Equity & Diversity Opinion

A Tale of One City

By Joy G. Dryfoos — March 30, 2005 14 min read
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Did the quality of education deteriorate because of the race riots in 1967? Or was the quality already beginning to slide as the color of the students changed?

This is a sad story about how a community changed from white to African-American and experienced a significant decline in a once-viable school system. Given the changing demographic distribution of the U.S. population, it can happen anywhere. This happened in the town in which I grew up.

I graduated from a traditional, high-quality suburban New Jersey high school in 1943. A few students in my senior class were African-Americans. Like me, they came from upwardly striving, lower-middle-class families. But they did not live in my all-white neighborhood.

Over three generations, 15 members of my extended family graduated from the same school. When my mother graduated in 1915, 2 percent of seniors were African-American. When my nephew, the last of the clan to attend the school, graduated in 1969, about a third were African-American. Today, almost no white students are enrolled, and that has been the situation since 1980. Except for my parents, my relatives fled for the hills, to the ring of contiguous all-white towns, as part of the “white flight” phenomenon between 1960 and 1980.

What caused this dramatic change in population? One explanation focuses primarily on the race riots of 1967, around the same time that similar painful events took place in Newark, N.J. In my city, a white policeman was stomped to death after he shot an unarmed African-American boy. A few days of looting and rioting, raids and house searches without warrants by police and National Guardsmen, left the city in turmoil and created a reputation for violence that continued for years.

But the riots were not the beginning of the story. Between 1950 and 1960, the African-American population doubled, so that by 1960, it made up almost 22 percent of the total. During this same decade, the white population remained stable. The increase in African-Americans was attributed to the fact that they could find homes in this community at reasonable prices (although they were largely restricted to one of four wards) and they could find jobs in industry and small businesses. Between 1960 and 1970, the African-American population doubled again (to 40 percent), while the number of whites decreased for the first time. During this decade, the economy in the city turned sour, eroding the tax base. The major industry that employed 2,800 workers left town, the shopping area was decimated by the relocation of retail stores from the lively main street out to the highway and malls in an adjacent community. Poorly planned urban renewal resulted in the destruction of 50 buildings in the center of the town, leaving an undeveloped empty lot that is only now being built on decades later.

The initial white flight reflected the poor economy. During the 1960s, real estate agents were reported to have practiced “block busting.” They would go into a white neighborhood, tell residents that black families were moving in, buy the houses cheaply, and then turn around and sell the houses to African-Americans at much higher prices. It is important to note that a small cadre of people worked very hard to stem white flight. Neighborhood organizations were formed to urge families to stay, and to stop real estate agents from creating panic. Religious leaders of all colors and denominations joined together to protest mounting inequities.

The African-American newcomers from the South and Northern ghetto cities were much needier than the other residents, and the demand for health, welfare, housing, recreation sites, and police services could not be met. African-Americans were not allowed in local restaurants, had to sit in the balcony of the four movie theaters, and could not try on clothes in many of the local stores. The traditional white Anglo-Saxon power structure in both the City Council and the board of education was not responsive to increasing demands and growing racial unrest. Its members appeared to be oblivious to Brown v. Board of Education,but reverberations of this message reached the African-American community early on.

In 1961, six years before the riot, the NAACP had produced a study showing that one of the eight elementary schools was almost totally segregated (all nonwhite), and four other elementary schools were close to what was regarded as the “tipping point” (more than 50 percent nonwhite). Evidence was produced that African-American students were failing in high school or dropping out, and because of the poor quality of their elementary schools, rarely had access to honors classes. Only five of the 100 teachers in the high school were African-American. The NAACP maintained that although school boundary lines were not intentionally drawn for the purpose of racial segregation, neighborhood school zoning was discriminatory.

A series of court cases, reports, and events ensued in the struggle to integrate the schools. One consultant recommended two plans: to rezone the district so that every school should fall between 25 percent and 50 percent nonwhite enrollment; or to “pair” elementary schools. The board of education rejected these proposals, resulting in the NAACP’s initiating a lawsuit petitioning the state commissioner of education for assistance in achieving a better racial balance in the schools. The board responded by establishing “optional pupil registration,” whereby parents could enroll their children at any school, as long as they provided their own transportation. But almost no one transferred.

In 1963, spurred on by the threat of a lawsuit, the board came up with the “6th grade plan.” All 6th graders were enrolled in the most segregated school, and all of the K-5 students in that school (all African-American) were bused to other schools. Though very unpopular with almost everyone, this approach was expanded to the 5th grade as well.

After the riots in 1967, another batch of consultants was brought in and recommended that the current “grouping practice” (tracking) be changed, since it resulted in an extremely high degree of segregation in the high school. Most honors classes were eliminated. The high school was hit by the nationwide “epidemic” of teenage sex, drugs, alcohol, and violence, exacerbated by continuing tension between racial groups. On occasion, the school had to be shut down because of disturbances, fights, and bomb scares. More security guards were hired and a stricter disciplinary code enforced. Student suspensions were on the rise, along with declining in test scores.

The NAACP maintained that although school boundary lines were not intentionally drawn for the purpose of racial segregation, neighborhood school zoning was discriminatory.

Another consultant concluded in 1970 that the point had been reached at which mathematical balance in each school could no longer be effected. He called for regionalization, enlarging the district to encompass the eight all-white communities that surrounded the city, and busing students to enriched educational parks. But the response from these communities was an emphatic no. They did not want African-American children bused into their schools, and the state commissioner backed them up. After seven years of litigation that failed, the court case for integration was dropped by the commissioner. Not enough whites were left in the community with whom to integrate.

By 1980, 60 percent of the population was African-American. The public school population was almost all nonwhite, with a growing number of Hispanic students. Some 93 percent of the senior class and 27 percent of the teachers were African-American.

Study followed study, and all of them concluded that the school system had become dysfunctional. Many problems were identified: nonsupportive board of education; lack of parental and community involvement; academic standards and expectations too low; disruptive students and crime in school; lack of accountability; significant turnover of teachers; lack of confidence in the leadership; and children starting kindergarten unprepared.

In 1988, the school system was “decertified” after a state monitoring procedure found that it failed nine of 43 criteria for health, safety, and education standards. The 1970s and 1980s had been difficult times in this school system. It was time for a change, which came both from the state and from the local authorities.

The New Jersey Supreme Court ordered a comprehensive set of programs and reforms, in the school finance case Abbott v. Burke, to close the achievement gap between urban and suburban students. In the mid-1990s, this community was classified as a “special needs” district because conditions were worsening. A new superintendent arrived in 1995 bringing new ideas and techniques. Early in his tenure, he was able to launch many initiatives: school-based leadership and decisionmaking, safe schools, technology, reduced pupil-to-teacher ratio, professional development, student and family services, and school-based budgeting. Courses were offered to teachers and other staff members on site in literacy, math, science, technology, and early-childhood development. A school-within-a-school concept was established in the 9th grade to provide a team of teachers that could work closely, providing remediation for each student.

But change was difficult. Some of the seasoned teachers felt they were not highly regarded or listened to. Another round of consultants observed that in the high school, communication was limited, leadership changed frequently, decisionmaking did not involve consensus, and there was a “bad” history of failure and disciplinary problems.

The high school today is a grades 9-12 comprehensive secondary school with an enrollment of 1,858 students (76 percent black, 24 percent Hispanic, and less than 1 percent white or Asian). Two-thirds of the teaching staff is alternate-route, new teachers, or nontenured teachers. Since 1960, this system has run through 19 superintendents and 21 high school principals, an average tenure of about two years.

The high school climate has apparently stabilized in the past several years. The current principal has been there for four years, and many in the school acknowledge that he has brought “order” to the “chaos.” The ubiquitous guards screen all students for IDs and those without them are sent home, the halls and cafeteria are under constant surveillance, rules strictly adhered to, and the atmosphere somewhat prison-like. Classes are organized into 80-minute blocks, and only 3 percent of the students are in Advanced Placement classes. Students talk about the oppressive atmosphere and feel cheated by the lack of advanced coursework. They are concerned about getting into good colleges with only marginal educational preparation. This sense of marginality starts in the early grades, not just in the high school.

Integration was most successful in communities that moved rapidly toward very strong magnet schools with busing.

In 2003, the average combined SAT score for this high school was 796, one of the lowest in the state (the state average was 1110). Fewer than three-fourths of seniors took the SAT. Among seniors, only 40 percent passed the High School Proficiency Test required for graduation, and only 29 percent of graduates expected to go to a four-year college. The official dropout rate for the high school was 4.3 percent. However, only 40 percent of the original freshman class was still around four years later.

The cost per pupil in 2003 was $11,994. The revenue from local taxes was 15 percent of total expenditures; 81 percent came from the state, 2 percent from the federal government, and 2 percent from other sources. This distribution is very different from every other school district in the area. For example, in the adjacent community, it was 88 percent local and 7 percent state. There has been no increase in the local tax contribution to schools in nine years. The average wealth behind each student was $214,080 in this town, compared with $530,709 in the state as a whole.

After more than seven years on the job, the superintendent departed. His supporters were appalled and blamed a politically controlled school board as the root of his inability to carry out all that he had hoped to do. Others saw him as a “faddist,” continually going after new “gimmicks” rather than helping the school settle down into more disciplined and rigorous approaches. He apparently brought order to a disorderly system, but was unable to raise test scores.

Why did the schools decline so dramatically? Did the quality of education deteriorate because of the race riots in 1967? Or was the quality already beginning to slide as the color of the students changed? The economic situation in the community began to worsen in the 1950s. Resources available to the school system and for social welfare became more and more constricted. Whites began to leave because of the lack of employment opportunities and the machinations of the real estate brokers. As the color of the students changed, teachers and administrators clearly lowered their expectations. They questioned the motivation of the students and had difficulty relating to young people from cultures that differed from that of the white, Anglo-Saxon children of the past. The newcomers, lower-class black and Hispanic families, were not at ease dealing with school authorities. Turnover among teachers and counselors, as well as administrators, was endemic. Throughout all these years, a few teachers have remained in this system who know what practices work. But they are outnumbered and frustrated, and not in control of the situation.

Most white people in this community were oblivious to the early indicators of segregation. One school was almost all African-American long before the race riots. African-American parents complained that neither the teaching nor the physical plant was equal to the conditions in the white schools. And when their children entered into high school, they were already marked by an inferior education. At the same time, the contiguous communities would not accept nonwhites either as residents or bused in for integration purposes.

Politics played a strong hand in what happened there. Initially the white power structure was unable or unwilling to acknowledge the changes that were taking place. Neither the City Council nor the board of education was representative of the population, and they did not even communicate with each other across boards. By the time they figured out that action was required, it was much too late. Finally, when the whites had left and the nonwhites took over, the African-American politicians were also self-serving and interested in maintaining power. The school system was the second-largest employer in town (the hospital complex was the largest) with control over more than 1,000 jobs.

Did it have to be that way? Probably not. It is possible to imagine other scenarios based on the experience in a few communities that successfully integrated their school systems. Suppose that early on, after World War II, the community had decided to place a value on diversity. This would mean developing an “intentional” plan, thinking about the appropriate distribution of the population according to race. Leaders would have had to articulate the importance of racial and ethnic mixing as an essential part of living in a democracy. As one observer of integration in another New Jersey community told me: “The community should have a full-time staff person who promotes diversity and deals with issues before they conflagate. … The city must have a visionary mayor.”

Integration was most successful in communities that moved rapidly toward very strong magnet schools with busing. Parents could choose freely between sites, and their children were not assigned to a specific school or zone. To the best of my knowledge, none of the many consultants to this community proposed magnet schools, and neither did the school community come up with the idea.

As a society that is becoming more diverse, we had better pay attention to integrating school systems and communities.

It is a well-established fact that African-American (and other minority) children do better in integrated school systems. It is possible, however, for them to excel in schools that are predominantly minority when attention is paid to certain factors: high standards and high expectations; strong administrative leadership; teachers who take responsibility for student learning; individual instruction; strong focus on math and literacy; incentives and feedback; small learning communities; and safe, orderly, well-disciplined environments.

Successful schools build strong community relationships, engage and involve parents, and establish partnerships with community agencies, universities, and businesses. We also know about certain practices that are detrimental: academic tracking, retention in grade without support, excessive use of pullout programs, and overuse of special education programs.

It is hard to predict where this city and its school system will be in the future. The population is changing again. Not only is there a significant influx of Hispanic families, but white families are returning to reclaim the choice housing on the formerly exclusive hills. The current African-American leadership is determined to bring about economic rehabilitation and end many years of lethargy. A new superintendent has high hopes for school reform. Massive school construction is going on, with $125 million from state funds.

As a society that is becoming more diverse, we had better pay attention to integrating school systems and communities. Without strong commitment to the concepts of racial and ethnic integration, we will weaken our country and fail our children.

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