Opinion

farah stockman | boston after busing

Facing segregation again, Boston’s public schools get a do-over

Anthony Russo for the Boston Globe

We like to think of public schools as the great equalizers, with the capacity to bridge the deepest racial and economic divides. But all too often, schools do just the opposite. In a city like Boston, poor kids tend to go to poor schools, and wealthy kids to affluent schools. That’s the way the world works, unless someone makes a special effort to change it.

Forty years ago, a federal judge attempted to do just that. Judge Arthur Garrity ruled that the Boston School Committee had, for years, “intentionally brought about and maintained racial segregation” to keep black children away from the best schools in the city. He ordered that black kids be bused to white schools, and vice versa, to rectify the injustice.

But segregation didn’t go away. It simply morphed into something more difficult to tackle.

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The middle class — both white and black — left town. They didn’t want to gamble on a school lottery. Today, the outer suburbs are full of good schools attended by well-off students who are mostly white. The city is full of failing schools attended by poor children who are mostly black and Latino.

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But fate has given us a do-over. White middle-class families are moving back to Boston, and they’re testing the waters of public education. Once again, schools in upscale neighborhoods are filling with well-off white students, while schools across town are becoming overwhelmingly black or Latino. This time, it’s not the result of a deliberate policy, but rather economic forces beyond our control. The question is: What should we do differently this time around? It’s a question parents themselves are actively trying to answer.

On a recent Friday night, the Eliot K-8 Innovation School, an elementary school in the North End, hosted a fund-raiser at the Liberty Hotel. Women in cocktail dresses swayed on the dance floor. Champagne chilled in buckets at the bar. Silent auction items sold for hundreds more than the asking price. A perfect event. The only thing missing? Diversity. I counted just one black parent.

At first, I thought the ticket price — $100 a head — may have kept some parents away. Then I realized how few black students actually attend the school. In a district that’s 13 percent white, 35 percent black, and 40 percent Latino, the Eliot is conspicuously Caucasian: It’s 53 percent white, 11 percent black, and 25 percent Latino.

The Eliot is one of a tiny handful of Boston public elementary schools that have amassed a majority-white student body. Warren-Prescott in Charlestown, just a block from Whole Foods, is 53 percent white, up from 30 percent in 2000. JP Manning, in Jamaica Plain, is 44 percent white, up from 25 percent that year. The Henderson in Dorchester, is 42 percent white, up from 29 percent.

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For a cash-strapped school district that has been hemorrhaging students, that’s good news. These new kids speak English. They read at grade level. They’re well fed. In short, they’re easier and cheaper to educate. Moreover, they come with parents who fund-raise, volunteer, and lobby their elected representatives. No wonder cities like Chicago and Philadelphia are bending over backward to convince them to enroll.

But as some schools grow whiter and richer, others grow more racially isolated. For instance, the Donald McKay School in East Boston is 90 percent Latino. The Charles H. Taylor School in Mattapan is nearly 90 percent black.

“Some of us fear we’re going to return to a very segregated school system,” said Barbara Fields, a former equity officer for the Boston Public Schools. “We’re going to repeat this cycle.”

Despite a much-needed change to the student funding formula that takes poverty and English language learners into account, elementary schools in Mattapan are still a world apart from schools in Charlestown.

Sociologists are just beginning to study what that means for the system as a whole.

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“School systems seem to be banking on the idea that middle-class parents can improve schools for everybody, but that may not be the case,” said Chase Billingham, an assistant professor at Wichita State University, who wrote his dissertation on Boston.

If well-connected parents advocate only for their own children, it can be detrimental to those who don’t have as much clout.

Some parents “go directly to the mayor,” said Fields. “Parents of color don’t even think about going to the mayor. They beg and plead to the School Committee, and it falls on deaf ears.”

When parents at the Murphy School in Dorchester complained about emotionally impaired students who’d been sent there, school officials agreed not to send more. Instead, the district paid for private placements outside the city, at a cost of $54,601 per child.

On the other hand, these new middle-class parents have improved their own children’s schools dramatically in ways that benefit every kid in the class. The Eliot gala raised funds for special classes in robotics and Italian. The Warren-Prescott’s “Spring Fling” dinner bought art programs and laptops. The Manning’s “Burger Slam” funded field trips and teaching supplies.

But the better a school does, the more well-off families will apply to send their children there, instead of moving to the suburbs. That could mean fewer slots for low-income students.

Just as the Eliot School was planning its gala, parents at the Channing School in Hyde Park were mulling over their own ideas for fund-raising. Don’t kids at the Channing — which is 54 percent black, 38 percent Latino, and 3.7 percent white — also need art? Don’t they need to know about robotics? Of course they do. They need it far more. Half of students there are classified by the state as “economically disadvantaged.” And half failed to meet their academic targets. (At Eliot, 25 percent of students are “economically disadvantaged,” and 97 percent met their targets, according to state data.)

“Channing wasn’t my first choice,” said Nancye Francois-Cajuste, a social worker whose daughter attends the school. “Or my second. Or my third.”

But once her daughter got assigned there, Francois-Cajuste made the best of it.

Born in Haiti, Francois-Cajuste grew up in Boston public schools. She has fond memories of her mother making food for her entire elementary school on Haitian flag day. After her daughter got sent to the Channing, she organized a few parents to put on a teacher appreciation breakfast. Then a letter came, explaining that the school was failing so badly it got “turn-around” status. No one knew what that meant. Some parents left. Others just grew more determined.

“It lit a spark in us,” Francois-Cajuste recalled. “We wanted our school to survive. We started asking the questions: What do we need to do?”

She got to know the principal, and they started working together to change the school culture. Channing didn’t have an active parents site council at the time. So Francois-Cajuste revived it, with little guidance or support. They tried their hand a fund-raising. Francois-Cajuste suggested they sell chocolates, but other parents worried that it would put them into debt. They thought of soliciting donations door-to-door, but that was considered too dangerous in their neighborhoods. In the end, they sold scholastic books and netted $900.

To be sure, it was far less than the $50,000 raised at the Eliot School. But money is only a part of the value. “Parents are powerful,” Francois-Cajuste said. “They have to believe they can make a difference.”

Schools that don’t engage parents are failing, in the truest sense of the word. A tiny investment — a grant of a few hundred dollars, or even a phone call by an official — could light the kind of spark that helps turn them around.

Perhaps the worst thing about Judge Garrity’s desegregation order was the way it separated parents from schools. Kids were bused to faraway places. Parents didn’t feel ownership anymore.

Garrity understood this, so he set up the Citywide Parent Council to give parents a greater voice. It had four cochairs: one white, one black, one Latino, and one Asian. As long as Boston was under Garrity’s desegregation order, the city had to fund it. But when the order was lifted, funding dried up. The council fell apart. Its nonprofit status lapsed. For seven years, it’s been dormant.

But last September, a tiny group of mostly middle-class parents who were angry about the budget cuts to their children’s schools revived it. They started off with just six parents. Now they have at least 105 representatives from 79 schools, including the Channing and the Eliot.

Their mantra is that parents must unite across lines of race and class and neighborhood to rescue public education.

“We really understand that we are in this together,” said Heshan Berents-Weeramuni, the Asian cochair who works as a graphic designer and lives in Jamaica Plain. His daughter goes to the Curley School.

The group recently met to recap all they’d accomplished: They lobbied the State House — and got an extra $4 million for Boston’s schools. They held countless meetings with city councilors. They formed real bonds with one another.

Next year, they hope to raise money collectively and distribute funds equitably. It won’t be easy.

“There are schools that told us they’d be better on their own,” said Kenny Jervis, the white cochair who lives in South Boston and has a child at the Roger Clap.

But other places around the country have done it. In Portland, Ore., nonprofits connected to schools keep the first $10,000 they raise, but donate 30 percent of anything beyond that to a common fund that benefits the poorest schools in the district. And in Howard County, Md., school officials refused in 2004 to let a private donor install stadium lights on a football field in one school, unless other schools received the same. Eventually, the effort led to the creation of Bright Minds, a foundation that raises money for all county schools.

Those are creative ways to leverage the energy and resources of affluent parents, without demanding so much from them that they’d rather move to Newton.

But perhaps the most hopeful thing about this group wasn’t the money, but the spirit. The faces around the table were white, black, yellow, and brown. Everybody’s voice was heard. As they sat there, it seemed the dream that eluded us 40 years ago — of a truly integrated school system — was still possible, and more urgent than ever.

This piece is part of a series of columns about Boston — four decades after busing — supported by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation. Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.