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Separate Still Not Equal

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 24 Oct 2012 07:27am | comments
Students at a Mississippi junior high school in 1970. New research shows schools made progress towards integration over the last half of the decade, but now trends are reversing. Photo by the Associated Press.

Students at a Mississippi junior high school in 1970. New research shows schools made progress towards integration over the last half of the decade, but now trends are reversing. Photo by the Associated Press.

Segregated schools are still a problem across the South.  A new report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA shows students are increasingly separated by race and class. In fact, a full third of African American students in the south attend schools that are almost entirely black.  And in Mississippi, where schools are often either predominately black or overwhelmingly white, the report shows inequity is becoming more entrenched.

Jefferson County,Mississippi is the poorest in the state. Families bring in an average of 24 thousand dollars per year. It’s rural and almost 85% black – the largest African American population percentage in the nation.

Schools in this community are not doing well. In fact, they are failing.  Now compare Jefferson County to one of the many white suburban areas in the state.

“It’s totally different,” says Tracy Cook, Superintendent of the Jefferson County School District.

He says he wants what the whiter, wealthier areas have, ”The quality of instruction. The right people in the right places.”

He’s talking about effective teachers such as Jenny Guedon.  When we visit her class, she’s walking her first graders through a simple science experiment: if you blow through a square wand, will your bubbles be square or round?

“Raise your hand if you put on your paper that your hypothesis was that you can blow square bubble,” says Guedon.

“What material will we need?” she asks. “What are we going to use? The string…the straws…the? Ian?”

Jenny Guedon is trying to rejuvenate early elementary at Jefferson County Schools. Photo by Annie Gilbertson.

“The pan!”

It’s science, but it’s also a much needed vocabulary lesson.

That’s because by the time 4, 5 and 6-year-olds come to Jefferson, data shows that poverty has already put the children behind. If support systems aren’t in place in the early grades, Cook says the damaging effects of poverty snowball.

“Because when you get past elementary and past the 6th grade, everything else you are just putting Band-Aids on, gashes you just trying to patch,” says Cook.  ”In order for that cycle to be broken, you’ve to have a solid elementary program.”

Cook says it’s a problem he’s taking responsibility for, but adds the painful truth is that white, wealthier schools often have fewer obstacles, more resources and the test scores to prove it. Mississippi third grade scores show 3 in 5 black students are not reading on grade level.  The number of white students behind in reading is about half that.

Dr. Hank Bounds, the state Commissioner of Higher Education, says attainment is weak among low-income students because poverty stunts their ability to succeed going forward.

“If kids aren’t prepared to enter kindergarten, and they aren’t up to speed by the third grade – and that’s rocket science to get them there,” says Bounds.  ”If they aren’t up to speed by the third grade, they aren’t going to be ready for middle school; if they aren’t ready for middle school, they aren’t going to be ready for high school. If they aren’t ready for high school they are going to make a 16, 17 on the ACT. And then they are going to come to us and we are going to get the end result.”

New research from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA shows inequity in American education still falls along lines of race and class. Minority and poor students are often clustered together in inferior schools. The report shows segregation in schools looks about as severe as it did 40 years ago, just a few years after desegregation.

In Mississippi, black students fall way behind their white counterparts. An even greater gap exists between the classes. Data provided by the Mississippi Department of Education.

“People do come to the idea with the notion that we tried,” says Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, co-author of the new report.  ”And it’s over. It’s been done.”

Siegel-Hawley says the South showed progress towards the desegregation of schools after federal mandates were handed down in the ‘60s. But in recent years, the trend is reversing.  One-third of black students in the South go to almost entirely black schools. Siegel-Hawley says now schools are experiencing what she calls “double segregation.”

“When we talk about double segregation, we are talking about isolating students by both race and poverty status,” says Siegel-Hawley. “Black and Latino students were almost twice likely to go to school with high concentrations of poor students.”

Which means minority students are less likely to have high-quality teachers and other resources, and more likely to experience what Siegel-Hawley calls the “peer effect” – that is, if your friend drops out, you are more likely to do the same.

She says its schools that prepare children for social and economic mobility.  And so an integrated, equitable education is necessary for a growing well, educated, multiracial America.

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Students at a Mississippi junior high school in 1970. New research shows schools made progress towards integration over the last half of the decade, but now trends are reversing. Photo by the Associated Press.


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