Commentary

Famous fighters for diverse schools

October 7, 2012 

Last week’s annual induction ceremony for the Raleigh Hall of Fame, an event that packed the huge main ballroom at the Convention Center, was all about the honorees’ service to their city and community. And that service often had a common theme – bridging historic gulfs between rich and poor, black and white in a spirit of helpful outreach.

Many of the good works that drew recognition reflected the tensions and struggles of that era when Raleigh was coming fully to grips with racial integration, particularly in the public schools.

Centrally involved in that effort was Vernon Malone, a state senator upon his death in 2009 and one of the new Hall of Fame members. (Most were honored while they still could be present to enjoy it.)

Malone was at the forefront of a generation of Raleigh’s African-American leaders. He chaired the first school board to oversee the system formed by the mid-1970s merger of the Raleigh and Wake County schools. The merger itself was fraught with racial overtones, but once the systems were joined, it wasn’t long before priorities were set that would serve the county well for many years.

The network of magnet schools that took shape in the 1980s helped keep inner-city schools fully enrolled as well as racially and economically diverse. Assigning some city kids to schools in the suburbs let those kids share in the advantages of a school environment where parental support typically is strong and expectations for success are high. All told, the strategy worked to prevent the kind of inferior schools too often associated with the poorer parts of many American cities.

Malone went on to lead the Wake Board of Commissioners, where he put his education-oriented perspective to good use. And over the years, it became a point of pride in Wake County that a family could live anywhere and depend on their children being sent to a school with high standards. There were shortcomings in some areas, to be sure. But neighborhoods everywhere were strengthened.

We know what finally happened: With the school system pressured by relentless growth, diversity became elusive. Families in growth zones were frustrated with students being shuffled to fill new schools. A slate of Republican-aligned candidates took control of the school board in 2009, hired a new superintendent and dropped diversity as a student assignment factor.

The backlash was fierce, and in last year’s elections the board majority was returned to Democratic-aligned diversity advocates. Now they’ve fired the superintendent for supposedly being tough to work with, but they may have a hard time putting all that Republican toothpaste back in the tube.

Many Wake Countians are tired of being caught in the middle of a school policy dispute that could last as long as the Civil War. They want stability. And they want their children to go to school close to home (as indeed most have been able to do).

Diversity? In an era when communities in general are more diverse than they were 30 or 40 years ago, some would say the concept is obsolete as a student assignment criterion.

Yet, if it weren’t for the school system’s own diversity efforts and their influence on housing patterns, Raleigh and Wake County likely would look quite different today, especially with regard to the vitality of older urban neighborhoods. And one shudders to think how the community’s character, and the academic prospects of many students, would have been hurt if the schools had remained differentiated by race and class – not according to law but according to economics and custom.

A new study by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA points up Wake’s success in ensuring that minority students aren’t kept in isolation – and why that’s important.

The study documents how across the South, schools are becoming more segregated. Even though there’s a slight trend in that direction here, the Raleigh-Cary metro area ranked the best in giving black students, many of them from lower-income backgrounds, a chance to attend school with whites who are more likely to be from middle-class families.

No, it’s not some magic skin-color dust that rubs off. The UCLA researchers describe what happens when socioeconomic diversity is lacking: “Students in schools where most of their classmates are low-income have very little contact with middle-class society. As a result, students in schools of concentrated poverty often miss out on the many ways in which families and communities with resources and power strengthen the schooling experiences of their children.”

Perhaps that deficiency can be overcome with extra investment – but who’s eager to pay?

The Hall of Fame event featured video tributes to the honorees. For Vernon Malone, the testimony came from two retired Wake superintendents, Robert Bridges and Bill McNeal – both African-American, both staunch diversity backers.

McNeal said Malone was “instrumental in helping the community understand the value of making certain there were strong schools all over our county and for every child.” That value endures.

Editorial page editor Steve Ford can be reached at 919-829-4512 or at steve.ford@newsobserver.com.

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