- Associated Press - Friday, November 18, 2016

ST. LOUIS (AP) - The St. Louis region’s school desegregation program, one of the longest-running and largest programs in the U.S., will begin winding down under a plan approved by a governing board on Friday.

The program that allows black city students to attend schools in the suburbs was granted a five-year extension by the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp., but enrollment will be reduced following the 2018-19 school year. No new students will be admitted after the 2023-24 school year, though those in the program, even kindergarten students, will be allowed to stay until they graduate from high school.

The five-year extension will allow about 1,000 new students over the five years, with priority for siblings of students already enrolled. About 4,600 students currently participate, down from a peak of more than 14,000 16 years ago.

“This is designed to be the final extension,” said David Glaser, CEO of VICC. “Unfortunately for some legal reasons, race-based school integration programs can’t last forever.”

Since its inception as the result of a federal school desegregation lawsuit in 1983, the program has allowed more than 70,000 black students to travel by bus and attend predominantly white schools in the suburbs. White students from the county may also attend magnet schools in the city.

Glaser said he believes that the school desegregation program in Boston is the only one that has been around longer than the St. Louis effort.

Court supervision of the St. Louis program ended in 1999, but it has been popular enough that the city and suburban districts have continued it. Twelve suburban school districts and St. Louis Public Schools still participate.

Eric Knost, superintendent of the Rockwood School District, where 1,400 transfer students attend, said the program has been beneficial for suburban students, too.

“Our kids deserve diversity to be around them in all aspects because that’s what they’re going to experience in the world,” he said. “That’s what they’re going to see in the workplace.”

Nationally, school busing programs were successful in desegregating schools, studies have shown. In 1980, about 18 percent of the nation’s black students were in desegregated schools; by 1995, 55 percent were in mixed-race schools.

A VICC study in 2012 showed that St. Louis transfer students saw little benefit in elementary school, but had improvements in math and reading in high school. The study also showed significantly higher graduation rates for transfer students and magnet school students. Transfer students also were more likely to go on to college.

The program has been reduced in recent years as city schools have improved, and as suburban schools facing tight budgets and growing classroom sizes have reduced the number of transfer students they were willing to take.

Michael Okpara, a black city resident who has sent four of his children to the Parkway School District, said he wanted his kids to learn in a diverse environment, and he wanted to ensure they had the best education available.

“I needed an environment conducive to learning,” he said.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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