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Teaching Brown in Tuscaloosa

Teaching Brown in Tuscaloosa

The Brown decision originally came to Tuscaloosa in September 1979, when the federal courts ruled that the district had not sufficiently eliminated a segregated school system. That year, Druid High (the all-black school) merged with Tuscaloosa High (the all-white school). The new school was renamed Central High, and after significant white flight to county and private schools, the school settled into a 30 percent white/70 percent black demographic. This arrangement lasted 20 years. Many of my students' parents were in the first classes attending Central.

In 1999, a federal court lifted the desegregation order. The school board immediately proposed plans to restructure Central High, sparking a debate about whether the district should retain a mega school (one large high school of approximately 1800 students) or build three neighborhood schools (each consisting of approximately 800 students). Proponents of neighborhood schools argued that students would attend schools closer to their homes and white flight would be thwarted. Supporters of the mega school called the three-school plan an attempt to resegregate the high school. Several polls revealed that citizens, students, and teachers preferred the mega school plan.

The school board ignored these polls and allocated funds for the construction of three new high schools: Northridge, Bryant, and Central. Northridge High School and Bryant High School were zoned as integrated, middle-class suburban schools with roughly 50 percent African-American and 50 percent white students. But Central High's population was 100 percent African-American, with high concentrations of low-income and low-performing students.

To complicate matters, in the fall of 2003 students attending Bryant and Northridge entered new buildings. After the old Central High was demolished, the black students were relocated to the building that had housed Druid High School 25 years ago — the site of the last segregated all-black high school. That school will be demolished in fall 2006.

It's important to understand this in a national context. Gary Orfield, professor of education and social policy at Harvard University, is the director of the Civil Rights Project. He authored a report released in January 2004 titled "Brown at 50: King's Dream or Plessy's Nightmare?" Orfield points out major increases in segregation where court-ordered desegregation has ended and vastly unequal resources for intensely segregated schools with a majority of low-income students of color. I believe the restructuring in Tuscaloosa reflects an alarming resegregation drift — most significantly in the South "where the court decisions and civil rights laws had produced the most integrated schools in the nation for three decades," according to Orfield.

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