Cleveland schools move toward tipping point

By TIM KALICH,

“We just educate the ones we have.”  — Cleveland School Superintendent Jacquelyn Thigpen

 Those words have a familiar ring to them. I remember Greenwood school officials saying something very similar almost three decades ago when the white flight from this city’s public schools became irreversible.

Cleveland may not be at that tipping point yet, but the early indications are that it’s getting mighty close since opening this month its first citywide middle and high schools in response to a federal court’s desegregation order.

Preliminary enrollment figures show a loss of 135 white students district wide from a year ago, or 14 percent.

That drop further accelerates a trend that began following U.S. District Judge Debra Brown’s order in May 2016 that said Cleveland could no longer operate a partially integrated school system. She ruled that it was unconstitutional to have a situation in which one high school and one middle school were racially well-balanced, and one high school and one middle school were nearly all-black.

Since that ruling, white enrollment district wide has fallen 20 percent. In the dozen years prior, the most white enrollment fell in any one year was about six percent, and there were years where it grew as much as four percent.

What looks to be happening in Cleveland is what opponents of consolidation said would happen. It’s exactly what has happened in every Delta school district where the U.S. Justice Department and the federal courts have taken a purist attitude toward desegregation. Instead of fostering more integration, they have produced less.

What Cleveland had was not perfect, but it was about as close as anyone has come up with in school districts where whites are in a significant minority. With its dual-schools setup, Cleveland created a situation in which all the white students from grades 6 to 12 in public schools were attending fully integrated campuses. Half the black students were as well.

Although it’s true that all the black students are now in integrated schools, if the white flight continues, that won’t be the case for long.

Before consolidation, Cleveland High School was 46 percent white. The consolidated Cleveland Central is less than 25 percent.

When the Greenwood public schools lost nearly all of their white students except at one elementary school, I was told by a black school board member that 40 percent was the tipping point. Once white enrollment gets below that at a school, the exodus is irreversible.

If that’s so, then the motto that has been adopted this year at Cleveland Central — “One Town. One School. One Family.” — will have a short shelf life. And if white flight accelerates at Cleveland Central, it will accelerate throughout the district, as white parents make the decision to pull their kids out earlier and earlier because they conclude that private schools, moving or home schooling is inevitable.

 

At the time of the judge’s order, there were some who speculated that Cleveland would not follow the pattern of other Delta cities that saw their white enrollment disappear from the public schools. They claimed that there were not as many private school options in and around Cleveland, and so white families would be forced to stick with the public schools. They also hoped that racial attitudes had progressed enough that white parents would be less inclined to leave.

That would be nice, but it would also be naive.

Numbers don’t lie. And the early numbers with this experiment in social engineering suggest that it will fail like most the others before it have when it comes to school integration.

You simply cannot force parents to send their children where they are not comfortable sending them. And white parents aren’t comfortable with schools where the racial breakdown is not at least close to even.

You can object to that reality. You can wish it were not so. But to ignore it damages the schools, which lose a major base of support, and the communities where they are located.

One of Cleveland’s advantages, when competing with other Delta towns for employers and families, has been that it had viable public school options for all races. Employers know they have an easier time recruiting managers and other high-level employees when private-school tuition isn’t factored into the cost of living where the company is located.

If Cleveland loses that edge, that may be good for Greenwood in the recruiting wars.   

It will be sad, however, to see the last city in the Delta resign itself that its public schools are going to be smaller, poorer and less integrated than they would have been if those in power had just listened.

Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

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