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Persistent Challenge: Desegregating Urban Schools

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Persistent Challenge: Desegregating Urban Schools

Education

Persistent Challenge: Desegregating Urban Schools

Persistent Challenge: Desegregating Urban Schools

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Another court-monitored effort to integrate a big city school system is coming to an end. The Chicago Public Schools spent billions of dollars trying to integrate. But many of the city's minority students still attend racially isolated schools. District officials say they'll continue efforts to integrate, but maintain it's impossible to truly desegregate when just 9 percent of the student body, citywide, is now white. Jay Field of Chicago Public Radio reports.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. In Chicago the school district and the U.S. Justice Department have reached a tentative agreement to settle a 26-year fight over integrating the city's classrooms. The school district says it's not realistic to demand total integration in a system with so few white students. But under the agreement the city must keep up its efforts to promote diversity. Chicago Public Radio's Jay Field reports.

JAY FIELD: Chicago's desegregation story is a familiar one for cities across the country. It goes something like this, schools in a big city are segregated by race. Someone sues and a long court battle begins. But during these fight, things on the ground change dramatically. White students, once a sizeable part of the district's total enrollment, flee their urban schools for those in the suburbs. This trend, more than any other, is the key reason why cities like Columbus, Denver and now Chicago are settling their desegregation fights with the government.

ARNIE DUNCAN: The Justice Department has recognized our accomplishments and the fact that complete integration of a district that is 90 percent minority would be an extremely difficult goal to reach.

FIELD: Arnie Duncan, who runs the Chicago Public Schools, says the district has done a good job making schools more diverse despite the fact that only about nine percent of students in city classrooms are white. The district first entered into a consent decree with the Justice Department back in 1980. The agreement was modified several years ago. Since then the two sides have been fighting over whether Chicago was offered enough chances for minority students to transfer to majority white schools, and over how much of its budget the district should be spending on efforts to promote diversity. Attorney William Taylor represented clients in desegregation cases in St. Louis and other cities.

WILLIAM TAYLOR: Many districts have kept their plans in effect for years beyond the expiration of the court order because they think it's good practice.

FIELD: That's exactly what's supposed to happen in Chicago. The district's agreement with the Justice Department requires that efforts like the development of the city's racially mixed magnet schools continue.

Ms. Isabel Mesa-COLLINS (Principal, Drummond Montessori School) Montessori classrooms are in centers and the students, pretty much, are in control of their learning. Each child has an individual educational plan and this is what you see when you walk in. You see children working individually or in groups of one or two.

FIELD: At Drummond Montessori Magnet School, a preschool in the city's near Westside, principal Isabel Mesa-Collins explains her challenge.

MESA: There is a process by which we want to make sure that we have African Americans represented. We want to have Hispanics represented and Asians.

FIELD: But Alonzo Rivas, with the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, says the magnet schools have hardly been a panacea for the segregation that still dominates Chicago schools.

ALONZO RIVAS: There are many specific problems that we can point out to. For instance, the fact that parents in predominately minority schools do not get a lot of notice to what the process is to apply for a spot at these magnet or selective enrollment schools, or gifted schools, or whatever you want to call them.

FIELD: Rivas says he's comforted by the fact that the Justice Department will still be monitoring the Chicago schools for at least one more year. But he worries the district won't follow through on the promises it's made. It's a concern the federal judge in the case is likely to address at a hearing Thursday when he's expected to sign off on the agreement. From NPR News I'm Jay Field in Chicago.

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