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Boston’s busing history to be taught in schools

Painful chapter now in class plan

Educators say students need to learn how court-ordered desegregation divided the city and affected race relations.
Educators say students need to learn how court-ordered desegregation divided the city and affected race relations. Charles Dixon/Globe Staff/File 1974

Four decades after court-ordered school desegregation roiled Boston, the School Department has revised its history curriculum to include that troubled legacy and is urging teachers to weave it into their lesson plans.

History teachers in grades 3 through 12 were notified by e-mail two weeks ago of the change and asked to teach about Boston’s desegregation struggles at least once before the end of the school year. And beginning next year, instruction in busing, segregation, and desegregation in Boston will be part of the permanent curriculum, said Kerry Dunne, the district’s director of history and social studies.

“We don’t want kids who attend Boston public schools or kids who are growing up in Boston to not know this crucial piece of history,” Dunne said.

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While individual teachers have taught that moment in Boston history, this is the first time the district has officially woven it into the curriculum. Until now, most students’ knowledge of civil rights and desegregation was based largely on racial strife in the South, in cities such as Selma, Ala., and Little Rock, Ark.

“Busing in Boston was our Selma,” said Ira Jackson, former chief of staff for Mayor Kevin H. White, who oversaw the implementation of court-ordered desegregation in Boston, beginning in 1974.

Forty years later, the city’s current mayor, Martin J. Walsh, said the revised curriculum marks a milestone in improving students’ understanding of their city and helping lay the foundation for future discussions about the role race played in shaping Boston.

“At the end of the day, this is about learning about the struggles that people went through,” Walsh said. “So they can grasp that the city not that long ago was a different city. . . . It’s a very different city from [the one] their parents grew up in.”

Dunne said the desegregation curriculum will be woven into 10th-grade US history classes on the civil rights movement. It will complement a course unit called “Choices in Little Rock,” which was created by the rights group Facing History and Ourselves. And it will be included in eighth-grade civics classes, which use Little Rock as a guide for that period in history.

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Officials are gathering elementary school teachers’ views on how to include Boston’s desegregation history in grades 3 through 5. One possibility is infusing it into social studies or geography classes on the Northeast, Dunne said.

Although officials hail the Little Rock course as popular and interactive, history teacher Jose Lopez said he has always felt his students would benefit more from learning about what happened in their own neighborhoods.

“It always seemed like a missed opportunity for me that we were not able to provide the Boston narrative,” Lopez said.

A black student was escorted off a bus in South Boston on the first day of school under the desegregation plan. For decades, many Bostonians were afraid of dredging up the past and sharing their feelings about what happened then.
A black student was escorted off a bus in South Boston on the first day of school under the desegregation plan. For decades, many Bostonians were afraid of dredging up the past and sharing their feelings about what happened then.Dan Sheehan/Globe Staff/file 1974/Globe Staff

The idea for the revised public school curriculum came to Kavita Venkatesh, the district’s executive director of instructional research and development. She became inspired last year after consuming news reports on the 40th anniversary of Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr.’s desegregation ruling. She also felt compelled to act after recent protests erupted following several instances of suspects killed by police, including a shooting in Ferguson, Mo., that left an unarmed black teen dead.

Venkatesh charged the district’s history department with updating the curriculum. The team consulted with advocates who lived through the turmoil in Boston and community organizations that have been documenting it.

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Venkatesh helped design a website with links to research and course materials for elementary, middle, and high school students, Dunne said. A teacher can use the materials for a week or a single day. (Research material on the website includes a Globe article chronicling the experiences of people who endured the first day of school under the desegregation order.)

Dunne said her team is also using social media sites, conferences, and blogs to encourage teachers outside of Boston to help educate their students about the role of Northern cities in the nation’s history on segregation, racial injustice, and school desegregation.

In Boston, Garrity’s ruling set off a firestorm. The judge was incensed with a recalcitrant School Committee that rejected efforts to achieve racial balance, particularly in schools in low-income neighborhoods. He ordered students to be transported on buses to schools outside their communities.

The decision further divided the city.

African-Americans applauded the ruling, saying it highlighted systemic educational inequities. But the ruling outraged many in the white community, who said it limited their ability to send their children to neighborhood schools. For decades, many Bostonians were afraid of dredging up the past and sharing their feelings about it.

“I don’t know what the right answer is, but the wrong answer is to not address it,” Dunne said. “A lot more good can be accomplished by bringing Boston’s difficult past into the forefront and having a structured conversation in our classroom about it, rather than trying to bury that history.”

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Although the city has changed since 1974, an undercurrent of issues surrounding race and class inequalities remains and should be confronted, said Jackson, the former White administration official who teaches a course at Harvard on Boston’s desegregation struggles.

In 1973, the school district had more than 93,000 students, and 57 percent were white. Today, it has 57,000 students and only 13 percent are white. Boston remains a city divided between affluent neighborhoods and communities mired in poverty.

Segregation, which began long before the busing order, continues in some form, specialists say. And the shortcomings of court-ordered desegregation have long been documented.

“This is a conversation and civics lesson that is long overdue,” Jackson said. “We still have a lot of unfinished business to do.”

City Councilor Tito Jackson said he was pleased with the curriculum revision.

As chairman of the council’s education committee, Jackson said he pushed a change in the school curriculum to include more of the histories of African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans.

“It’s about time that we address this difficult past in the city,” Jackson said. “It’s critical that young people learn how not to repeat the mistakes that were made in the past. It’s also an opportunity to empower our young people to forge a new path.”

Members of the Boston Student Council noted that many of their peers have not been told the full story of what took place in Hyde Park, South Boston, Charlestown, and Roxbury.

“If it’s part of the curriculum, then students will have a better understanding about the place they are living in,” said Glorya Wornum, 17, a senior at Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers.

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Court-ordered school desegregation “was our Selma,’’ said Ira Jackson, who oversaw the city’s busing plan.
Court-ordered school desegregation “was our Selma,’’ said Ira Jackson, who oversaw the city’s busing plan.Joe Dennehy/Globe Staff/1975/Globe Staff

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.