A high school in Wayne County, N.C., has a student population that is poor and 99 percent black. That's not the case at other public high schools in the rural county. And that has prompted a civil rights inquiry — and complaints about what one leader calls "re-segregation."
Goldsboro High is a classic American high school, with white columns, a two-story brick facade, and transoms over the classroom doors. It was where, 60 years ago, a teenage Carl Kasell took drama from an energetic teacher named Andy Griffith.
Now, students like Michael King roam the hallways.
"All the students here at Goldsboro High School have had a good opportunity to do anything they wanted to," King said. "Some just choose not to take the opportunity."
King is a success story, to be sure. He lives with his mother and brother; their only family income is her disability check. He hopes to go to college. But most of his peers won't escape the cycle of poverty here.
Principal Patricia Burden says that at Goldsboro, "I think you have students who truly believe that, 'This is the way that I live, and this is the way I will continue to live.' And so therefore, they do not have the broad perspective, on the fact that it does not have to be this way."
Seeing An Imbalance
About 80 percent of the students at Goldsboro High are poor, and 99 percent are African-American. Other high schools in America have similar student bodies. But what makes Goldsboro High different is that the town and the school district are roughly 50-50 black-white.
The other five high schools in Wayne County are majority white or close to it — and don't have nearly the same levels of poverty.
The Rev. William Barber, a pastor at the Greenleaf Christian Church, is the president of the North Carolina NAACP. "We have apartheid education in Wayne County," Barber said.
Barber and the NAACP filed a complaint against Wayne County Schools in December. They say the school board violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act when it created attendance areas that put the majority of the poor, black students in one school zone and failed to provide students in that zone with equal educational opportunities.
"This is an ugly case, a wrong case — we believe an illegal case," Barber said. "The NAACP and our friends, we had to challenge it, because it is so endemic of what can happen when you leave local school boards alone in the South to do their business."
Barber calls the school board's actions discrimination. And he also uses another word: re-segregation.
Signs Of A Wider Trend
Rick Pridgen, chairman of the Wayne County School Board, balks at the idea of re-segregation.
"I don't even know if that's a word in the dictionary, to be honest with you," he said. "It may be."
Pridgen also defends the board's school zoning map.
"The schools have nothing to do with, and can't change, the demographics of the city," he said. "The schools have absolutely nothing to do with where people choose to live."
The civil rights divisions at the departments of Education and Justice are coordinating a federal investigation. Civil rights advocates see Wayne County as a test case for the Obama administration's stated rededication to civil rights.
Mark Dorosin is a senior attorney with the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina.
"The Wayne County case is particularly egregious," Dorosin said. "But it is also symbolic, or emblematic, of the trends we're seeing, not only throughout North Carolina but across the country."
Neither the Justice Department nor the Education Department would comment on the ongoing investigation in Wayne County. The local school board says it will cooperate fully with the investigation.