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Desegregation success?
Superintendent says plan is working; opposition says year not enough time to tell

By Bayne Hughes
hughes@decaturdaily.com · 340-2432

Decatur school officials spent 91/2 years trying to get a controversial desegregation plan approved. They finally implemented the plan this school year.

Is the plan working? Did it accomplish the board’s goals, which the plan’s opponents said would never happen?

Superintendent Sam Houston said the plan achieved almost every goal the board set when the plan received a U.S. district judge’s approval in August 2004.

“It appears to me that we were pretty close when you compare our projections and actual enrollment,” Houston said. “Looking at the data, it looks like we’ve accomplished what we told the court that plan would accomplish.”

Decatur school board member Carol Sandlin said she hasn’t studied enrollment but hasn’t heard any complaints.

“As far as I know, the magnet schools are full and there hasn’t been a drop (in enrollment at Leon Sheffield Elementary) as (opponents) said there would be,” Sandlin said. “Banks-Caddell is doing really well.”

Jackson: Too early to tell

Decatur City Council President Billy Jackson fought the board’s plan along with his late father, Lorenzo Jackson Sr. He said it’s too early to see the plan’s impact.

The plaintiffs’ main objection is the change of Leon Sheffield from a neighborhood school to a magnet school, forcing students living near Leon Sheffield to attend the new Banks-Caddell Elementary in the Albany district.

“We’ve said all along that the impact wouldn’t be immediately noticed,” Jackson said. “Its impact will be seen three or four years down the road when the dropout rate increases. This isn’t something you’ll notice in one year.”

Jackson said the plan places too great a travel burden on low-income students of all ethnicities who live in the Leon Sheffield area. Previously, those students could walk to school. Walking is no longer an option because that would entail crossing a major thoroughfare and railroad tracks to get to Banks-Caddell, about 11/2 miles away.

Houston said black students travel less now than under the old plan and the school system offers busing for students living near Leon Sheffield.

A new desegregation plan became necessary after the U.S. Department of Justice denied the school board’s request to build a new school in the Dunbarton area and suggested the original plan, implemented in 1980, was outdated. The old plan used a lottery system to decide where black students living near Benjamin Davis would attend school. The new plan created two satellite zones, so those students attend either Eastwood or Chestnut Grove elementaries.

“The plan more naturally desegregates the city, while eliminating the inequity in black student travel miles created by an outdated plan,” Houston said.

Banks-Caddell

In 2005, the school system built Banks-Caddell (after demolishing Gordon-Bibb) and renovated Leon Sheffield and Benjamin Davis.

“We improved the facilities in the school system, building a new school on an existing site that enhances downtown Decatur and greatly enhancing two schools that are historically important to our school system,” Houston said.

Opponents said white students would not travel to Leon Sheffield because it is too far into a majority-black neighborhood. They said making Leon Sheffield a magnet school was the first step toward closing the school because of its undesirable location.

Houston said that claim has proven untrue. He prefers keeping Leon Sheffield’s magnet-student enrollment near 300. The school has 294 students. Six students left after the school year began.

Houston said school officials didn’t have a second selection round to decide who could attend the magnet school, as they had in previous years, because they wanted to get the school re-established in its renovated building.

Tommy Sykes, Northwest Decatur’s school board member, fought the plan. He said he hasn’t studied the enrollment numbers or heard any complaints. He said his only problem with the plan’s implementation is it didn’t have the kindergarten, first- and second-grade neighborhood classes at Leon Sheffield as promised for students living within one mile of the school.

Three elected to stay

The board did offer the opportunity; however, only three children in those grades elected to go to Leon Sheffield. Saying it was not financially feasible to provide a teacher for three students, the board got permission from the court to move the three students to Banks-Caddell.

Houston said school officials would begin identifying kindergarten students from Leon Sheffield at pre-registration. They would also make sure the first- and second-grade students from the surrounding area know of the possibility to attend Leon Sheffield.

School officials hope this is the first step toward earning “unitary status,” or getting out from under federal oversight. Generally, a school system must operate a desegregation plan for three years in a fair and constitutional manner before the federal courts grant this freedom.

“Unitary status is definitely something we’re aiming for,” Sandlin said.

Jackson and Sykes said they oppose granting Decatur unitary status. Sykes’ opposition comes from a general belief that “the people in my district don’t have any confidence in Dr. Houston and the school board. It’s just not the thing for Decatur.”

Sykes said there are too many racial problems within the school system that are not being addressed, like a disproportionate number of black students going into special education when they should be with the other students, and too many black students sent to the Centers for Alternatives to Suspension and Expulsion “so teachers don’t have to deal with them.”

Jackson said he doesn’t think the school system has done anything to make him believe that it deserves unitary status. He said the school system isn’t doing enough to help low-income minority students, while it spends too much money on the International Baccalaureate Program.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Stanley Gray could not be reached for comment.

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