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When And Why School Districts Re-segregate

Micky Zegaye (left) works with a tutor at Fugee Academy in Clarkston, GA.
Maura Walz
Southern Education Desk

Since the 1970s, federal court orders have governed how many Southern communities integrated their public schools. But new research shows, as those orders have been lifted, school districts are gradually re-segregating.

In the fading sunlight of late afternoon in a church basement in Clarkston, GA, Tucker High School junior Micky Zegeye studies for a math test with his tutor.

Zegeye’s high school was once all-white. But in the decades since the federal government ordered DeKalb County schools to de-segregate white flight and an influx of minority and refugee families have reshaped the district. Now, most of the county’s students are minority and poor And many schools are struggling, which is why Zegeye turned to this private tutoring program. The tutors hold him accountable in a way his public school does not.

“Cause now, it’s like they’re watching over us; we have to do our homework,” he says.

“If we had a better school system, I don’t know that we’d be having this conversation,” says the tutoring program’s founder Luma Mufleh.  She started the tutoring program because, she says, students in the district’s public schools were being left behind.

“Our school system was failing them,” Mufleh says. “So we felt we had to step in and do something a little more drastic.”

For Mufleh that meant starting the tutoring program and eventually a private school for the refugees who’ve moved here. She says these students benefit from attending school with other kids just like them.

“If you have an accent, or if you can’t speak English, you’re not going to get mocked here,” she says. “They’re not isolated, and they don’t feel alone.”

In other words, re-segregation led to struggling impoverished schools, which then prompted efforts to better educate kids in segregated settings. And that’s a pattern that’s repeated across DeKalb County and the United States. In the early 1990s DeKalb considered busing to promote integration. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the district wasn’t obligated to ensure racial diversity for its own sake. And when its federal desegregation order was lifted a few years later, the county returned to neighborhood schools that were frequently drawn along racial and socioeconomic lines.

“It didn’t suddenly make the schools back to the way they were before the Brown vs. Board of Education decision where we had totally separate schools, by no means,” says Stanford University’s Sean Reardon. ”But it did substantially increase the segregation.”

Reardon studies what happens in school districts after federal court orders are lifted. He says re-segregation is especially pronounced in districts that, like DeKalb, returned to neighborhood school enrollment plans.

“In those cases when the court order was released you saw a much more rapid return to segregation in the schools,” he says. “Mostly because, we think, the neighborhoods were very segregated and as a result the schools quickly became more segregated.”

Recent Supreme Court decisions prohibit schools from assigning students based on their race. But districts may still encourage diversity by creating magnet programs or by drawing attendance zones across neighborhood race and class divisions. But Georgia School Superintendents Association president Herb Garrett says those plans require something schools just don’t have: money.

“It’s just not financially feasible to try to achieve some desired balance, racial balance in a school if what it means is drawing school districts where it runs the transportation costs way up,” Garrett says.

Plus, busing is unpopular in many white and minority communities. And some advocates agree take Mufleh’s stance on integration – that the poor, minority kids may get lost or sorted into inferior academic programs.

“There are some people that believe if you bus kids from the rich neighborhoods into the poor neighborhoods and mix it up, that’s going to solve the problem,” Mufleh says. “I don’t think that’s going to solve the problem. I think then you’ll have two tracks in those schools.”

But there is a growing body of research that suggests that many poor, minority students perform better in more integrated school settings. And Stanford’s Reardon says that if our public schools reflect our society, what kind of society do we want to be?

“The thing to think about, and this is a broad social question that we all should think about, is how much we value racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity in schools and in our children’s lives?” he says.

And so, he says, communities and school districts must increasingly make a choice: try to improve segregated schools or try to improve schools through a commitment to diversity.

The Southern Education Desk is a public media consortium exploring the challenges and opportunities for education in the region.          

In the final installment in the week-long re-segregation series, we go to Nashville, where public school officials are finding it a challenge to balance school improvement plans with a desire for racial diversity.