Only 29 percent of Pleasant Hill’s seniors took the SAT last school year, compared with 76 percent of seniors at Choppee.

“They went to school with blacks, but they were still in control,” board member Brown says of white students and their parents. “They feared that Choppee would be in control of the [new] school.”

To make parents and students more comfortable at Carvers Bay Middle School, Principal Margaret L. Pierce tried to make sure each class had more than one white child.

“I wish I had some seeds to grow some more white children,” she says.

Regardless of the racial makeup of the classroom, if teachers have accepting and supportive attitudes, Winbush says, white parents will be more at ease with their children being in the minority at school.

“I feel like if they leave the children alone, everything will be just fine,” says Dolly M. Brown, a Carvers Bay 6th grade teacher who taught at both Choppee and Pleasant Hill.

And most here agree that the students will bridge the cultural gap at Carvers Bay because, for many, the differences between them aren’t important.

“It’s fine,” Ponteau’s 11-year-old son, Jamain Grate, says of attending school with white children at Carvers Bay Middle School. “They’re just lighter than me.”

Sophomore Shacorseia Lewis wasn’t nervous about the first day of classes at Carvers Bay High.

“I was trying to tell the bus driver, ‘Hurry up,’ ” says the former Pleasant Hill student, who is black. “Sometimes, change is good.”

While not all students were as confident as Lewis about Carvers Bay, those who had predicted violence for Aug. 16, the schools’ opening day, were proved wrong. Television cameras, reporters, and curious onlookers welcomed students to campus, but the day was uneventful.

“They wanted us to have problems,” Dustin Miller, a white senior who had attended Pleasant Hill, recalls with a frown, referring to opponents of the merger and the media. “Like we’re going to come in all prejudiced and stuff. I’ve been to school with black kids all my life.”

Sophomore Melanie Davis says she tries to avoid her white friends who transferred to other schools. Some, she says, tell her: “ ‘I’m so sorry. It’s got to be so awful for y’all.’ ” The 14-year-old, however, doesn’t want their sympathy.

“I didn’t think it was fair that they didn’t give us a chance before they ditched us,” says Davis, who is white.

Junior Lynnetta Geathers admits she was a little apprehensive about attending classes with white students for the first time.

“I thought white kids were different,” says the 16-year-old black girl, who had attended Choppee.

‘We’re not back in the 1950s ... Carvers Bay is an example of a changing society.’

Charles Gadsden,
Georgetown County School District

“I thought they would act like they were at a higher level.”

After almost two months of class with white students, Geathers concludes: “They act like they’re down with us.”

In the cafeteria, most blacks and whites don’t sit together, except for some who were friends at Pleasant Hill. Most students say that they’re just sitting with their friends and that they never talk about race.

“Some said that there would be fights. That people wouldn’t get along,” says Shequita Branch, a black sophomore from Choppee. “It wasn’t true. Everything turned out good.”

Still, the school merger has created challenges for some at Carvers Bay High.Veteran teacher Loretta M. Reddish had mixed feelings about the merger. She had taught at Pleasant Hill for 25 years—her entire career. The new school’s size intimidated her, and it was unsettling not to recognize every student’s face in the hall. But Reddish, who acknowledges the change has been stressful, says she’s never considered leaving.

“I didn’t want the kids to feel like everybody deserted them,” she says.

In Pat McClellan’s world history class, eight of the 24 students are white. McClellan, who is white and taught at Choppee for more than two decades, says she’s taught only two white students in her 25-year teaching career. The only difference so far is in their sense of humor, she says.

Carvers Bay offers some welcome changes to the school environment and opportunities for students, McClellan says. She sees the high school’s administration as supportive and energetic.

Students also appreciate the benefits of being at Carvers Bay. More computers. More classes. More sports.

Carvers Bay has at least one computer in every academic classroom. Students no longer have to ride a bus to another school to take classes that were available exclusively at either Pleasant Hill or Choppee, such as photography, drama, and band. In athletics, students had their first chance to join cross-country and soccer teams.

While Carvers Bay students’ athletic accomplishments may have exceeded expectations, the main goal this year is raising student achievement.

Principal Brown wants high schools seniors to increase Carvers Bay’s combined average SAT score to 1000 out of a possible 1600. Seniors at Choppee earned a 767, while Pleasant Hill students’ combined average was 962. Carvers Bay High has an extensive SAT- preparation program and offers some remedial courses. Next year, the school will have Advanced Placement courses—classes that weren’t available at either Pleasant Hill or Choppee.

At the middle school, Principal Pierce is grouping students heterogeneously. She also has encouraged students with strong grades to take higher-level classes.

Brown believes strict discipline to keep students in class and higher expectations for students and teachers will make the biggest difference in test scores at the high school. “Lack of motivation is a killer,” he says. “If you don’t think you’re going to be the best, you’re not going to be the best.”

Some at Carvers Bay High already see signs that Brown’s positive attitude is rubbing off on students. Meghan Maxwell, a high school guidance counselor, says she sees her former Choppee students “walking with their heads high.”

“Mr. Brown has created a situation where everyone wants to be a [Carvers Bay] Bears fan,” Maxwell says.

Student tardiness for class is the biggest discipline challenge—not the fights that some in the community had feared. Brown uses a bullhorn during class changes to corral students into their rooms on time.

As the principal strolls into classrooms, students are bent over textbooks or raising their hands as they study topics from world history to photography.

In all, Brown says, there’s little evidence of the racial tension that enveloped the school’s creation.

“Everything my students have is first-class,” he says, pointing out the school’s five computer labs and 2,200-seat football stadium. “This is the way it’s supposed to be. It’s not about black and white.”

As educators and students go about the business of teaching and learning at the Carvers Bay schools, though, resentment still lingers in Georgetown County. Charles Tanner Sr., for example, prefers separate schools for black and white students.

Tanner, who is white and sent his children to Pleasant Hill, says he resents that the federal government forced the community to close the schools. His family bought five acres of land in nearby Florence County so that two of his grandchildren would not have to attend Carvers Bay, he says. The grandchildren are attending the Florence County District 5 schools in Johnsonville, where about 38 percent of the district’s 1,500 students are black.

“We didn’t want them to go to a black school,” he says. “We would be outnumbered. I don’t think they should mix the races like that.”

Other families may have left as well. From 1995 to 1999, the combined enrollment at Pleasant Hill’s schools dropped by 123 students. The schools’ racial makeup, though, remained consistent. But district enrollment overall is on the decline, with 525 fewer students this fall than in 1995.

Florence County District 5 in Johnsonville has enrolled some students from the Pleasant Hill area, says V. Keith Callicutt, the superintendent of schools. He did not know the precise number.

‘I feel like if [apprehensive parents] leave the children alone, everything will be just fine.’

Dolly M. Brown,
Carvers Bay Middle School

Callicutt does periodic “home checks,” however, to make sure students enrolled in the district’s three schools legally reside in the county. While he has found a few “irregularities,” he says parents also can purchase land in their child’s name and then pay $1,700 in tuition a year to enroll that student in Johnsonville schools.

Some white residents, including former school board member Benny K. Elliott, believe the Georgetown County district went to a great deal of trouble without solving the problem of racial imbalance at Choppee.

By the time discussions about merging the schools began, black students made up a majority of Pleasant Hill’s enrollment, even though many in the community perceived the schools as predominantly white.

To deflect discussion of alternatives, Elliott says, white opponents of a merger, including himself, were dismissed as racists.

“We could have lived with 70 percent black and 30 percent white,” says Elliott, who is white and a 1962 Pleasant Hill graduate. “They were supposed to integrate Choppee, and now they’ve created another black school.”

Parent Tim Hosenfeld, who is white, tried to found a charter school as an alternative, but in the end sent his children to Carvers Bay. Black parents in the area opposed the idea of a charter school, and the Justice Department thwarted that effort, because the school wouldn’t have had a diverse enrollment.

Hosenfeld, who now serves as a co-president of the middle school PTO, admitted there were some “things he had to get over,” although he wouldn’t elaborate. Now, he says, it’s essential that parents get involved at school.

“You make it what you want it to be,” he says, adding that parents who left the school should consider returning.

Elergy Little, who served as principal at Pleasant Hill for 24 years, also finds it hard to understand the logic behind the merger, since Carvers Bay Middle School’s enrollment is 83 percent black and the high school’s enrollment is 84 percent black.

Little says the uncertainty of the merger cost the district some talented white teachers, who chose not to teach at Carvers Bay.

“How can the minority culture influence whites, and how can whites influence the minorities in that situation?” asks Little, who is white and retired in 1993.

‘The biggest thrill I ever get is standing on the sidelines at the football game and seeing the black and white faces in the crowd high-fiving and cheering.’

Robert Lee Geathers Sr.,
Carvers Bay High School

But Georgetown County Superintendent Charles Gadsden says he doesn’t understand why some people want to live in the past.

“We’re not back in the 1950s or 1960s,” says Gadsden, who is the county’s first black superintendent since the early 1900s. “Now we’re in 2000. The majority will become the minority. Carvers Bay is an example of a changing society.”

Despite the negative attention, Carvers Bay High has become a popular school in Georgetown County—at least if the football games are any indication. Thousands of fans, many wearing dark-red and khaki Carvers Bay T-shirts and baseball caps, have turned out for games.

Scotty Poston, a senior and a former Pleasant Hill student who is one of three white players on the varsity football team of 38 students, says he has made good friends. He’s out to prove the schools’ doubters wrong.

“It’s like we’ve known each other for years,” adds junior Demarrio Greene, who is black and a former Choppee student, referring to his football teammates. “We’re all the same.”

Carvers Bay will build stronger racial unity and a better understanding between blacks and whites in Georgetown County, predicts parent Robert Lee Geathers Sr., whose son, Robert Jr., is a defensive end being sought by big-time college football teams. A 1977 Choppee graduate, Geathers says he wants his three sons to learn how to communicate with people of all races.

Geathers attended all-black schools his whole life, including South Carolina State, a historically black college in Orangeburg. When he played professional football for New York state’s Buffalo Bills in 1981, Geathers says he was at a disadvantage.

“I didn’t know how to talk to [whites],” says Geathers, who now runs a local used-car dealership.

In Carvers Bay, Geathers sees a better future for his sons and all of Georgetown County.

“The biggest thrill I ever get is standing on the sidelines at the football game and seeing the black and white faces in the crowd high-fiving and cheering,” he says, smiling. “I knew then it would be all right.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 22, 2000 edition of Education Week as Balancing Act


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