Decades after Brown decision, Virginia is still grappling with school segregation

By: - August 26, 2019 12:02 am

Jenny Aghomo and her daughter, Ama, sit outside John B. Cary Elementary in Richmond. Ama will be entering fourth grade this year. (Mechelle Hankerson/The Virginia Mercury)

Jenny Aghomo was excited about the new teachers and friends her daughter would meet if the majority-black school she attended in Richmond merged with a nearby majority-white school as part of a plan to increase the diversity of both student bodies.

Then Aghomo heard what some parents from that majority-white school, Fox Elementary, were saying about the proposal. 

“Knowing what I know now, attitudes would have to change because you don’t want your kids to go somewhere they’re not really welcome,” Aghomo said.

A vocal contingent of Fox parents said they supported diversity but practical concerns made the proposal less palatable. Some lamented they’d no longer be able to walk their kids to school. Others worried their property values would drop.

The response, which Richmond Superintendent Jason Kamras said “sounded eerily like Massive Resistance 2.0,” is just one example of how plans to better integrate Virginia’s remaining segregated schools and systems still face pushback 65 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown V. Board of Education decision.

“A lot of folks are good with diversity in principle, or maybe they’re good with a little diversity,” Kamras said. “But in reality, when it hits a certain threshold, things suddenly change.”

John B. Cary Elementary School in Richmond is part of a potential citywide reassignment plan to promote student diversity, among other goals (Mechelle Hankerson/The Virginia Mercury)

That reality continues to have real-world implications. As some legal protections implemented following the Brown decision have expired, studies have shown schools have steadily become more segregated.

In 1989, 3 percent of Virginia’s schools were “intensely segregated,” with 10 percent or less of the student population identifying as white, according to a report by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project. By 2010, that number doubled to 6 percent. In 2018, about 7 percent of Virginia’s schools fell into that category, according to school enrollment data.

When we keep kids separate, it’s really hard to imagine how we’re going to move forward in a multiracial democracy,” said Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who co-authored the 2013 UCLA report. “There are real social and psychological benefits to desegregating schools and damage (from) segregated ones.”

Where are segregated schools?

In total, 93 schools in the state have student bodies that are more than 75 percent black, the threshold the U.S. Government Accountability Office uses to define segregation. The majority are in Richmond, Norfolk, Henrico County, Portsmouth, Petersburg and Newport News.

Richmond rolled out a draft of its rezoning proposal in June. The district needs to ease overcrowding in some parts of the city. Kamras said it also presented an opportunity to make some schools more diverse by “pairing” elementary schools, including Fox, which is 56 percent white, and John B. Cary, which is 82 percent black. 

Under the proposal, students from both schools would attend Fox until third grade, then matriculate to Cary for third to fifth grade. 

While Siegel-Hawley says pairing is a common tool used by school districts to increase diversity among student bodies, Fox parents worried about the logistics of being assigned to different school buildings at a community meeting last month.

Officials in Richmond proposed pairing Fox Elementary School in Richmond with a nearby majority black school to increase the diversity of both student bodies. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Parents were forceful in anonymous written comments submitted to the school system, which included threats to leave the school district: “If option 2 is passed, I know that I, along with many other neighbors, would carefully weigh the decision of whether to send my children to private school or to move out of the district for a better elementary school option for our family.”

Kamras has viewed such responses with skepticism.

“It is fair to make critiques of the proposal but what is not fair from my perspective is critiques that are masquerading as critiques when they’re really resisting the ultimate goal, which is integration,” Kamras said in an interview. “I think we need to have some tough and honest conversations about that.”

Parents, most of whom declined to provide their names when approached by a reporter at a community meeting in July, also questioned why Fox and Cary were part of the plan, noting that neither school is among the most segregated in the city. That designation goes to Richmond’s Fairfield Court Elementary School, with a student body that is 98 percent black.

Since the first reassignment draft, Richmond has come up with other options that pair Cary with Mary Munford Elementary (which has the highest concentration of white students in Richmond) and Fox with Carver Elementary.

Kamras said Fox and Cary’s geographic proximity presented an opportunity to address the issue without too much disruption. 

“That is a part of the city where we actually have diversity in close proximity,” he said. “If you were to think a little bit more broadly about those school zones, you could end up with two schools that are roughly 50-50.”

Segregation outside of schools

Richmond and Norfolk have historically been home to large proportions of minorities, a pattern intensified by the white flight that began in the 1950s and ’60s after court-ordered school integration. 

Even as the share of white residents has increased, both cities remain highly segregated because of past racist policies like redlining, which relegated black homeowners to certain parts of the city, and neighborhood covenants that barred minorities.

“Since our schools reflect those housing patterns, we remain a very, very segregated school system. I’m committed to doing whatever we can to reverse that,” Kamras said of Richmond.

After courts ordered schools integrated, most school districts started busing students between neighborhoods to meet the mandate — a practice many have since abandoned.

In Norfolk, the city stopped busing elementary school students in the 1980s. Paul Riddick, a current Norfolk city councilman, sued to maintain the practice, arguing that without it, the schools would resegregate.

Riddick lost the case, but he was right. The city stopped all busing in 2001. Ruffner Middle School — once viewed as an integration success story — went from having a student population that was one third white in 2000 to a student population that was 93 percent black as of last year. 

Riddick, however, says he doesn’t consider busing a solution anymore and instead thinks school funding is more effective since it can ensure each school has access to the resources it needs.

“Our district is 70 percent or more African American, so I think anywhere you go it’s going to be majority African American,” he said. (State data shows 59 percent of Norfolk’s total student body is black as of 2018).

“It’s a non-issue to me,” Riddick said.

‘We know diversity is good for all kids’

Even though policies like busing may be political non-starters, experts say school districts that want to address segregation still have options.

In addition to pairing schools, Siegal-Hawley said magnets and other specialized programs give families a reason to send their kids to schools that may be far from home.

“Some of these kids will travel for good opportunities,” she said. “It’s not about the busing, it’s about what the busing is being used for.”

Regardless of the approach, she said fully integrated schools are a worthwhile goal. It can improve graduation and dropout rates and help students become more comfortable with different types of people.

Desegregated schools often retain more experienced teachers and can get more students into college and then into well-paying jobs, Siegel-Hawley wrote in the 2013 UCLA report.

Kamras agreed, noting diverse schools often have higher SAT scores and student satisfaction.

“There’s a whole host of benefits to integrated, diverse schools,” he said. “On top of that, this is a city which has a diverse population, so it is a shame to not have schools that reflect that.”

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.