Friday, February 24, 2006

Re-segregation and reform [in Austin, Texas]

This was a top story in today's DAILY TEXAN. I applaud Ward for covering a pressing issue that gets scant attention in the media. Specifically, this piece highlights the failure of Brown v. Board of Education that sought to bring an end to this level of segregation in U.S. society. -Angela

Re-segregation and reform
End of busing marks rise in inequity

Justin Ward /DAILY TEXAN

Posted: 2/23/06

The marquee for Johnston High School in East Austin welcomes students every day. Johnston is part of a national trend in school re-segregation that came with the end of court-ordered desegregation efforts.

Re-segregation and reform
End of busing marks rise in inequity

Justin Ward /DAILY TEXAN

Posted: 2/23/06

On the far-east side of Austin, past graffiti-decked buildings and rows of little houses sits Johnston High School. The sign in front of the school reads: "Johnston High School 'The pride of the East Side.'"

Lately, Johnston is struggling to find things to be proud of. Its test scores are among the lowest in the district. Its marching band has fewer than 15 members. Its football team has not had a winning season in years.

In the '90s, when Johnston was home to the Liberal Arts Academy, a magnet program, it was a top school in Austin. But in recent years it has rapidly declined, said Scott Lipton, academy administrator. Instability in the administration and the flight of top students to other schools have left Johnston in a state of crisis.

Johnston is an example of the increasing racial division in Austin schools that has escalated in the past five years. A high concentration of poverty and the resulting effects on student achievement, such as lower scores on standardized tests, continue to plague Johnston and other Austin schools.

The Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees abandoned forced busing - a way of integrating schools by busing students from predominantly white schools to predominantly black and Hispanic ones - in 2000. It was replaced by neighborhood school assignment with an optional school transfer system.

Schools had begun to slip into patterns of racial isolation mirroring the east-west residential divide by 2003.

Austin ISD is part of a nationwide trend of school re-segregation caused by the dismantling of court-ordered desegregation plans.

Re-segregation is most visible in the southern U.S., said Gary Orfield, director of the Harvard University's Civil Rights Project. The district is the 10th-most segregated of the South's 100 largest school districts, according to a 2005 Duke University study.

When busing was terminated in 2000, Johnston had a white enrollment of 15 percent - almost equal to black enrollment. By 2003, white enrollment dropped to 2 percent, according to the Texas Education Agency. Other schools in the district had similar patterns.

Approximately 80 percent of white high school students in Austin attend schools that are majority white, according to TEA statistics.

"The most segregated and most isolated are white students," said UT educational psychology professor Richard Valencia.

A 1983 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision classified the district as "unitary," meaning it had removed all remaining vestiges of state-mandated segregation and was now free from federal intervention, such as busing mandates. This decision allowed the district to end forced busing to elementary schools in 1987.

With the end of busing and the slide into re-segregation, Austin schools are returning to a state of inequality, said Texas NAACP President Gary Bledsoe in a written statement.

"Schools on the East Side are not treated properly across the board," Bledsoe said. "They generally have inferior physical plants [and] high-tech equipment. Bond issues or budgets are generally not designed to meet very many of their needs."

School re-segregation is directly related to poor school performance, Valencia said. In the same year that white enrollment fell to less than 2 percent at Johnston, the percentage of students who passed standardized tests fell from 60 percent to 20 percent, according to the TEA.

After Johnston sent out notification of its failing status in 2003, many students transferred to other schools. Under No Child Left Behind, a federal program created to improve public education, districts are required to pay for transferring students out of failing schools.

More than 200 students had transferred from Johnston by the 2005-2006 school year, according to the district. It was in jeopardy of losing its 4A status, which allows it to compete with other larger high schools in UIL activities, such as football and band.

Transfers from Johnston are a drain on talent and enrollment, Lipton said. Enrollment at the district's top-performing schools, such as Anderson High School and Austin High School, has swollen. But enrollment at high-poverty schools, such as Reagan High School and Johnston, has shrunk drastically. Austin High School had twice the enrollment of Johnston in 2005, according to TEA statistics

"No one ever transfers to Johnston," said Shannon Cardona, a special education teacher at Johnston. "They get sent back."

High minority enrollment often correlates with high concentrations of students below the poverty line, said Orfield, the author of reports on inequality in education. Poor students often score low on standardized tests, Orfield added. The high-poverty schools often have less experienced teachers, lower levels of peer group competition and less challenging curriculums, he said.

Between 75 percent and 80 percent of students at Austin's most racially isolated high schools - Reagan, Travis, Lanier and Johnston - are considered economically disadvantaged, according to TEA statistics.

"One of the common misconceptions over the issue of re-segregation of schools is that many people treat it as simply a change in the skin color of the students in a school," Orfield said. "If skin color were not systematically linked to other forms of inequality, it would, of course, be of little significance for educational policy."

High-poverty schools carry a stigma that often turns away more experienced teachers, Valencia said.

"There's a major stereotype that to teach in a minority school is a challenge," Valencia said.

In Austin schools that are mostly nonwhite, the average teacher has taught for around 10 years - five fewer than those at mostly white schools, according to TEA statistics. But Cardona, who has taught for 12 years, five at Johnston, said she was not intimidated by the prospect of teaching at a high-poverty school.

"Teachers are not banging down the doors to teach at Johnston," Cardona said. "But the ones that do ... we know what we're getting ourselves into."

Liz Brown, who started teaching after Johnston was labeled failing by TEA a year ago, said she was at Johnston by choice.

"Starting off at a school that is blue ribbon and recognized doesn't mean anything at all," Brown said. "I want to make a difference." Teachers and administrators at Johnston often have to act as surrogate families for students, Brown said.

"I'm more of a motivator than I am a math teacher," she said. "They've been pushed down for so long for so many years that by the time we get them at the ninth-grade level, their ability level is not where it should be in any area. They're shoved through the system."

Students at Johnston have a strong feeling of inferiority because of the school they attend, she said.

"If you ask students, they'll say Johnston's a bad school, that we're 'ghetto,'" Brown said.

Schools with large percentages of poor students also tend to lack social networks, such as parent-teacher associations, that more affluent white schools have, Valencia said.

Parents at more affluent schools wield greater social and political power, which enables them to hold schools more accountable, said Tim Eubanks, lead community organizer with Austin Voices for Education and Youth, an organization which works with schools in the district..

"Parental involvement also occurs in minority schools, but the social capital is not there," Valencia said. "They express it differently."

Unlike many other school districts that have a strong racial divide, there are few disparities in spending across Austin ISD. Schools with a high concentration of poverty often incur extra expenses, such as language services and special education costs, Orfield said. Some schools, such as Johnston, run day-care centers for student mothers.

Schools are not only becoming segregated by race and ethnicity but also by language, Orfield said. 20 percent to 30 percent of students have limited English skills at Austin's four most racially isolated high schools.

Johnston is restructuring with help from a state grant. The school will break up into three academies dedicated to different areas of study. Administrators hope this plan, modeled on successful experiments in underachieving urban schools in New York and Boston, will pull Johnston out of its slump.

"We want to bring Johnston back, revitalize it and make it a source of pride for this neighborhood," Lipton said.
© Copyright 2006 The Daily Texan


  1. This is the first I have heard the term re-segregation, and until now I didn't even know it existed in todays schools. It is amazing how much race affects the school system, I had no idea. I agree that being a teacher in a high-needs school such as Johnston is a challenging task, but it seems worthwhile, because the only place these kids have to go is up.

  2. I found this blog article by putting "re-segregation Austin" into Google. I wasn't expecting to find anything, but I'm glad I did.I was wondering if I was the only one who had noticed! I moved to Austin about a year and a half ago from the NW and have been substitute teaching for PK-12 all over AISD--both on the East side as well as the West side. It has been a somewhat disturbing experience seeing that segregation is alive and well in this city and schools can be labeled in my mind as "White Schools" or "Black/Hispanic Schools." It feels so wrong...but what is the answer to the problem??

  3. Gosh, Jessica, yours is a BIG question. Supposedly the magnet schools were our touted solution to segregation but we know that segregation still operates in officially "de-segregated schools." Texas has a long history with segregation, so long that it's pretty normal. Unless they're persons like you who come from other states, it's noticeable. In time, it becomes part of the landscape, much like the high dropout rate, low expectations, etc. There are always bright spots but never enough. As long as residential segregation exists, school segregation will continue to exist.