- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 29, 2002

A student population that's 81 percent black and 80 percent below the poverty line isn't supposed to add up to some of the highest test scores in the state.
But that's exactly what happened at Stono Park Elementary School in Charleston, S.C.
"It's wonderful to watch my kids prove, or disprove, the expectation," Principal Stephanie Strous says. "Supposedly, our demographics shouldn't be doing it."
Studies show that schools across the South, and the nation, are becoming less and less racially balanced. With examples such as Stono Park, Doris Wilkinson's question is, so what?
Mrs. Wilkinson, a sociologist at the University of Kentucky, thinks integration has been an "absolute, abysmal failure." And she says she feels that the answer to many societal ills is a return to neighborhood schools that reflect their constituencies, be they all black, all white or whatever.
"I hope we get those schools with all deliberate speed," she says, lifting a phrase from the Supreme Court's Brown v. the Board of Education ruling, the ruling that outlawed segregation.
"The return to the neighborhood school could very well offset a series of systemic problems in the country, systemic problems that are connected to ongoing interracial conflicts and sort of class conflicts," says Mrs. Wilkinson, the first black person to enter the University of Kentucky as a freshman and receive an undergraduate degree after the 1954 Supreme Court decision.
Mrs. Wilkinson and others point to schools such as Stono Park as proof that "competent and caring" teachers can make any group of students succeed.
But Peter Irons says those success stories "are definitely exceptions to the general rule."
"The schools that perform the worst are the schools with, first of all, the highest percentage of poor students and the lowest percentage of credentialed teachers," says Mr. Irons, author of the recently released "Jim Crow's Children: The Broken Promise of the Brown Decision."
"And when you put all those factors together, you're going to wind up with largely minority schools in which academic performance is abysmal," he said.
In fact, the performance of Stono Park's students scoring better on achievement tests than about 90 percent of all others in the state in math and 70 percent in reading is indeed exceptional.
According to the Education Trust in Washington, D.C., there are only a few high-scoring schools in South Carolina with demographics like Stono Park's. In some states, such as Virginia, there are none.
Leslie Innis, a black sociologist at Florida A&M;, was a pioneer of integration in New Orleans' Catholic schools, but she says the costs of integration were too high for her and others.
"What I found out is when you try to force people, it doesn't get any better," she says.
Voluntary separation of the races, if that is what is happening, is all right with her.
"What I have young people telling me is the whole thing about a comfort zone," Mrs. Innis says. "That they prefer to be around people they feel more comfortable with."
But Mr. Irons says that differentiating between forced segregation and "voluntary" segregation is a fool's game.
For years, discriminatory lending practices, racially motivated redistricting and other "extralegal measures" have artificially kept blacks and whites apart. Mr. Irons is quick to point out that the income disparity between whites and blacks hasn't changed in 40 years.
"I mean, this was all done by design," he says. "And it's very hard to undo."
John Brittain, who recently retired as dean of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law in Houston, understands the frustration of fellow blacks, for whom integration seemed a lot like assimilation.
But it is with some trepidation that Mr. Brittain watches as black churches and community organizations open charter schools with Afrocentric orientations.
"I do not believe there is any educational data that supports the proposition that one-race schools produce higher educational attainment rates," Mr. Brittain says. "Indeed, all of the social science data seems to suggest that an integrated educational experience for a child of color produces advantages over the nonintegrated school experience."
Civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall, who became a Supreme Court justice, told the Supreme Court, in arguing for integration in Little Rock in 1958, that education was more than just "teaching the three R's."
"Education," he argued, "is the teaching of the overall citizenship, to learn to live together with fellow citizens."
But Mrs. Wilkinson says Justice Marshall was speaking within a cultural context that is no longer relevant, when society was totally segregated.
"If he and I were sitting in the same room today," she says, "now we would be on the same wavelength."

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