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An Unequal Past, a Separate Present: Schools Dominated By One Race Prevail

Take a look inside most Houston schools, and you're likely to find a student body dominated in numbers by a single race or ethnicity.

On Monday, it will be 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court told school districts they couldn't have separate schools for whites and blacks. Yet in half of the Houston Independent School District campuses today, at least 75 percent of the students are Hispanic, black or Anglo. Even more striking, in nearly a third of schools, at least nine out of every 10 students are the same race or ethnicity.

At the extremes, the Worthing High School student body of 1,325 students during the last school year was 96.1 percent black, according to HISD demographic data examined by the Houston Chronicle. At Eliot Elementary, 99.7 percent of the 692 students were Hispanic. That means there were two black students on campus and no Anglos. West University Elementary was the only campus with more than 75 percent Anglo students; the school was 78.2 percent Anglo.

The segregation continues, despite the fact that HISD's largest demographic group, Hispanics, account for 54 percent of the district's enrollment. Blacks make up 31 percent and Anglos 9 percent.

Mary Ramos, the League of United Latin American Citizens' state deputy director for youth, sees the resegregation of Houston schools since Brown v. Board of Education as a problem that needs fixing.

"When they have both African-Americans and Hispanics with a 75 percent in any one of these schools, I think that's a disadvantage," said Ramos, who has grandchildren in HISD schools. "When we segregate our kids, that starts a lot of hate. It teaches them that we're not all equal."

In Houston and the rest of the nation, Anglo students still consistently outperform their black and Hispanic classmates on standardized exams. The gap has gradually narrowed over the years, but it is evident in sometimes glaring ways. In 2003, the passing rate on the exit-level Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills exam for Houston's Anglo high school students was 66 percent -- more than double the passing rates for blacks and Hispanics.

But unlike 1954, there is no coordinated push for integration from parents and advocacy groups today. In 2004, the battleground has shifted from desegregation to closing the gap in academic performance, said Larry Marshall, a longtime school board member.

"It's the challenge of challenges to eradicate it. When you look at the research, it's very troubling that you still have an achievement gap, even when you say, `Hey, all these kids have equal access,' " Marshall said. "We have some work to do, a lot of work."

Marshall, who is black, served on the desegregation committee that redrew school boundary lines 30 years ago to eliminate one-race schools. Marshall said he is confident students can succeed today without diversity in the classroom.

"Having one-race schools doesn't trouble me because those students have many ways to leave those schools," he said. "You will never develop a plan to eliminate one-race schools."

HISD has worked to equalize opportunities with an open enrollment policy that allows students to attend any school they choose, as long as there is room. Magnet schools, which have competitive enrollment and offer specialities such as fine arts, business administration or advanced classes, also draw students out of their neighborhoods. The school board has given campus principals broad flexibility to spend money however they want.

"When you look at the equity in the system, the decentralization of the system, I am very, very comfortable with that," Marshall said. "Our goal is to make sure that every kid in every school has equal resources and access to a quality education."

But some question the effectiveness of those efforts. When the district created the magnet programs, for example, minority students received priority admissions status. The school board later stopped giving preference to minority students when parents of Anglo students threatened litigation.

"Once they did away with race as a criteria for those programs, they became increasingly white," said Guadalupe San Miguel Jr., a University of Houston history professor who ran unsuccessfully in 2003 for a school board seat. "The magnets are becoming resegregated along racial lines."

While Hispanics make up the majority of HISD's overall enrollment, they represent only 39 percent of all magnet students. Anglos, however, represent 19 percent of students in the magnet program, and blacks make up 36 percent.

Letting parents decide which school their child will attend rarely leads to diverse campuses, said Gary Orfield, co-director of Harvard University's Civil Rights Project.

"Open enrollment has always been an ineffective policy in terms of desegregation. It only affects a small percentage of kids usually," Orfield said. "It's a very weak, kind of token, way to approach this issue."

Orfield testified in the late 1970s in a failed U.S. Justice Department lawsuit that sought to integrate local schools by combining HISD and suburban school districts to form a single Harris County school system.

Poverty is a factor that cuts across racial lines in HISD, where four of every five students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Urban school districts nationwide lost white students to the suburbs in droves when Brown v. Board of Education became the law, Orfield said. Today, more and more affluent minority families are doing the same. As a result, city school districts increasingly are left to educate the region's poor, he said.

Orfield believes the federal No Child Left Behind Act should be altered to let poor students transfer out of low-performing school districts. As it stands, students may transfer only to other schools within their district.

"It's silly to pay federal money to transfer a kid from one bad school to another bad school," Orfield said. The government should also make sure low-income students have a way to get to schools that are far from their homes, he said.

Orfield explained that attending a school outside the neighborhood is not a viable option for many low-income minority students because many school districts, such as Houston, do not provide transportation for transfer students.

"The problem is the achievement gap is very directly linked to segregation," Orfield said. "Segregation is not just by race. It's by class, teacher quality, curriculum, everything."

— Jason Spencer



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