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Blacks edge into top posts in white school systems

Percy L. Clarke Jr. has just become school superintendent in Lawrence township, Ind., an Indianapolis suburb with 9,000 schoolchildren.

It might be small-town news, except that the district is predominantly white. And Dr. Clarke is black.

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With this appointment, the assistant superintendent of Shaker Heights, Ohio, joins a small and growing coterie of blacks heading up majority white school districts.

The numbers remain very small, says Charles D. Moody, director of the Desegregation Assistance Center of the University of Michigan. Currently, only 83 of 16,000 (0.5 percent) of all local school superintendents are black, he notes. And 85 percent of these head systems that are majority black or black-Hispanic. Still, this is one indication that black educators are breaking down barriers to such posts.

Two state systems are also headed by blacks -- Wilson Riles, now running for a third four-year term in California, and Donnis Thompson in Hawaii, which operates one unified statewide district.

Given the small numbers, the appointment during this school year of two other black superintendents besides Clarke in predominantly white school systems is significant.

Nevertheless, events in Massachusetts that preceded Dr. Clarke's nomination in Indiana are in many ways typical of the obstacles black educators face in becoming superintendents of predominantly white school systems.

On April 15, the Lexington, Mass., school committee voted 3 to 2 to invite Dr. Clarke to become school superintendent. Coincidentally, on the same night and a few miles south, a second Boston suburb - Newton - was also meeting to decide between Clarke and another candidate to head up their school system. Both school systems were more than 98 percent white.

Deadlocked in a 4-to-4 tie after two lengthy sessions, the Newton school board eventually voted for Clarke's white opponent. Two weeks later in Lexington , final negotiations fell through when it became evident, Clarke says, the school board would not guarantee him full backing in school matters.

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According to Dr. Moody in his upcoming book, ''Career Mobility and Selection and Placement of Black Superintendents,'' the presence of black administrators in white school districts bucks the usual conditions for black superintendents. He lists conditions normally found in districts when they first hire black superintendents:

* More students are minority than white. Most black superintendents run schools in all-black towns in Southern states or in big cities with only a token number of white students such as Chicago, Washington, Atlanta, Detroit, Baltimore, and Newark, N.J.

* The district has severe financial problems, usually declining tax base, level funding, and operating deficit.

* The school board is mostly minority.

* Often the community has given up on public schools.

''By the time a black superintendent is hired, the community is saying, 'Y'all can have it,' '' Dr. Moody writes. ''These public schools no longer are attractive to aspiring white educators because they do not offer career mobility nor the potential for achievement.''

One superintendent who has faced such issues is John Sydnor, oldest black in continuous service in one district.

''We have suffered a slow exodus of whites out of the system,'' says Mr. Sydnor, superintendent for 15 years at Muskegon Heights, Mich. - population 55 percent black, but student body 95 percent black. Buildings were deteriorating, staff turned over rapidly, and budgets ran in the red, he says.

Now, the community has supported a tax increase, the hiring of a consultant to improve the curriculum, and a $4 million bond issue to establish fiscal soundness, build new schools, and upgrade facilities.

Two new black superintendents of majority white school systems say they have strong taxpayer backing as well.

Matthew Prophett, now head of the 52,000-student, 73 percent white Portland, Ore., public schools, says city voters have taken a progressive step ''competitive with suburbanites'' by passing an education tax during the school year.

And in Fairbanks, Alaska, a growing city of 60,000, 80 percent white, the new black superintendent of the North Star Burrough School District calls his move here the ''best career move I could have made.''

Says Kenneth Burnley: ''When I arrived here some people still were bitterly opposed -- one group presented an 1,800-signature petition in favor of the acting superintendent.'' But the school board supported him and his program, he says, giving him an increased budget and building five new schools during the 1981-82 year.

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