Desegregation more complicated than black and white

Published 12:20 am Sunday, March 2, 2008

NATCHEZ — Nineteen years after a court order mandated desegregation of the Natchez public schools, and five years after the order was lifted, the Natchez school district is nearly entirely populated by just one race.

The district is 89.9 percent black, a percentage that has steadily increased since 2001.

It is 9.4 percent white, .5 percent Hispanic and .2 percent Asian.

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But the segregation is voluntary, and, for the most part, out of the district’s control. And even though the district’s leaders aren’t forced to maintain the standards of the court order, they keep things as close as possible, Superintendent Anthony Morris said.

The 1989 desegregation order, handed down by Judge William H. Barbour, dealt manly with consolidating schools to mix the races.

The district was required to implement a district-wide high school on the campus of what was South Natchez High and a district-wide middle school at the North Natchez High campus.

Two elementary zones were created — north and south — to divide students based on geography.

The other requirements of the order included turning in annual statistical reports and watching closely the number of black and white faculty hired.

How it has changed

The rules outlined by the court order were in place until 2003, when the order was lifted and the judge said desegregation had been achieved.

For the first two years after the order was lifted, the change simply meant freedom, Morris said.

The district did not unveil major changes, and said making change wasn’t the reason they filed for unitary status. It was simply important to know the goals of the court order had been achieved, he said.

In 2005, though, the district announced plans to reorganize the district.

They aligned the elementary schools by grade, not by geographical areas.

Students in the same grade now attend the same school, with kindergarten at West Primary, first and second grades at Frazier Primary, third and fourth grades at McLaurin Elementary and fifth and sixth grades at Morgantown Elementary.

The change eliminated geographical rivalries for students who eventually all met in middle school anyway.

And it allowed for better planning and preparation among teachers, Morris said.

“It is working better for the teachers because they are getting the same professional development,” he said.

The 2007-2008 school year has been the first to show major benefits from the changes, Morris said.

“There have been significant differences in how the students and faculty have come together,” he said.

Free to follow the rules

And even though the court order is gone, the district often still tries to operate by some of the rules it outlined, Morris said.

“We always try to pay attention to diversity among our faculty and staff,” Morris said. “We continue to be sensitive to that.”

The district is not required to meet any statistical standard of black and white teachers and administrators, but Morris said they’ve set their own goal of 50 percent of each race. Often, the more realistic split is 60-40, he said, with the majority alternating between the races.

“It depends on the qualifications and the availability of who is out there,” he said.

On the administrative side, the district has more black administrators than white ones. Five building-level principals are black, while three are white.

Still segregated?

In the classrooms, the district is mindful of the racial breakdown.

Administrators work to group white children so they are never alone in a class, Morris said. But the result does mean some all black classes.

That segregation isn’t something Morris wants.

“With us living in a global society, the more diverse a classroom is, it gives our children a better view of what their working environment will be like,” he said. “Diversity is will be beneficial to them.”

White enrollment is highest in the lower grades.

West Primary has a 12 percent white enrollment and Frazier has 10.7 percent.

McLaurin and Morgantown both have 11 percent white enrollment.

But at Robert Lewis Middle, the percentage drops to 4.9.

A black and white future?

When Kareem West was a junior in high school he was the only black student in his class. He’d grown up this way, even though the Natchez school district had 36 percent white enrollment in 1988.

Kareem and his father, now-mayor, Phillip West, joined two other students in filing suit against the district saying the schools were still racially segregated and black students weren’t given the same opportunities as white students.

Now, Phillip West agrees that the district is desegregated. But the racial breakdown isn’t what he would have wanted, he said.

“It’s somewhat disappointing,” he said. “But there are so many reasons why.”

Both West and Morris said economics are a large factor in who attends public school and who doesn’t.

Many who can afford to attend one of the three private schools in town. There may be no changing that, West said.

“I would think it’s not going to change in my lifetime,” he said. “Some real drastic changes must take place in the district first.”

West said he believed parents and students would want to see new school buildings and quality programs before they made the jump back to public schools.

“I’m of the opinion that if you build it, they will come,” he said. “If you’ve got something that is top notch, people will want to be a part of it. But until people see something that is top notch you aren’t going to get as much interest.”

Morris said the district does not try to recruit specifically white students, but does work to promote what it has.

“We just try to promote the district as a whole,” he said. “We try to be sure that we are perceived in the community in a proper fashion.”