A return to segregation?

In the mid 1990s, Orlando city leaders thought they had stumbled upon an idea to entice middle-class homeowners into the downtrodden, west-side Parramore neighborhood. The plan couldn't have been more wholesome: They wanted to build a school.

Somewhere between the idea and the reality, though, something went slightly off course. The school eventually opened in August 2001 in a makeshift building on a city-owned parking lot just south of the TD Waterhouse Centre. But not before a small group of Parramore residents battled with school officials and city leaders over a variety of issues, including where the school should be placed and who would attend it. The school was ostensibly being built for Parramore kids, who, up until that point, were attending eight different elementary schools, and for middle-class white kids whose parents might like the idea of dropping their kids off at a school near downtown.

Yet few, if any, Parramore parents allowed their children to attend the school. And no white parents did. According to end-of-the-year figures released by Orange County Public Schools, 99 percent of the 126 school kids who attended the Nap Ford Community School are black.

Nap Ford isn't the only predominantly black school to open recently. In 1999, the district authorized the Rio Grande Charter School for Excellence in Holden Heights. It, too, is 95 percent black, 3 percent Hispanic, and 0 percent white.

At the May 13 school-board meeting, members were concerned about another school opening in a low-income, minority community, this one in West Winter Park. West Winter Park residents want to build a small neighborhood school, like the Parramore school, because they believe it will attract middle-class homeowners to a neighborhood bounded by Fairbanks Avenue on the south, Webster Street on the north, Virginia Street on the east and Denning Drive on the west. It's an area where 180 houses out of approximately 270 are either vacant or for rent. (One hundred and sixty of those homes are occupied by black residents.) Like Parramore, West Winter Park had a school at one point, until desegregation in the mid-1960s forced it to close. West Winter Park kids now go to four different schools.

School-board members tabled discussion of the West Winter Park school, which is still in the preliminary stages of development, because of a technicality. Some had never heard about the school and wanted more background before moving forward. "It is a significant issue, one that deserves a full hearing," says board member Karen Ardaman.

The main reason it deserves a full hearing is that ever since parents of 10 Orange County students sued the school district in April 1962, the district has strived toward integration. Since then, school officials have offered bus transportation to black children so they can attend white schools, closed nearly a dozen schools in order to consolidate and shuffled around administrators and teachers to achieve racial parity. There have also been court-ordered reviews and biracial committees to help alleviate the effects of about 80 years of separately operated school systems -- one black, one white.

Even with all the wrangling, Orange County still has two high schools, four middle schools and 16 elementary schools with a black student population above 70 percent. All of these schools ranked near the bottom in the FCAT scores released May 15. In addition, black students across the district lag behind white students in academic-achievement indicators. They fare much worse on the reading, writing and math portions of the FCAT; only 5 percent score above a 3.6 GPA, compared with 17 percent of white students. Blacks are also more likely to be cited for behavioral problems; they comprise 28 percent of the district's 159,000 students but make up 65 percent of all expulsions.

School-board members asked Superintendent Ron Blocker to prepare a system-wide assessment to determine how the district has complied with the 30-year-old desegregation order. Among the items to be discussed are urban-school funding, and teacher and student populations. There will also be a determination whether schools like the one proposed for West Winter Park have affected the district's compliance.

"There are so many unanswered questions," says Kat Gordon, the district's only black board member. Gordon is suspicious of motivations behind the West Winter Park school. She doesn't like the thought that students might be taken from high-performing schools and placed together in low-performing ones. "To me, it's kind of weird," she says. "What would be the purpose? There are so many wonderful schools in Winter Park, everybody wants to bring their kids there."

Backers of the school insist they have no hidden agenda. The idea for the school originated out of a listening campaign in which volunteers interviewed residents of the low-income neighborhood to find out what can be done to alleviate problems. "The overwhelming response is that we'd like to have a school," says Margaret Sanders, a neighborhood activist who sits on the West Winter Park school committee.

The committee wants to model the school on a progressive model in Boston called the Small Schools Program. In 1994, the Boston school district, responding to the charter-school movement sweeping the country, devised a program whereby schools would have the autonomy of a charter school (an independent board of directors, freedom of governance, curriculum and staffing) but would be staffed by union teachers. The result was the program, which now enrolls about 5 percent of the Boston public student body in 13 schools.

But Boston's small-school program doesn't have the problem of the two charter schools authorized by Orange County. According to Dan French, executive director of the Center for Collaborative Education, a nonprofit agency counseling the Boston school district on the pilot program, Boston's pilot schools have a nice mix of black and white students. "We have a full range of diversity of families across race and status," he says.

The racially mixed program might be an anecdote to the nationwide movement to bring back schools to neighborhoods from which children are now being bused. According to Paul Green, a University of California, Riverside professor who specializes in urban-education policy, black leaders have returned to the idea of black schools after becoming fed up with the judicial system, which has failed to deliver the promise of truly integrated schools. "Their intention is not to create a de facto school system," he says. "Theirs is a response to the de facto system. The affluent, white society has still been able to create a separate school system. Blacks want the same opportunity. In effect, we've come full circle again."

But is this a good thing?

Not according to Gary Orfield, director of the Human Rights Project at Harvard University. Orfield, who writes extensively on integration, says studies repeatedly show that students of all ethnicities benefit from integration. Among other things, they are more likely to have positive racial attitudes and more likely to go to an interracial college and succeed.

"Rarely are segregated schools equal," he says. "A segregated education produces a segregated life. What is wrong with a segregated school is that they can't be effective in an integrated society, especially for people who live in a segregated neighborhood."

Orfield remembers a superintendent in the St. Louis school system who invented a novel idea for recruiting white kids to a school in a black neighborhood. He sent out an invitation to white parents saying, in essence, their child was highly gifted and invited them for testing on a Saturday morning. Parents arrived in droves.

A gimmick? Orfield doesn't think so. "Successful marketing," he says. "These schools really become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If everyone thinks they'll be wonderful, they will be wonderful. If a school gets a negative reputation when it opens up, it will be doomed."


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