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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington

Two-school plan must not foster segregation
Duluth News Tribune, May 24, 2007

Whatís black and white and red all over?

If that seems like an obvious riddle for a newspaper to pose, Duluth Public School officials may have inadvertently written a new punch line.

At least we hope itís inadvertent. The red plan for determining Duluthís high school future ó two schools; one east, one west ó would contribute to the stratification of an already divided city. The racial makeup of the two high schools would be pronounced: 16 percent students of color attending the western high school versus 7 percent at the eastern school.

Itís not just about race. The change would create a more drastic disparity between students from higher- and lower-income families, identified in district demographic reports as those students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch programs. At the western high school, 44 percent of students would qualify for the programs versus only 15 percent at the eastern school. School lunch menus aside, it does little to dispel the notion of east Duluth residents as Marie Antoinette cake eaters.

The school district did not create the divide; the notion of two Duluths runs back to the days of Chester Congdon in the neighborhood named for him and the U.S. Steel plant in Morgan Park. Nor is the problem new; Duluthís three high schools already exhibit racial and economic disparities. At present, students of color (predominately American Indian and black) make up 16 percent of the student body at Central High School, 12 percent at Denfeld and 6 percent at East. Low-income students comprise 46 percent of Denfeldís student population, 32 percent of Centralís and 12 percent of Eastís.

Yet whether created by the school district or not, there is little reason to preserve the imbalance, and it makes no difference to young people whether they are disadvantaged by de facto segregation by race or income or de jure. In the 53 years this month since the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, no explanation should be needed to convey that intentional or unintentional segregation are both wrong and harmful to children and society as a whole.

For many Duluthians, the two high school red plan supported overwhelmingly by school district survey respondents and being presented to the School Board tonight with the administrationís endorsement is the best of unwanted choices. Few students, faculty, alumni and parents would advocate any change, especially one involving closing schools, if it could be avoided. But the handwriting of fiscal realties in the face of declining enrollment has been on the wall for years, and the time to act is now.

Superintendent Keith Dixon deserves much praise for taking that step and, in particular, implementing an unprecedented and superbly inclusive process to disseminate the information and options to all stakeholders. Yet those options donít stop with one, final plan engraved in stone, especially where it misses the mark. An obvious adjustment articulated by desegregation activists and others is to extend the eastern high school boundary westward from 14th Avenue East to Sixth Avenue East to encompass a more diverse population.

Even that boundary shouldnít be considered an ironclad line of demarcation. Though Duluth often is defined as narrow and unusually long for a city its size, the reality is there isnít much time difference traveling anywhere between 44th Avenue West (Denfeld) and 40th Avenue East (Ordean). The reams of information compiled for the school district by Johnson Controls should provide adequate information to determine a boundary line fostering a more equal distribution. That should be supported by district-sponsored bus transportation for families who, by law in Minnesota, have the right to choose either school or any other in the state.

The School Board, in its consideration of the districtís plan, must insist on nothing less.

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