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Brown at 60: In Alabama, a Story of Progress Lost

Scarlett Gaddy

My city, Tuscaloosa, Ala., did not fully desegregate schools without a court order. So the reluctance of my community to honor the Brown v. Board of Education decision was quite evident. In fact, desegregation did not occur until 1979.

One could argue that resegregation began immediately after schools were officially desegregated. Many parents who disagreed with the court's decision quickly removed their children from public school and enrolled them in private ones. Some of these schools were hastily formed for just that purpose.

Until the mid-1990s, the student population of Central High School—profiled in this recent Atlantic article—transitioned from a white majority to a black majority. The number of students in the outlying suburban areas of Tuscaloosa County swelled as white families moved away from the city into those areas.

This migration effectively created two school systems: one majority white (in the suburbs) and the other majority black (in urban neighborhoods), resembling the pre-Brown era. School officials in the Tuscaloosa district attempted to draw families back into the city school system with specialized magnet elementary schools and programs geared for high achieving students, but they had limited success.

When the Tuscaloosa district was released from court oversight in 2000, the local community, weary of an enforced desegregation plan that bused students of all ages to specific schools, found itself longing for community-based schools. In this climate, a committee of parents, teachers, administrators, students, and community members was formed to study and recommend future direction for the high school. After a year of research and discussion, the committee recommended that the high school remain unified, with one large campus that would ensure diverse curriculum offerings and a shared sense of purpose. The committee believed that one school would be able to more efficiently utilize its resources and personnel and maintain the progress that had previously been the hallmark of the school.

Instead, the board of education chose to divide the high school into three smaller schools, bowing to arguments for small community-based schools in the hopes of attracting white students back into the system. This decision ultimately resulted in a school system with three high schools: one overwhelmingly black high school and two majority black high schools. As a result of this decision, the system's funding, resources, and personnel have been split three ways—and Central High struggles to meet its academic goals or provide equitable access to advanced curriculum.

As a member of the committee that recommended one unified school, it was frustrating for me to see Central High's progress lost to this complex issue of race. On the anniversary of the Brown decision, I long for a time when we can concentrate on each child's progress, regardless of his or her race. As parents, educators, and administrators, we need to find a better formula for zoning schools to ensure that these inequitable situations do not occur. We need to use other measurements, including income, to aid us in designing school zones. Above all, we must remember that we teach in order to prepare all students to participate in their broader communities as educated citizens. That should be the main purpose of all our decisions.

Scarlett Gaddy is a high school social studies educator of 24 years in Tuscaloosa, Ala. She is a past recipient of the Williams College George Olmsted Jr. Prize (2006) and a former semi-finalist for Alabama Teacher of the Year (1994). She is a member of the CTQ Collaboratory.

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