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Backing Busing

An integration effort in Fort Wayne, Ind., wins popular support.

Katrina McGhee and MyIshia Smith, who are black, and Amber Vegan and Shawn Hinen, who are white, are all students at Fort Wayne's North Side High School here. They see each other daily, sit through many of the same classes, and occasionally party together. But they don't eat lunch at the same table.

"Blacks and whites almost always sit separately in the cafeteria," they say. But why? It's hard to explain, they respond. That's just the way it is.

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But try suggesting to the teens that Fort Wayne join a number of other US cities in reverting back more racially separate neighborhood schools, and the response is as negative as it is swift. "No way. We'd strike. We'd rebel. We wouldn't come to school anymore," the four insist collectively. "It wouldn't work," Ms. McGhee says forcefully. "We'd miss each other," Ms. Vegan adds simply.

School desegregation has been plagued by contradictions and uncertain gains around the United States during the past three decades. Many cities have witnessed the flight of the middle class and an increased isolation of racial groups. Neighborhoods have fought bitter battles to avoid having their children attend distant schools away from friends.

As a result, many cities, including nearby Indianapolis, Ind., and Grand Rapids and Benton Harbor in Michigan, are eager to end busing as a means to ease racial segregation.

In Fort Wayne, however, adults and students alike want to keep those buses rolling.

Each day, 323 buses carry 18,000 students 16,600 miles in Fort Wayne in an effort to achieve racial diversity. That's absurd, say some critics of enforced desegregation, but in Fort Wayne, even though court involvement with the agreement ended over a year ago, many parents are supportive.

The system is clearly not perfect, acknowledges Payne Brown, director of public safety for the city of Fort Wayne, vice-president of the school board, and father of a three-year-old child. As an African-American, he's especially troubled by the fact that blacks bear the brunt of the busing. "That bothers me quite a good deal." But, insists Mr. Brown, "most of us still believe the benefits of an integrated classroom outweigh the downside."

Such sentiments fly in the face of much of what's being seen and heard in the rest of the country. Recent Supreme Court decisions (see box) that released school districts from their desegregation responsibilities and stressed a return to local control left many districts breathing a sigh of relief.

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Parents, students, and teachers alike have raised serious questions about the benefits of enforced desegregation. A recent survey by New York-based Public Agenda suggests that both black and white parents are far less concerned about seeing their kids sit side-by-side in a class than they are about the quality of education delivered.

There's a pervasive feeling today that "integration is a two-edged sword," says Jean Johnson, senior vice president of Public Agenda and co-author of the study. "There are clearly benefits to a diverse school. But [integration] is divisive, causes controversy, and can be disturbing."

Yet at the same time, desegregation proponents say, studies show that minority students who attend integrated schools are far more likely to live, work, and be comfortable in integrated neighborhoods and workplaces - a social benefit they insist clearly overrides the difficulties involved.

When Fort Wayne first confronted school desegregation in the 1980s, the topic was potentially explosive. "We were all against busing at first," says one of the city's elementary school principals. Predictions of "white flight" and deeper division of the races rocked this city of 203,000, which has a 25 percent black population concentrated largely in the inner city. The area has a single school district, however, which encompasses the downtown and affluent suburban areas.

In 1984, after the US Department of Education labeled racial imbalances in the city's neighborhood elementary schools a "severe" problem, parents favoring integration found themselves seriously at odds with the city's school board. In 1985, with financial support from Ian Rolland, the white CEO of Lincoln National Corp., the city's largest employer, those parents hired a lawyer and filed suit against the school district.

"Obviously, we had some tensions," remembers Wendy Robinson, deputy superintendent of schools. In addition to other problems, "We had a superintendent who was resisting." But, she adds, "We were also fortunate enough to have community leaders who wanted this to work, and a strong community-support base that did not want to see the city torn apart."

The community pulled together, recall those involved at the time. Among others, the president of Indiana Michigan Power Co. stepped in and offered to mediate. Suburban parents stayed on board and the anticipated white flight never took place.

By 1989, an out-of-court settlement was reached. The following year, the superintendent who had opposed integration was replaced by William Coats, a desegregation advocate. "Within any community there's always opposition to desegregation," says Dr. Coats, who has since left Fort Wayne. "But a majority of the school board there supported doing the right thing."

"The right thing" turned out to be a plan based on school choice. To voluntarily draw suburban white kids into black neighborhoods and black students into white enclaves, five magnet elementary schools and one magnet middle school were set up, focusing on themes like fine arts, Spanish immersion, or Montessori instruction. Admissions were determined by lottery.

The city's middle and high schools also achieved better racial balances by freeing students to apply to schools outside their neighborhoods, which they would typically attend. Students may want to be at a school with more of their elementary-school peers, or they are drawn to magnet programs like the international baccalaureate.

"Choice was a key ingredient," remembers Coats. "White parents weren't reluctant to send their kids to school in a black neighborhood - they just didn't want to be told their child had to go to that school."

Gratifying to black parents, he says, was the decision to renovate, not shut down, inner-city schools. "Creating beautiful, up-to-date schools reflected a commitment to the inner city."

The school board also worked to integrate its staff. Today, 31 percent of the principals in the school system are black. "You wouldn't have seen a black woman holding my job a few years ago," says Dr. Robinson, who is African-American.

Since desegregation, Fort Wayne schools have seen impressive gains in both graduation rates and declines in drop-out rates. In the 1997-1998 school year, the city's graduation rate reached 91 percent - a dramatic increase from 74 percent in the 1993-94 school year, the first year records were kept. The dropout rate fell to 2.6 percent this year from 7.5 percent in 1988.

Results from state test scores have been relatively flat, but as current superintendent Thomas Fowler-Finn is quick to point out, no academic ground was lost as a result of desegregation. Getting the programs established was the first priority, he says. "Now we're focusing on academic achievement." That will improve, he insists, as kids become increasingly comfortable together, and staff can focus on questions other than race.

That doesn't mean the topic is no longer discussed. In a city that prides itself on plain speaking, many teachers prefer to tackle questions about diversity head-on. Ron Holmes, an African-American social studies teacher at Fort Wayne's South Side High School, says he likes to raise the topic with his students and doesn't mince words when he does. Mr. Holmes, a former marine, says, "I tell the kids, 'Look around. This is the real world. Let's get on with it.' "



Enrollments at 22 of 36 of Fort Wayne's elementary schools are declared to be "severely imbalanced" by the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. Community meetings are planned to discuss the issue.


Parents for Quality Education with Integration Inc., is formed by parents favoring racial balance. There is open disagreement between PQEI and the Fort Wayne school system. PQEI hires Washington attorney William Taylor with financial backing from Lincoln National Corporation.


Negotiations between PQEI and the Fort Wayne schools fail. PQEI files a lawsuit.


Trial date set for October 1988. The school system approves a magnet school plan.


Trial postponed until 1989.


Out-of-court settlement achieved in February. The Educational Improvement Committee is formed.


First meeting of the EIC. A new superintendent who favors desegregation is brought on board.


All 36 elementary schools are racially balanced.


A settlement with the state is finalized, providing Fort Wayne with $12.3 million for school improvement.


* Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)

Homer Plessy, a black man, challenged a Louisiana law that relegated blacks to separate train car facilities. The Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation was not unconstitutional as long as the separate facilities were equal.

* Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that state-imposed segregated schools were "inherently unequal," overturning the "separate but equal" doctrine.

* Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg Board of Education (1971)

The Court ruled that desegregation must be achieved in all schools within a district to the greatest extent possible and that busing was an acceptable means of attaining integration.

* Milliken v. Bradley (1974)

The Court struck down the idea of interdistrict desegregation, which meant that in cities like Detroit, where city school districts are separate from suburban districts, there could be no effort to achieve integration by busing suburban kids into the city or vice versa.

* Freeman v. Pitts (1992)

The Court determined that school districts could be at least in part released from desegregation responsibilities, even where complete desegregation had not been achieved.

* Missouri v. Jenkins (1995)

A return to local control was defined as the primary goal in school desegregation cases.

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