Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Mississippi Delta Parents Group Wins School Battle in Cleveland

A Cleveland, Mississippi parent’s organization has won a significant battle with the city’s school board. But only after 1,000 students boycotted schools for one day in February and took to the streets with a march from their schools to district offices.

Because of their stance, D.M. Smith Middle School and Margaret Green Junior High School will house sixth, seventh and eighth-graders attending the Cleveland School District for the 20110-2011 school year.

What parents and students actually won was defeat of an earlier board decision to place mostly black junior high students into a school building that would bring them into close contact, daily, with high school students. White students would remain in a facility that maintains separate faculties from the older students.

Due to building deterioration, relocation of junior high school students has been inevitable. But placing black students into a building that has no separate lunch or gym facilities, meant the young black students would be at risk, parent’s group organizers said.

But the problems parents face are much larger, and stem from Cleveland’s dual educational system -- unofficially, the district maintains separate and unequal facilities for its black and white students through a practice that has been the target of the U.S. Dept. of Justice since 1969. The Parent group is waiting for Justice to come into the school district and force overall change.

Meanwhile, this victory is sweet.

For an outsider, attending Monday’s school board was a fascinating experience, almost like going back in time.

The Cleveland, Mississippi school board was in session Monday night, March 8, and the room was small and crowded -- about 60 parents and interested parties were cramped into a room with too few chairs.

No one attending could hear members of the school board as they spoke.

With all of their mumbling and whispering going on, it would be a surprise if board members could even hear themselves talk.

But the parents didn’t give up. Instead, they stayed and were heard.

The district has schools in several communities of Bolivar County -- most are in Cleveland, one in Boyle and the other in Merigold. The entire school district is about 68% black, 29% white, 2% Hispanic and 1% Asian.

Yet, someone forgot to tell school officials about Brown I and Brown II, the famous Supreme Court rulings in 1954 and 1955 that made “separate but equal” schools illegal, since the Cleveland schools have remained separate and unequal for over 40 years.

The small town of Cleveland, in the heart of the Delta, has a population of about 13,000 and a dual school system -- two high schools, two junior high or middle schools, and five elementary schools. Children can choose which schools to attend, but for the most part they want to go to schools in their own neighborhoods where they feel more comfortable. And where there are more black teachers.

But the dual system is in trouble, even white school board members admit. Black leaders say school board members (chaired by a black professor) refuse to commit to change because they are afraid of what the community will think of them.

“They’re just waiting for the Dept. of Justice to make changes, so they won’t have to,” said Leroy Byars, a retired administrator from Greenwood High School who also worked nine years as principal at East Side High School, predominantly black.

“Title Nine issues are evident for the district, for instance. Cleveland High School has great facilities for girls who play basketball and softball. Nothing of the same order exists for black female students in the Eastside High School,” Byars said.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, renamed in 2002 the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act in honor of its principal author, is a law enacted in 1972 that states: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance..."

Just reading the local newspapers, it’s apparent the major issues for board members is the possibility of “white flight” if they repair their schools through unification. For now, they would rather pay for twice the number of school administrators than necessary for such a small school district. There is no mention from the board members that unification could strengthen their schools.

Board members, led by Dr. Harvey Jackson, a professor from a small nearby college, mumbled and whispered throughout the meeting. Several times they were asked to speak up, but none complied.

At the end of the session, a board decision regarding placement of students for the following school year was read aloud, but no one could hear what was being read and there was no handout describing the decision made earlier on Saturday, during a special meeting.

No microphones? Not enough chairs? A small board room?

“Oh, it’s always like this,” said Bryars.

Kelvin Williams Sr. is PTSO president of D.M. Smith Elementary and James Stamps worked 36 years in the Cleveland schools as a band teacher.

Both say the Justice Department became involved in 1969 over integration of the public school system. “From there on, it has been one battle after another. In 1989 they paid another visit that ended up with a consent order mandating the district take specific steps to complete the dismantling of a dual system,” Stamps said.

All three say they are positive about recent conversation’s they’ve had with the Justice Department, however.

“We are working with a representative from Justice and they are telling us they will revisit this by the end of this semester that ends in May,” Bryars said.

“They asked us to comment and we have sent transcripts of calls and comments we’ve received to Jonathan Fischbach along with all the articles, petitions, comments, etc.”

All three men say the problem could be resolved by

• Sending ninth and tenth graders to one of the city’s two high schools and sending eleventh and twelfth graders to the other school -- in other words, setting up one high school with two campuses.

• Sending all junior high students either to Margaret Green, the East side junior high or DM Smith on the West.

• Rezoning the school district for elementary students, as mandated in the court order.

An old railroad track has been used as a dividing line for school districts. The Justice Department has already said this was illegal because any two schools in the district have been less than 3.5 miles apart. The correct thing to do would be to rezone or redistrict.
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