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Brown v. Board district being re-segregated, report concludes

Richmond School Board Representative Jeffrey M. Bourne led move to “preserve and add to a handful of majority white school zones,” according to data.

Richmond School Board Representative Jeffrey M. Bourne led move to “preserve and add to a handful of majority white school zones,” according to data.

By Jeremy M. Lazarus
Special to the Trice Edney Newswire from the Richmond Free Press

In 1987, when Genevieve Siegel-Hawley attended Fox Elementary School in the Fan District of Richmond, Va., 65 percent of the students were Black.

Today, Dr. Siegel-Hawley, now an assistant professor of education at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), said the situation at Fox has reversed, with 65 percent of the students being white.

She says this illustrates the effect of policies that have resulted in the Richmond school system becoming “more segregated than it was 20 years ago.” The current majority Black school board is contributing to the trend of creating majority-white schools with its recent restructuring of attendance zones for elementary schools, according to a report she authored with three other professors and a former school board member.

Organized under the banner, Looking Back, Moving Forward, the other members of the independent group include: Dr. Renee Hill of Virginia State University and Drs. John Moeser and Thomas Shields of the University of Richmond (UR), and former School Board chairwoman Kimberly Bridges.

For the board, the resegregation issue represents another embarrassing controversy at a time when the quality of education in the city is under fire. It is particularly embarrassing for a district that was at the center of the fight over enforcement of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., that outlawed segregation of schools.

Based on census and enrollment data, the report states the school board, led by third district representative Jeffrey M. Bourne, acted to “preserve and add to a handful of majority white school zones” in voting in June to restructure the zones that required school changes for 2,000 students.

A Church Hill native, Dr. Siegel-Hawley said in a Free Press interview, after the report was issued, the data shows the board’s restructuring “reduced diversity” by clustering a large majority of white students in a few elementary schools.

The report cites the changes the board made to zones for three elementary schools — Blackwell, Cary and Westover Hills — to show the impact of the restructuring the Bourne-led board installed. According to the report, Blackwell went from having 28 percent white children living in its attendance zone to zero; Cary went from 61 percent white children in its zone to 16 percent; and Westover Hills went from 13.5 percent white children in its zone to 55.9 percent.

The report appears to bolster a legal challenge to the restructuring that first raised the issue of resegregation. That challenge, filed Sept. 3, is the work of a separate group, the Richmond Coalition for Quality Education, headed by Gregory O. Day Sr. The group is asking the Richmond Circuit Court to overturn the board’s restructuring on the grounds the action involved resegregating schools. No date has been set for a hearing.

Richmond did all it could to avoid fully desegregating until it was forced under court order to begin busing to create racially balanced schools around 1970 and finally implement the Brown decision. Busing ended after 1986, when a federal court found that busing for racial balance was no longer needed for a majority-Black school system. Bourne and other board members have denied race was a factor in the restructuring and have said restructuring had to be done as the result of the closure of five elementary buildings and the opening of two new buildings.

Dr. Siegel-Hawley, who is white, has made the study of school diversity and resegregation, a major focus of her academic work. She said diversity in schools has been shown to improve educational quality and is important for a city that remains largely divided into Black and white neighborhoods. She said current census data shows the residential pattern remains largely intact.

According to Dr. Siegel-Hawley, the schools have been a way to counteract the residential separation. But she said Richmond’s board in the past two decades has ignored diversity and pushed policies that reduce the prospect for mixed-race classrooms, even for a school district in which 80 percent of the students are Black, 10 percent are white and 10 percent are Latino, Asian or Native American.

One such policy enables parents to choose their children’s schools through open enrollment. That policy has helped cluster students by race rather than add to diversity, she said. “In terms of other metro areas in the South,” Dr. Siegel-Hawley said, “Richmond has re-segregated its schools more rapidly.”

The report includes a series of recommendations on ways the school board could adopt “a more systematic approach” to diversity and offer more children “the opportunity to learn and grow” in mixed-race classrooms.

One way would be to create magnet schools with specialty academic programs that could attract diverse students, the report suggests.

Another would be to follow school systems like Louisville, Ky., and install a controlled choice system. That system, the report states, would allow families each year to submit a ranked list of school preferences to the central office, which would then assign students based on proximity, race, income, sibling preferences, student achievement and other factors.

While such a plan would still allow students to attend a neighborhood school, controlled choice would give the central office more ability to create more diverse classes, Dr. Siegel-Hawley said. The report is an outgrowth of a March conference VCU and UR held that was titled Looking Backward, Moving Forward and focused on issues of race, class and diversity in Richmond area schools.

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