Program takes aim at segregation

Published 8:41 pm Saturday, September 6, 2014

A transfer program Suffolk Public Schools has rolled out at the urging of the Justice Department to further desegregation has been taken up by 29 students.

At the start of the new school year, Pioneer Elementary School has 27 students participating in the Majority-to-Minority program and Booker T. Washington has two students, district spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw says.

The Justice Department urged adoption of the program after reviewing district officials’ early attendance-zone plans for the new Pioneer Elementary School.

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A department attorney warned the plans would create a “racially identifiable white” Pioneer Elementary while increasing segregation at the existing black-majority schools from which it would draw.

The School Board approved a revised plan that added to Pioneer 16 students from Booker T. Washington Elementary and 23 from Elephant’s Fork Elementary, which officials indicated the Justice Department had approved of.

The board also agreed to the transfer program, giving students at a school where they are in the majority based on their race the option of attending a school where they would be in the minority.

Bradshaw says that if Majority-to-Minority students fill the 75 seats to increase Pioneer’s enrollment to 600 in the next three years, the school would be 32 percent black, 63 percent white and 5 percent “other.”

Southwestern Elementary School, which Pioneer replaced, was 23 percent black, 71 percent white and 6 percent “other” in 2013-2014, its final year of operation.

“In addition, the sending schools would experience some desegregation benefits,” Bradshaw stated.

Booker T. Washington is the only sending school for the current school year, but either Elephant’s Fork Elementary or Mack Benn Jr. Elementary will be added in 2015-2016 and Booker T Washington, Elephant’s Fork and Mack Benn Jr. elementary schools will all be sending schools for 2016-2017.

Comparing the district’s most recent ethnicity data to the Nansemond County School Board School Operation Plan for 1971-72, obtained from the Department of Justice under a Freedom of Information Act request, integration of schools has increased some over the past four decades.

In 1972, at least half of students were black at 94 percent of district schools. That ratio had fallen to 58 percent of district schools in 2013.

In 1971, the U.S. objected to the “continued operation of John F. Kennedy High School as a predominantly black high school” in contrast with the other two high schools. JFK in 1972 was 83-percent black, according to the board’s plan, while as a middle school in January 2013 it was 74 percent black.

The U.S. also objected to the complete lack of diversity at two East Suffolk elementary schools, one serving grades one through three and the other grades four through seven. Both schools were 100 percent black. As a comparable example in 2013, Booker T. Washington Elementary School was 89 percent black.

Almost 43 years after the U.S. Justice Department took the issue to court, Suffolk Public Schools is the only Virginia school district on the Justice Department’s “Open Desegregation Case List.”

The list includes 184 cases against school districts, only one of them north of the Mason-Dixon Line. With 44, Mississippi has the greatest number of open cases, followed by Alabama’s 43 and Georgia’s 35.