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Separate. Equal?

Nashville school resegregation threatens a new generation

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Neighborhood schools are great unless your neighborhood is the ghetto, in which case the sensible parent is putting her child on the first big yellow bus to the safer, happier place where white people live, where there's money and hope.

In a nutshell, that's what the city's entire black leadership has been trying to explain to the white establishment since the debate over the Metro school rezoning plan exploded into the headlines this summer like something out of the Sixties. Predictably—since when have white people listened to black people in this city?—the point seems to have been lost, even though there's decades of social science proving the common sense of it.

To illustrate, here's an anecdote, one of those it-would-be-funny-if-it-weren't-so-sad stories. Teachers take fourth-graders on a field trip to Nashville's jail to frighten them away from drugs and guns. But who's afraid? The kids are smiling and waving to their relatives behind bars.

"It was not scary to them," one stunned teacher says. "It was familiar."

True story. As told to Vanderbilt University researchers. It makes it easier to understand why, when educators discuss what poor African American children need to succeed in life, no one mentions neighborhood schools.

Forty years of studies, beginning with the famous Coleman Report in 1966, have shown that sending a lot of poor kids to school in the same place is a really bad idea. It's a central issue in education—how to teach poor urban children—and in all the research there's no more consistent conclusion than this: In schools where poverty is concentrated, students learn less. All the problems these children face—poor health, hunger, drugs, gangs and violence, and a culture that scorns education—it's all just too overwhelming for schools.

Poor children learn more in middle-class settings, the research shows. That happens, as the Coleman Report states, "not from racial composition per se but from the better educational background and higher educational aspirations that are, on average, found among whites." Blacks not only learn more with whites, studies show, but they gain entrée to white social networks and jobs later in life. It's a way out.

For more than 1,300 poor children in Nashville, the school rezoning plan would close that door of opportunity, according to the city's black leaders. Under the plan, beginning next school year (unless opponents succeed in stopping it), those students no longer will be bused 40 minutes to the upscale neighborhoods of Hillwood, but will go instead closer to home in the Pearl-Cohn cluster of schools in predominately black North Nashville.

The black enrollment at Hillwood High, located next to a country club and luxury dream homes, will drop immediately from roughly 50 percent to 25 percent. Pearl-Cohn's eight schools, already heavily black and poor, will become that much more so. In all but two schools, more than 90 percent of the students will be African American. Overall, nearly 90 percent will be poor enough to receive federally subsidized school lunches.

Already in Nashville, the black-white educational achievement gap is yawning, with more than double the percentage of elementary- and middle-school blacks failing to perform at their grade levels in math and reading, just to name two subjects. Black leaders are convinced the rezoning plan will exacerbate that.

Jerry Maynard—a Pentecostal preacher and, as an at-large Metro Council member, the city's highest-ranking African American elected official—has been the most outspoken.

"We are dooming these children to failure," he says. "Study after study shows that any positive benefit derived from going to a neighborhood school is totally wiped out by issues of poverty. We've been screaming this at the top of our lungs."

To try to placate blacks, the school board promises to spend $6 million a year to add an array of social services to Pearl-Cohn schools and to pay teachers more. There are a couple of obvious thorns on this olive branch: (1) No one can guarantee the funding. The city had to dip into reserve accounts to pay for schools this year, and any future tax increase will be hard to come by, requiring voter approval under a new Metro Charter amendment. (2) And even if more money is spent in these schools, it probably won't help students learn more.

The latter point comes from research by the aforementioned Vanderbilt education professors. From 2002 through 2004, Claire Smrekar and Ellen Goldring studied schools in poor Nashville neighborhoods that already had been given extra money for the same things promised Pearl-Cohn—nurses, guidance counselors and smaller class sizes. Their research paints a devastating picture of the effects of poverty on Nashville children.

In one elementary school, identified only by the pseudonym Olive by the researchers to encourage parents and teachers to speak freely, all the students lived in two adjacent housing projects extending side-by-side, four blocks northward. In a single year alone, 576 serious crimes—murders, rapes, robberies, car thefts—were committed there. More than 70 percent of the children were from single-parent households.

Only about one in five families owned a car, and the median income was $11,349. Out of 1,300 residents over the age of 25, only 31 had a college degree. The population was 92 percent black.

"In critical ways," Smrekar and Goldring reported, "these neighborhood conditions roll into Olive's school corridors and classrooms with a penetrating influence and effect, shaping the interactions, norms and expectations of students, families and school staff."

One teacher said of students, "They see a lot of fights.... They talk about all the gambling and the throwing dice and the stuff that goes on out there, the betting. I had a child last year who came in late because she said, 'Someone got shot outside my house and my mom didn't want me to leave until the cops were all gone.' "

Another teacher said, "They come in from the weekend and tell me how this person has been shot, in the middle of the street, how they have to run in and take cover and everything. It is like a war, a battle over there in that neighborhood and they are trying to survive. That is why we have so many young children being, trying to be adult, trying to lead, and the problems that we have here are because over there in the neighborhood, they are learning to survive."

That teacher continued, "There are children in this building who have witnessed one parent murder another. There were children here whose parent was in prison for trying to kill one of their younger brothers and sisters.

"These children see a lot of trauma. They see a lot, they know a lot of death. They know a lot of people getting shot and getting killed. A lot of them have relatives in jail, relatives on the way to jail. I had a little boy who saw a lot of domestic violence, so they see a lot of trauma. They talk about it a lot of times."

Despite the additional services provided at the schools, the researchers found, "the penetrating and punishing effects of neighborhood poverty undercut these efforts." Because of the difficulties at the schools, teachers were typically less experienced, and turnover was high. Test scores didn't go up. The students weren't learning any better.

One guidance counselor told them, "We have so much here, and it still isn't enough."

Before 1998, when court-ordered busing ended in Nashville, Olive school was racially balanced. Teachers said things were better then. The students from the housing projects found role models in other children at the school.

"I really believe if children come into a diverse classroom, they model each other," one teacher said. "You'll find them looking and seeing the children who are getting the praises and they start to mimic that because they want to be noticed right away."

Another teacher put it bluntly, "I think it needs to be diverse, both economically and culturally. If we are living in a diverse nation and world, we need to have that here as well. They need to know what is going on out there, not just drugs, alcohol, prostitution and new babies."

Smrekar and Goldring reported their findings to the task force appointed by the school board to study rezoning issues this year. The task force unanimously recommended the plan eventually adopted by the board.

Board members have never explained to the satisfaction of critics why they approved the rezoning plan even while knowing that it's basically the opposite of what educators would advise.

Rezoning was sold as a money-saver. "We can pay for bricks and mortar and transportation, or we can pay for kids' education," school board chair Marsha Warden says. And the plan will save $2 million by closing four schools.

But there will be a net loss of $4 million if the board keeps its promise to spend more on Pearl-Cohn's schools. Plus the plan actually creates inefficiencies, overcrowding North Nashville's schools and leaving vast open spaces elsewhere. With so many blacks no longer going there, Hillwood High will be half-empty.

The board only raises more suspicions about its motives when it says it'll provide transportation for any child who wishes to continue to attend Hillwood schools. If students can keep going to Hillwood, why rezone them? That answer lies in the plan's fine print. There's a catch. Transportation will be provided only if there are enough students to make it practical. No one's said how many students that is, and black leaders suspect it won't be practical for long.

"None of this makes any sense," says Mebenin Awipi, a former school board member and retired Tennessee State University professor who heads the NAACP's education committee. "We're asking the school board, what are your real intentions? What are you trying to accomplish?"

Actually, black leaders think they know what's behind the rezoning plan. In their view—which is not without supporting evidence—board members, acting in cahoots with the Chamber of Commerce, want to remove as many black children as possible from Hillwood to make those schools more acceptable to white people.

It's not a pretty conclusion, and school board members deny it. Warden retorts, "This is no more racially motivated than the man in the moon." But is there another plausible explanation?

"I'm not saying they're racists because I do not know what's in their hearts," Maynard says. "But I do know they don't care. They shoved this down our throats."

How Nashville got to this stage—with the city torn in two over schools once again only a decade after finally winning release from court desegregation decrees—is an interesting, if depressingly familiar, tale involving backroom deals, strong-arm tactics and rich white people's money.

All summer, pressure built against the plan. Reporters found themselves in possession of tell-all memorandums from ousted school superintendent Pedro Garcia. The memos chronicled a secret white conspiracy involving the chamber and various board members to reduce the number of blacks attending schools in upscale white neighborhoods, the better to attract new white families and businesses to Nashville.

Warden, one of the rezoning plan's main proponents and the Hillwood district's representative on the board, came off like a scheming segregationist. Garcia wrote that, when he opposed the plan and wouldn't succumb to intimidation, he was tossed out of office.

The NAACP called it a resegregation plan—a statement of obvious fact that nevertheless drew outrage from white officials. Even The Tennessean, ever cautious on its editorial page, called for delay. School board elections were only a month away, critics pointed out. Should such an important decision be made at the height of a political campaign?

At a Metro Council budget hearing, Maynard warned the rezoning plan could fracture an alliance of blacks and whites focused on improving schools. The district has failed for five straight years to meet student achievement standards under the No Child Left Behind law. In the law's mounting scale of sanctions, the state Education Department controls spending and hiring in the system, which remains leaderless anyway without a superintendent since Garcia's ouster at the beginning of the year.

"It seems to me the school board is taking its eye off the ball," Maynard said at the hearing. "It seems that a grenade has been thrown in the middle of this alliance, that this new school zoning plan will break up this alliance and will cause all the good will that we have earned...to go out the window. I just can't see us resegregating schools."

This is the point in the story where you might expect the school board to acquiesce in the interest of racial harmony, demonstrating for all to see how far we've come as a shining city of the New South at the beginning of the 21st century. That's some other story.

Instead, at a raucous meeting peppered with protests from the audience, the board adopted the new student assignment zones by a vote of 5-4. One black member—Antioch's Karen Johnson—joined the board's four whites to make the majority. Some blacks in her district, outraged by what they saw as a betrayal, started a recall petition against Johnson. She took $10,500 in contributions from business interests in her election campaign two years ago—almost two-thirds of what she raised altogether. She denied on her blog that she was unduly influenced by the chamber and called the assertion "an insult to the democratic and educational process."

The vote left black leaders fuming. The board was obviously determined to rezone students even if it alienated an entire segment of the city. It smacked of the days of desegregation.

"I'd never seen anything like this before in my life as long as I've lived here in Davidson County," Maynard says. "There was total disregard. There was no consideration of our issues and questions."

According to Garcia's memos, parts of which are published here for the first time, the move to rezone schools began last fall during a Chamber of Commerce-sponsored conference in Baltimore.

Every year, the chamber takes Nashville leaders to another city to study education, among other issues. Nearly 100 elected officials and business people went to Baltimore. They were troubled by what they saw there—a failing school system made up almost entirely of poor black students with high dropout rates and low achievement.

"...[T]he Baltimore experience was a warning shot that [Nashville's school system] could easily become another Baltimore and perhaps was headed that way," Garcia writes.

White flight began in 1971 in Nashville with the start of court-ordered busing. In that year alone, 8,600 white children—18 percent of the district's white students—left the system. Busing built Brentwood, whose population doubled to nearly 10,000 by 1980 as white families scampered just across the Davidson County line.

The white exodus didn't stop once Nashville's 43-year-old federal desegregation case finally ended in 1998. The Nashville school system's white population, still at 48 percent in 2001, has now fallen to 36 percent. Forty-seven percent of the district's 78,000 children are black. Alarmingly, the percentage of children poor enough to qualify for subsidized lunches has jumped from 47 percent seven years ago to 71 percent today.

Nashville's leaders discussed their fears at the Baltimore meeting. As Garcia puts it, they worried that the departure of middle-class families would become "a downward spiral," making problems of poverty overpowering throughout the district, Garcia writes.

After the conference, Garcia says, "The question was, 'How do we turn the trend around?' Chamber of Commerce leaders, the mayor, as well as other community leaders began to meet secretly to discuss this essential question. They wanted to find a way to avoid becoming another Baltimore. They had seen the signs."

The upshot, according to Garcia, was the plan to stop busing black children into white neighborhoods. What became of the black children—isolated in poverty as they would be—was not the main concern, he says.

"Business and community leaders met with selected board members while other board members were excluded. The agenda clearly became to have a student assignment plan that pushed for neighborhood schools. In essence, a neighborhood school plan is a disguised resegregation plan. It brings back to their neighborhood schools the African American students presently being bused. The underlying assumption is that if done successfully, perhaps white middle-class parents would return and balance the district's demographics."

Of his ouster, which was never fully explained publicly at the time, Garcia says, "I took the stand to oppose resegregating the district. It was the right stand and I would do it again."

With Garcia out of the way, lobbying was intense for the plan's adoption. At the next chamber-sponsored conference, in May in Miami, sources tell the Scene that businessmen were buttonholing public officials behind the scenes, "twisting their arms and browbeating them."

One source says he was told, " 'Middle-income families don't want their kids to be exposed to poor kids or adopt behavioral qualities or characteristics from poor kids.' "

Despite all this, the Chamber of Commerce insists it's taken no position on rezoning. The claim becomes all the more absurd when you consider that, in this month's school board elections, the chamber endorsed and funded an obscure candidate named Cordenus Eddings to run against the respected Ed Kindall, one of the rezoning plan's more vigorous opponents. It was the first time he faced a challenger in more than two decades on the board.

The reclusive Eddings, who wouldn't talk to reporters and named a convicted felon as her campaign treasurer, lost but made a race out of it with chamber cash.

"I had the deck stacked against me," Kindall says.

One of the chamber's followers on the school board, David Fox, insists the news media—particularly, the Scene—has been grossly unfair in its reporting on the whole controversy.

"This myth that the Chamber of Commerce is out here trying to take over the schools and ruin how our kids are educated is the most ill-informed crap I've heard in a long time. The reporting has been pitiful," says Fox, a hedge fund analyst and ex-business journalist.

"I've never heard anyone at the chamber talk about rezoning, " says Fox, who was endorsed and funded by the chamber when he ran for the board two years ago. "I keep reading that rezoning is all they care about, and I've never heard them mention it."

As for Garcia's memos, which he sent Kindall early this year, Fox scoffs. He says Garcia was pushed out of office after six years as superintendent because he was inept, not because he opposed the rezoning plan. Anything Garcia says should be taken as sour grapes, Fox asserts.

"To treat a document from Garcia as if it's some sort of inviolate word of God is remarkable," Fox says. "It's bizarre. It's like a parallel universe."

Personally, Fox says he voted for the rezoning plan because he thinks all children should attend neighborhood schools, whether they like it or not. Entering a parallel universe of his own imagining, in which urban squalor might resemble scenes from Disney movies with bluebirds singing and fresh-scrubbed children playing on pretty green lawns, Fox dismisses all the research warning against his idea.

"I'm not persuaded that the location of the kid is the critical factor," he says flatly.

Fox argues that blacks attending schools in middle-class neighborhoods haven't done any better than those in the inner city. The state Education Department, which is now effectively running this district, could point to no data that backs up that assertion. Fox is undeterred.

"If the government is going to send children 13 miles away to their school, the government is preventing the parents from getting involved in the school at all and also preventing their children from having any after-school activity," Fox says. "That's not the right side of the public school system to be on."

Besides Fox and friends, everyone generally agrees that most Pearl-Cohn parents likely won't find time to attend PTO meetings and other such activities once their children are going to neighborhood schools. That's because they're too busy trying to survive.

"I'd like to dispel this myth of automatic parent involvement due to proximity to home," Vanderbilt's Claire Smrekar says. "There's no data to support that assertion, that simply locating children closer to home will lead to higher parent involvement in these communities. These parents are distracted by the debilitating conditions of poverty. Talk to teachers. They'll tell you that these parents are stressed and often hard to locate because they're either enrolled in school or working two jobs to make ends meet."

Black leaders aren't finished fighting the school board. In an inflammatory letter that compared the rezoning plan to a hangman's gallows for children, the NAACP told the board to reconsider its vote. This month at its most recent meeting, the board ignored the demand.

Now the plan's foes hope new board members elected this month will agree to make changes. One, Alan Coverstone, is seen as the key vote because he replaces Warden, who didn't run for another term after helping push through the plan. But Coverstone, an administrator at Montgomery Bell Academy, says he's OK with what's happened.

"I've stated pretty clearly that I think the plan is on balance good, and I think the process was on balance fair, and I support it," Coverstone tells the Scene. "Labeling it as resegregation or 'separate but equal' is overly simplistic and does a disservice to the kind of discussion and dialogue we need to have to work together. I don't think we gain by going back and reinventing the wheel on that."

In that case, it's probably on to Plan B for the NAACP: Sue the city for discriminating against black children. Oddly enough, the school board never bothered to seek legal advice on whether its action could expose the district to a lawsuit.

It might be hard to win such a court action. In recent rulings, the Supreme Court has created a mandate for plaintiffs to prove "intent," the decision-makers' actual motivation to discriminate against a minority group. It's a near-impossible standard and rarely met. But Garcia might have delivered what lawyers like to call "the smoking gun" in the form of his memos, which cast players in this little drama as anything but high-minded public servants.

Another possible lawsuit could accuse white officials of violating the state open meetings law. Garcia's memos describe various secret meetings in which resegregation was discussed. All of them could have been illegal under the law, which at the time prohibited two or more members of a governing body from deliberating or deciding an issue except in a public meeting. A judge who finds sunshine law violations could nullify the vote on rezoning.

Mayor Karl Dean could play the role of peacemaker. Blacks so far have been disappointed in his public comments. At first, he kept a conspicuous silence, then said he supported the rezoning plan, then suggested the school board might reconsider it. Maynard says he was encouraged that Dean would take a more public role in the dispute when our supposedly progressive mayor mustered the political courage this month to speak out against council member Eric Crafton's "English Only" ballot initiative.

"We need his leadership," Maynard says. "He says he's the education mayor. We need to hear what he thinks. We need him to bring all the stakeholders together to review the rezoning plan and renegotiate it. My hope is that we will put the children first."

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