Desegregation order: Tyler ISD looks to move on

 

Tyler Independent School District Trustee Orenthia Mason graduated in the last senior class at Emmett Scott High School in 1970, before the federal government forced the district to integrate.

Before the Department of Justice intervened in July 1970, there were two TISD school systems – one for white students and one for black students.

The district relented to the order, but true integration didn't happen overnight.

Ms. Mason became a teacher in the school district three years later and witnessed the difficulties black students faced in predominantly white schools. It took decades for black students to fully realize equality within cheerleading squads, marching bands and school clubs and organizations where they had held key positions within the separated system.

She spent three decades as a teacher and administrator within the district and now serves on the school board, holding the position last year of board president. Ms. Mason said the school board wants the federal order lifted, a move she would support if the district proves it has met all the requirements necessary.

In March, the board voted unanimously to hire Dallas law firm Friedman & Feiger to explore the feasibility of reaching "unitary status," which would mean TISD has met the requirements of the desegregation order and proved it does not operate a dual school system based on race.

Time has changed the district and changed people, she said.

"I have seen the district grow in many ways," she said. "I've seen the changes. It feels like it is time, that progress has been made."

But what the facts show remains to be seen, she added.

The analysis will involve poring through decades of data and reports compiled by the district as required by the order. The firm will compare data tracking white and black student and staff ratios in several factors, including campus and classrooms, extracurricular activities, transportation and others back to 1970.

In 1970, every district in the state was ordered to integrate. TISD was one of 36 schools placed under an individual order because its compliance plans did not meet federal standards. In 2010, all but nine districts were removed from the statewide desegregation order.

But individual orders remained.

Ms. Mason said many of the requirements are not applicable to the district's demographics today. She said she expects varied community opinion on the possibility of lifting the order.

"There will be some in the community who will be opposed and then others who want unitary status," she said. "Anytime you make a decision you will have people who are for it and against it. That's life."

Ms. Mason said her greatest concern is student achievement.

PAST AND PRESENT

In summer 1970, the U.S. Health, Education and Welfare Department negotiated with the 36 Texas school districts including Tyler, Kilgore, Palestine, Lufkin, Garland and Austin, which were not complying with a federal desegregation order for all school districts statewide.

In school board meetings leading into the summer of 1970, some board members were open to change and empathetic to feelings of black students while other members were defiant. The federal government felt the school district's compliance plan failed to create a single system for whites and minorities.

"Because your plan has not developed a plan that adequately eliminates the dual school system our office has no alternative but to recommend that the Department of Justice proceed with appropriate court action," the director of the Health, Education and Welfare Department's Civil Rights Section wrote in a letter to TISD officials at the time.

The director determined the plan failed to "erase the racial identity of four predominantly Negro schools – Austin, Peete and Griffin elementary schools and Dogan Junior High."

The federal government intended to ensure equal education opportunities for all students in the district. Teaching and administration staff positions also were to be filled, assigned, promoted, paid, demoted, dismissed and treated without regard to race, color, or national origin, according to the order.

Since the order was implemented, TISD has been required to submit biannual reports with the federal courts and Department of Justice as record of the district's actions. The district also has been subject to informing federal monitors about major decisions, such as constructing new campuses. Monitors would review the project and decide whether it complied with the order or was discriminatory.

In 1995, the school board canceled a $39 million bond election due to questions by the Department of Justice regarding the proposal's effects on racial ratios within the district. The bond included extensive renovations to existing schools and construction of two new elementary schools and a middle school.

Tyler attorney John Hardy has guided TISD through the compliance process since 1976. He said the first decade following desegregation was tough. There were lawsuits filed by former employees and accusations of discrimination for everything from who was chosen for school dance squads to disciplinary actions.

The district prevailed in every case, he said.

Hardy said the tenor began to change in the early 1980s. People stopped wearing feelings on their sleeves, he said, and prejudices began dying off with that generation.

He believes the district has done everything within its power to integrate its student population, administration and staff. Hardy said it would be impossible for any district in the country to implement the requirements, such as equal student and teacher ratios.

Equally distributing students is difficult based on where they live according to bus routes, campus population, classroom populations, and the classes students want to take or are required to take. Student subsets, such as special education classes, make it even more difficult to comply with equal distribution of students by race, Hardy said.

It's the same with teachers and administrators, he said. The market for minority teachers and administrators is competitive. The district has gone to great lengths to attract quality minority staff, Hardy said, but competing with larger urban and suburban districts is difficult.

Hardy said the order is antiquated for another reason. He noted the Department of Justice has not addressed the largest demographic in the district, Hispanics, who make up 45 percent of students.

TISD officials see the order as a rule for them to comply with but one that has little impact to how students are treated and educated, he said.

"I hope that there is no perception that lifting this order would change how we present opportunities to students," he said. "The expectation for every parent is that they want the best education out there, and lifting the desegregation order won't change that."

 

EARLY STAGES

TISD Superintendent Marty Crawford said the district is in the early stages of gathering information to see whether the district met the order's standards for desegregation compliance. The analysis is the first step in a process to possibly have the federal desegregation order lifted.

"It's time," Crawford said. "This is 2015. It's not the same district it was 45 years ago. It's not the same world it was 45 years ago."

In 1972 TISD served a student population that was 67 percent white and 32 percent black. Today, the student population is 21 percent white, 30 percent black, 45 percent Hispanic and 1 percent Asian.

Crawford and other TISD officials say it's time for the order to be lifted. It's been 45 years and Crawford believes segregation is nothing more than a concept rooted in a bygone era.

But he wants to see what the process reveals about the past four decades within the district and how today's TISD stacks up to that bygone day when children attended separate schools based on skin color.

Crawford said the order might have a slight financial impact to the district. Staffers gather and consolidate information for the biannual reports, which takes time, and bus routes are costlier because they are subject to the order, making them less efficient, according to the district. Crawford said logistical hurdles take away time and effort from educating.

Lifting the order would give administrators flexibility to address student population growth within the district and individual schools, he said.

Andy Bergfeld, TISD board president, said restoring local control would allow the seven board members and administrators to put all options on the table when considering how to deliver academic excellence for all students within the system.

"Anybody that has been anywhere around our schools knows that (desegregation) has happened and that it happened long ago," he said. "I think their charge is to answer ‘Do we need to still be under federal control?'"

Bergfeld said the elected school board and Texas Education Agency provide plenty oversight to ensure the system provides equitable opportunity among all demographics. He trusts TISD stakeholders have the best intentions for all the district's 18,000 students and don't view schools or students based on race or socioeconomic status.

 

CONCERNS REMAIN

Cedrick Granberry, president of Tyler's NAACP branch, said he will listen to the argument for lifting the order but that he expects the facts to show TISD campuses are not equally diversified. He said the order has its place to hold the district accountable.

"If it's lifted there's no recourse," he said. "It's like preclearance that the state must seek regarding the Voting Rights Act. You would hope they would do what's right for everyone but actually doing it is another thing."

Granberry said he believes diversification of campuses, classrooms and staffs has not been addressed to the degree it should but that it's been difficult because honest discussions about race continue to make people uncomfortable. He said he could support lifting the order if the facts identify positive changes within the district and if the district's leadership can make assurances it would make diversification a goal.

Granberry said he chose to be bused to Hubbard middle school and Robert E. Lee when he had the choice. He said attending more diversified campuses made him more comfortable living, working and conversing with people of different races. He said it's been a struggle weighing the pros and cons of where his three children should attend, with regard to school performance, diversification and educational opportunities.

"I want them to be in a well-rounded campus," he said. "

Bergfeld doesn't believe the federal order contributes to how well or poorly campuses perform. He said there are challenges within segments of the student population that contribute negatively to the development of individual students.

Bergfeld said the district is trying to fill educational gaps that were not present decades ago. He said he is sensitive to criticism of struggling campuses because some school staffs must play a much larger role in the lives of students.

He said the district educates and supports every student equally without consideration of background.

Hardy, the district's lawyer, said he expects the process will play out as it has for a few other schools that faced individual orders. Some schools were found to comply with enough factors to have the order completely lifted while others have successfully complied with some factors and failed to meet a reasonable level of compliance in others.

In those cases, the Department of Justice gave schools three years to show efforts in addressing any lingering questions. Hardy said so far no school has been denied unitary status beyond that phase.

Hardy expects TISD will be found compliant in areas such as transportation, extracurricular activities and possibly staff hirings but that it could face failures in student assignment because of the difficulty in showing equal placement on campuses and in classrooms.

Bergfeld said he is ready for the district to move beyond the order. He believes the school board, administrators, staff and students have moved beyond race and that lifting the order can help the district focus on educating.

He suspects the order could be holding the district back academically but wouldn't specify areas where the order could inhibit classroom successes.

"I will wait and see what the attorneys have to say, but it is my belief that this is one area that not having local control could be affecting student outcomes," Bergfeld said.

Twitter:@newsboyAdam

Recommended for you