Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

In Kalamazoo, Calm After the Storm. A generation of school desegregation has eased racial tensions between blacks and whites. INTEGRATED CLASSROOMS

THE high school students gathered around the table are black, white, and Hispanic. ``This is only my opinion,'' says senior Tamara Jozo a little tentatively, but ``black people can dance.''

The black students laugh. Tamara tells how her black friends taught her to dance - so well, in fact, that at one party she attracted the attention of a young black.

About these ads

``He has this look on his face and he bursts out laughing,'' she recalls. ``And he comes up to me and - it was really great - he said: `You can dance.'''

Welcome to Kalamazoo Central High School 1989. A generation ago, when this western Michigan city was in the midst of racial turmoil, this conversation would not have taken place.

Today, it is almost commonplace, a testimony that integration has achieved at least one goal here: the easing of racial tensions in the schools.

``I think it's better,'' says Brandon Woolfolk, a senior football player. ``Sports brings blacks and whites together.''

``It's that way on the women's basketball team,'' adds sophomore Trina Burnett. In fact, black members of the team often have to stand up for their white teammates, she says, because blacks from other teams assume that white players are inferior and try to intimidate them.

The students here at Kalamazoo Central High School represent the first full generation of desegregation here.

Almost all of them were born after a federal judge ordered the local schools to integrate in 1971. They have no memory of the racial fighting that took place here in the schools before and after that court decision.

About these ads

Racism has not been wiped out, the students caution. Even among this group of students, there are uncomfortable moments.

``I just felt that black history month was rammed down my throat,'' junior Emily Horvath says.

The students don't agree on the official observation of Martin Luther King Day either. But it is clearly better than the period before and during the initial desegregation, according to longtime school officials.

``I remember parents being very volatile - both whites and minorities,'' says Sharon Lockett, principal of Oakwood Elementary School. ``Children fought a lot more then.''

``We had fights every day,'' recalls John Caldwell, who came to the old Central High School as an assistant principal in 1968, four days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

When the desegregation began, many parents either moved away or put their children into private schools.

But the furor here, which never reached the violent level of Boston or Detroit, died down during the '70s. By 1977, a report on Kalamazoo by the US Commission on Civil Rights concluded: ``Student interracial violence, a major problem in secondary schools during the four years preceding desegregation, is no longer a problem in the schools.''

Yet for all the social gains desegregation has fostered, its educational promise remains unfulfilled. Even most of its proponents argue that physically mixing the races has not closed the gap between white and black achievement.

``In the area of achievement, I don't think we have seen happen what we had hoped would happen,'' says Karl Sandelin, a former Kalamazoo school board member and longtime desegregation supporter.

`IT'S educational problems we have now,'' adds Duane Roberts, who led the legal fight of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to desegregate the schools.

Some local critics go even farther.

``I would say the black has suffered most of all,'' says Dale Pattison, a history professor at Western Michigan University and an outspoken critic of the schools. In pushing for racial balance, he contends, school officials lost sight of educational needs and students suffered.

Michigan testing scores show that fourth- and seventh-grade reading and math scores fell slightly between 1974 and 1988 compared with state averages.

On the other hand, the city continues to rank above state and national averages on college entrance exams - the American College Test and the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

``When you first desegregate a school system, you have to deal with a whole set of problems of just getting along,'' says Frank Rapley, superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools. The next issue is fairness: Are there enough black cheerleaders, for example. Only then does the system tackle educational achievement, he says.

``It takes 10, 15, 20 years,'' Mr. Rapley says. But ``we want excellence for everyone - not for just some.''

The school district is already trying to boost educational achievement among minorities. One approach is a four-year-old program called the Program for Minority Student Achievement. It gives extra classes to first through fourth-graders who have not mastered the week's lessons using the traditional approach.

``The bottom line is that all children can learn,'' says Martha Warfield, director of the program. If they can't learn it in a traditional manner, the instructors use other ways to get the lesson across, such as using pocket change to teach math.

The district has also begun a math and science center for its best students. But that too is drawing concerns because of the low rate of minority enrollment.

``I saw gifted-and-talented [programs] as a way of segregating people,'' says Ms. Warfield's husband, Charles C., a former school board member. On paper, black students may have equal opportunity, he says, but in reality, desegregation has not given them meaningful chances to reach their potential.

``We are back to the subject we have always had: educating young people well,'' says Gerry Thomas, a former school board member and longtime desegregation proponent.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.