Equity & Diversity

Beyond Black and White

By Alan Richard — October 18, 2000 7 min read
Changing Face

Charlie Henderson never expected this. The principal of Clarkston High School in the Atlanta suburb of DeKalb County thought he’d seen it all. Even his 30 years in the 96,000-student Georgia district didn’t prepare him for the changes now taking place at his high school, a two-story, tan-brick building built in the 1950s, half an hour’s drive from downtown Atlanta unless traffic backs up.

These days, the world has come to DeKalb.

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The student enrollment at Clarkston High, once virtually all African-American, has been transformed in the past six years into an international community. Nearly half the 1,475 students, in fact, are children whose traditions and beliefs are foreign to Henderson and many of his co-workers. Some of the students were born in Bosnia, Vietnam, and Eritrea, among the 54 countries and 47 languages found here.

“I only thought there were two colors, two races,” says Henderson, a veteran of the county’s struggle to integrate its schools.

DeKalb County, Ga.

  • Population: 610,000
  • Public school enrollment: 96,000 (Decatur city schools enroll 2,660 separately.)
  • Student profile: 77 percent black, 14 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian/Pacific Islander
  • Percentage of students who receive free or discounted meals: 50
  • Median household income: $36,000
  • Big change: Nearly 30,000 people born outside the U.S. have moved here since 1990.

Henderson’s experience here is likely to repeat itself in communities across the country, experts say, as immigrants increasingly settle in older, established suburbs rather than central cities. The changes, he says, have taught him some important lessons.

“I’m just going to tell you the God’s honest truth,” Henderson, 52, says of working with his diverse population. “It’s been the most pleasant experience I’ve ever had in my life.”

A History of Demographic Shifts

DeKalb County, an anomaly in some ways among older suburban communities, has already seen its share of change. It is one of only 24 counties in the nation—two in the South—with a population of more than 500,000 made up predominantly of members of minority groups, according to Woods & Poole Economics Inc., a Washington-based research firm.

In a region where most African-Americans traditionally have been poor, incomes have never fallen in DeKalb. Its average personal-income level is among the upper tier of counties in Georgia.

The county’s suburbs were settled largely by whites fleeing Atlanta in the years immediately following the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring unlawful the “separate but equal” schooling of black youngsters. DeKalb grew so fast that the district dedicated 47 new schools in the four years following the decision.

By 1968, black enrollment had begun to rise, and black parents seeking to desegregate the county’s schools filed a lawsuit; it was not settled until 1996. One year after busing for racial integration began in 1970, the county’s white enrollment began to drop, and it has never stopped.

The combination of an aging white population and white families moving out of DeKalb for newer, larger homes in the outlying suburbs cut enrollment sharply. In 1986, it bottomed out at less than 72,000—10,000 fewer students than in 1969. The district closed several schools.

Thirty years after integration, immigration is changing the face of the county’s schools yet again.

“There are 15 houses on my cul de sac, and we once had 25 to 30 kids in school,” says Doyle F. Oran, who is the district’s chief planner. Now, no households on the street have school-age children.

Hardest hit by the population shifts were municipalities such as Clarkston, which suffered an economic decline as many wealthier residents moved to outlying communities. But DeKalb also boasts affluent communities, such as Druid Hills near Emory University, and is experiencing a boom in new housing in its rural outer areas. District enrollment has increased by 22,000 since 1990, fueled in part by an influx into the county of nearly 30,000 people born outside the United States, and in part by well-to-do black families.

Once a study in black and white, the district is now 77 percent black, 14 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic, and 4 percent Asian/Pacific Islander. Fifteen thousand students were born outside the United States, and last school year, about 3,000 were enrolled in classes for non-English-speakers.

“People are moving back,” says Mary Stimmel, a native of Atlanta and former local television reporter who handles public relations for the DeKalb County schools and has made it a hobby to track the district’s evolution.

Many people Stimmel has met are black families returning to a more prosperous South, after their parents or grandparents moved North for jobs and to escape the social turmoil of the times. “The South is finally having its migration,” she says.

Signs of the influx are evident between the town of Lithonia and the edge of Atlanta, on a four-lane highway that runs through open fields now being filled with a new middle school and neighborhoods like Hawthorne Woods, where the starting price for a two-story house with a porch is $120,000. Open-house signs mark the street corners.

Eleven new schools, in fact, are under construction in the district. Most of the funding comes from a countywide sales tax that voters approved specifically for school construction in 1997. The tax ends in 2002; meanwhile, DeKalb needs three new high schools and several other schools in the next few years.

Language Barriers

With the new foreign-born population has come quite a challenge for principals and teachers, many of whom remember the struggles over integration. “It was not an easy adjustment for anybody,” Clarkston High’s Henderson says of the desegregation era. “Certain teachers felt they were hired to teach one type of kid.”

Now, they are faced with the task of teaching a far more varied group of students. “The language barrier is a major instructional problem for us,” Henderson says.

In response, DeKalb County has formed teams of leading educators to advise low-scoring schools on ways to improve. At Clarkston, administrators are more involved with teachers—insisting, for example, that time not be wasted by showing videotapes, that every classroom minute be used for instruction. The district has hired 150 teachers to help students learn English, a record high.

“We’ve moved from being complacent to increasing expectations,” says Scott Butler, 55, a seasoned DeKalb administrator and the associate principal at Clarkston.

The county’s public schools run the academic gamut, from affluent high schools like Chamblee and Druid Hills that beat the national average on the SAT this year, to Clarkston, where scores have fallen four of the past five years.

One county principal says working in an increasingly diverse school has been enriching.

At Avondale High School, Principal Tim Freeman is struck by the many changes his father would not recognize. Here at the edge of the county near Atlanta, marked by countless aging apartment complexes, life is much different from when Freeman’s father, Robert, was DeKalb’s school superintendent for 16 years, until 1995.

In the late 1970s, when the Freemans moved to the area from Pueblo, Colo., seven of every 10 DeKalb students were white, and most lived in houses with more than one TV set and a mother who didn’t have an outside job.

On a recent fall day, Tim Freeman sits in his office, within sight of an empty shopping mall, and takes a telephone call that he hopes will reveal some details about a student who wants to enroll, but has no paperwork and finds himself homeless.

“The world keeps busting in on us,” he says. “It makes teaching and learning a little more complicated,” continues Freeman, a portly, soft-spoken man in his first year as principal here. He’s serious about making his new school better for his 1,200 students, 90 percent of whom are black, with the remainder from various ethnic backgrounds. “There’s no excuse for us not to get on a path of school improvement,” he says.

Trickles of change also are arriving at Shamrock Middle School, a converted high school built in 1968 deep within a wooded neighborhood of brick houses. A slight majority of the 1,380 students are white, most of the rest are black, and about one in 10 are Hispanic, Pacific Islander, or of some other background.

“I have a wonderful amalgam of kids. When I walk down my hallways, it’s the real world,” boasts Principal Tom Davis, a serious sort who stands in the corridors to greet his students.

In his four years at Shamrock, Davis, 43, has noticed marked demographic change. “I’ve got some girls who were gun-toting soldiers” in their native countries, he says.

Worried that some international students might not feel at home, he called a meeting recently and asked how he could make the school more welcoming, besides the ordinary middle school hallmarks of a cheerful lobby, a friendly staff of adults, and a commitment to both academics and nurturing.

Davis was surprised at the response: “They all just stared at me. This one little boy in the class said, ‘We’re fine. We do feel a part of Shamrock.’”

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