By the numbers

Memphis school segregation worse than 50 years ago

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot/Chalkbeat
Students at the 2017 ribbon cutting for Aspire East Academy's new building in Memphis, one of six schools that are all black and Hispanic students.

Schools in Memphis have become increasingly segregated over the last 50 years, according to a Chalkbeat analysis.

A little more than half of Memphis schools are highly segregated, in which 90 percent or more of students are black. That’s up from about 40 percent in 1971 when a Memphis judge used those statistics to call for a plan to end school segregation.

Add in Hispanic children, whose share of the student population has dramatically increased since then, and more than 80 percent of schools are highly segregated.

 

Share of highly segregated Memphis schools

Note: The racial demographic data of Memphis schools comes from the Tennessee Department of Education for Shelby County Schools and Achievement School District for the 2016-17 school year.

And without a re-entry of white families into the city’s school system and massive policy changes, the segregation will only worsen, say academics who have traced Memphis African-American and education history.

The numbers in Chalkbeat’s analysis, like the 1971 ruling by Judge Robert McRae Jr. that ushered in an unpopular busing plan that failed to achieve integration as white families fled the city, do not include private or suburban schools.

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
Judge Robert McRae Jr., who oversaw desegregation orders in Memphis.

According to Marcus Pohlmann, author of “Opportunity Lost,” which chronicles Memphis education history, the two largest events that created the “obvious resegregation” of schools in Tennessee’s largest district were: white families fleeing public schools in masse after desegregation orders went into effect in the 1970s; and the creation of six suburban districts in 2014, which dismantled the historic merger of the mostly black and poor city school system with a largely white and affluent county district.

“Any hope of maybe tweaking the boundaries of this large countywide school system to reduce that to a degree, disappeared,” Pohlmann said.

Memphis is hardly alone in this trend. Federal data shows the share of schools with high percentages of poor and black or Hispanic students grew from 9 to 16 percent between 2000 and 2014. Those students often had fewer college preparatory classes and had higher rates of being held back in ninth grade. And after school districts dismantled assignment systems meant to spur integration as court orders were lifted, researchers found black and Hispanic students began dropping out at higher rates.

But unlike other cities, Memphis can’t claim a resurgence in segregated schools, says Daniel Kiel, a University of Memphis professor who has researched local school segregation.

“It’s hard to say schools resegregated when they never stopped being segregated in any meaningful way,” he told Chalkbeat.

As the nation prepares to commemorate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and his fight for equality on the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Memphis, Chalkbeat’s analysis of segregation in schools show how little has changed.

“I cannot see how the Negro will be totally liberated from the crushing weight of poor education, squalid housing and economic strangulation until he is integrated, with power, into every level of American life,” he said in his last book in 1967, “Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community?”

Charles McKinney, the chair of Africana studies at Rhodes College, said the demographic comparison is “a confirmation of what we already know.”

“Some of the primary indicators of poverty and inequality are largely unmoved over the course of the last 50 years,” he said. “This should not be a surprise. Anyone who acts surprised now, just isn’t paying attention.”

The shift in student demographics of Memphis schools over the last half-century —from 46 to 7 percent white — is one of the most revealing changes. Black students increased from 54 to 79 percent of Memphis schools.

Memphis student racial makeup

Despite the stark differences, there are fewer schools now that are all black and none that are all white. In 1971, there were 29 schools that were all black and 18 that were all white. Now, just three Memphis schools are all black and none are all white, according to state data. Six are all black and Hispanic students.

About 7,700 more black students attend highly segregated schools now, though as a percentage of black students, that is slightly lower than in 1971. Add in Hispanic students and that number jumps to 16,112 more students of color in highly segregated schools.

Black students attending highly segregated schools

After several iterations of a desegregation plan in Memphis that included busing students to schools to mix up their racial demographics, thousands of white students fled the city school system and numerous private schools opened to absorb them.

Memphis City Schools attempted to entice white families to stay in the district by launching “optional schools” in the 1970s where students test into more rigorous, specialized programs. Though that measure found nominal success in retaining black middle-class and some white families, McKinney said the concept defeats the purpose of true integration. He cited programs like Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, which became an all-optional school in 2014 and East High School, which by phasing in its optional program displaces neighborhood children to other schools.

“We’ve created a formula that literally states that school quality is predicated on the removal of the kids who most need access to quality education,” he said. “That’s absurd.”

To reduce segregation in Memphis schools, Kiel said it would take both an enormous amount of will from white families to integrate Memphis schools and policy changes to dismantle the fragmented educational landscape the city has today.

“Tweaks of policies that are not accompanied by an underlying belief in the rationale for those policies — that has undercut the goals of the policies in the first place,” he said. “That’s not a failure of the policies, that’s a failure of the people’s will.”

McKinney agreed with a sentiment trumpeted by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who while visiting Memphis last week said the Bluff City is a “perfectly sad place” to talk about how school segregation worsens.

“If you say you are really concerned about enduring segregation in Memphis and Shelby County, you’re the primary driver of that segregation,” he said. “So, how are you going to disinvest in segregation? You have to make a course correction.”

If trends of school segregation continue, the whole city is negatively impacted, Pohlmann said.

“Whites are less likely to be concerned with poorer predominantly black schools. Citywide social relations are damaged, especially making it harder to breakdown stereotypes,” he said.

“As long as we allow this level of economic inequality in society, things like race and class segregation in the schools are just almost inevitable.”

talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

First Person

We’re a middle-class black family. Here’s why we’ve skipped our local schools for now.

PHOTO: Saratu Ghartey

When we bought our two-family brownstone in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn over 10 years ago, we were childless professionals unconcerned with the state of the area’s schools. Today we have an almost-4-year-old son eligible for pre-kindergarten and school options are a daily worry.

Our neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying, but the public schools lag behind, with no obviously good choices available. While some newcomers — mostly white parents — seem willing to take a chance on these works-in-progress schools, we feel we have little room for error. After all, we are raising a little black boy in America.

Our school district has been in a state of neglect for years — its version of a school board was defunct until recently; student enrollment has dropped significantly, with many schools under-enrolled; and the students perform in the bottom 10 percent of the entire state on exams. The parents have voted with their feet — less than a quarter of Bed-Stuy’s children actually attend their zoned school. The students that do remain in-district mostly attend the newer charter schools, which have made inroads by focusing on a back-to-basics, traditional curriculum.

Young families like ours who have invested in Bed-Stuy’s homes are now facing the challenge of finding a suitable school. Private schools seem like an easy answer, but tuition can begin as high as $40,000, if spots are even available. So the new wave of local parents began to organize, a group formed, and a plan emerged to adopt one or two neighborhood schools in order to advance them from within. Then tensions grew — black vs. white, old timers vs. new timers, middle class vs. lower income, progressive vs. traditional — and the movement fairly quickly hit some pretty big rocks. Long-time neighborhood leaders and civic organizations felt the new group was ignorant of their own efforts regarding the schools and did not value them as partners. Some even felt the newcomers were out of line by naming the group after the neighborhood, especially since they were viewed as only wanting to fix the schools “for their kids.” And the newbies made some unfortunate tongue-slips, both privately and in public, further feeding the resentment.

I paid attention to the little movement, marveling at these mostly white parents who would send their kids to schools with dreadful scores in the middle of what was not so long ago a rough neighborhood, schools where their kid would likely be the only “other” in the room. Most of the middle-class black parents I knew were not willing to take that risk. It is all well and good to say that you will send your kid to a majority low-income, low-scoring school because you believe in public schools, and you are not a snob, but the stakes are higher for black kids. Disparities in academic achievement begin early for black children, and they persist.

And then there is the slippery issue of school culture, which begins to matter around the third grade, when kids start to decide what their values are, who they want to be like, what is “cool.” Many middle-class black parents are concerned that their children will fall into the wrong crowd, lose focus on academics, and begin to veer off the path their parents followed to success. This is a terrifying preposition for these parents, who may have seen firsthand the results when promising cousins failed to graduate high school, or dropped out of college, or made a wrong turn into the criminal justice system.

For all these reasons, many black middle-class parents seek financial aid at prestigious prep schools, or squeeze into small apartments in better school districts, or move to mostly-white suburbs to benefit from the school systems there.  We, however, wanted to see if we could keep our son in the diversity of New York City, in a quality public school. We were willing to consider the improve-your-school movement, but we also wanted to check out the more established Brooklyn public schools.

We visited seven pre-K options in total (four within our district) and it was illuminating. At some schools, we saw troubling things — signs declaring that children not picked up on time would be taken to the local police precinct, a principal who consistently used improper grammar during an open house, tour guides who explained that the kids sometimes watched videos rather than going outside at recess. Some schools simply suffered from a general air of tiredness.

But we found other schools more encouraging. At an established progressive school that prioritized low-income kids in its admissions, the library was bursting with books, there was robotics lab, and the teachers were seasoned and passionate about their social studies curriculum, which took an in-depth look at a different country each year. A “Unicorn” school just a neighborhood away was defying the odds and producing academically strong students while maintaining its majority black enrollment, with an unspoken theme of “black excellence.” I found an old law school classmate of mine serving as PTA president there, and many of our professional black friends have children enrolled.

We also observed big differences in schools’ priorities that seemed to map to what kinds of students they served. In New York City as in many places, Hispanic, African Americans and Asians apply to progressive schools at lower rates than whites, partially because there is a concern that progressive education does not work for black kids. On the tours we noticed that the majority-black schools were focused on “college readiness” and literacy “basics,” while “whiter” schools were heavy on progressive elements — project-based learning and child-led inquiries.

We also discovered that in more affluent neighborhoods after-school care options can be nonexistent. None of the pre-K centers by my workplace in lower Manhattan offered onsite after-school programs. This is not very tenable for a two-income home like ours.

And of course, we saw evidence of the segregation that has been so well documented in the city’s public schools. As soon as we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, there were many fewer black and brown faces.

In the end we put the Unicorn school and the well-established progressive school as our top two choices on our lottery application.  The Bed-Stuy options just felt like too much of a gamble — the movement too new, some of the schools a bit too far gone, and a few of the locations rather dodgy.

The lottery ultimately assigned us our fifth choice, an in-district school with a young principal who has a lot of energy and ideas. But the school has a long way to go academically, and we were nervous, especially after our attempts to find other families attending the program failed. By August we were stressed out waiting for the waitlists to move, and I began calling the schools to check on where we stood. When I learned there was an open spot in one of the lower Manhattan programs by my office — a lovely little program in the same building as a new school on the waterfront — I snatched the spot. We had visited the site but ultimately not listed it high because of the commute and because it was only a one-year option (the pre-K spot does not lead to any priority preference for kindergarten in that school or district). Now, however, we felt it was a better backup while we waited for Unicorn school to come through. It never did. There were 200 kids on the waitlist for pre-K, and no one gave up a slot.

This month our son started pre-K at the program in lower Manhattan. It’s early days but we are impressed so far. The teachers and administrators are warm, professional and prepared. We receive regular communications from the program — starting in the weeks leading up to the first day of class. The other families are racially diverse — white, black, Asian, South American, multiracial —although I cannot yet tell how socioeconomically diverse they are (the neighborhood is fairly affluent but there are some “commuters” like us). The important part is everyone is friendly. And of course, all the 4-year-olds are adorable.

So in the end, I guess we chickened out on the neighborhood school experiment, at least for pre-K. We have friends who did enroll in the “adopted” schools, and we are watching carefully. Kindergarten is a whole new application process, and our son likely cannot stay in lower Manhattan because he does not live in the school’s zone. So we will be back in the game shortly.

Saratu Ghartey is an attorney who lives in Brooklyn.