FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And now we turn to two educators who've seen first hand how segregation impacts black students.

Jonathan Kozol is an author and civil rights activist who's been working with intercity students for the past 40 years, and Annie Wimbish is superintendent of public schools in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

Thanks both of you for joining us.

Dr. ANNIE WIMBISH (Superintendent, Hattiesburg Public School District, Mississippi): Thank you for inviting me.

Professor JONATHAN KOZOL (Author, "Letters to a Young Teacher"): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So, Annie, let's start with you. You were a student in a newly integrated Virginia school system. What was that experience like for you?

Dr. WIMBISH: In that newly integrated system, initially, it was pretty quiet. It was not a lot of differences happened except that I remember the groupings, students were grouped according to ability - ability grouping in those days, and pretty much like it is today, though the basic groups were predominantly black and the advanced groups were predominantly white. And I was one of those students who happened to be in the predominantly white - the advanced group - and I never understood why I could not be in the classrooms with students who look like me. So that was one of the things that really stood out.

CHIDEYA: Jonathan, we just heard a little bit about desegregation in the South versus the North. Now, when you first got into teaching, the country was just beginning to deal with desegregation. If you walked into a Northern classroom in the early days of desegregation, would you have actually seen black and white students together?

Prof. KOZOL: Well, yes. Not in the cities themselves, but - because those very little - there was very little integration in the cities, but a lot of the Northern cities developed voluntary integration programs with the suburbs that surrounded them.

In Massachusetts, for example, 34 of the top suburbs surrounding Boston began a tremendous pressure from the civil rights group who do each other's working, began a voluntary integration program. And it still exists, by the way. It's been in existence for 40 years. And I happen to end up teaching in it because I was hired to teach in one of the exclusive suburbs, which started this program. So I - after having begun in a segregated school in Boston, a couple of years later, there I was in a marvelous, highly funded, beautiful school that was racially integrated.

And I saw the difference for the black kids. For example, in the city, I had 35 children in my class. Now, suddenly out in the suburbs, I had only 19. And those black students - without exception - did very, very well academically. Yes, there was a little social discomfort at the first, but it disappeared pretty quickly. They made - because we started when they were young, they made friends with their classmates.

And anyway, over the course of 40 years, 90 percent of the black and Hispanic kids who have been in this program have gone on - have not only graduated from high school with their class, but gone on to four-year colleges, typically very, very good ones. In fact, 95 percent of them go on to college compared with something like, you know, 30 to 40 percent survival rate for inner-city kids these days. And it's…

CHIDEYA: Let me turn back to Annie for a second so.

Dr. WIMBISH: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: Going through the experience in Hattiesburg, the area has gone from 90 percent white, 6 percent black to practically the opposite. So how have things changed there in terms of opportunity, you know, as whites moved out?

Dr. WIMBISH: One of the things that I heard someone mentioned earlier was - they talked about the test scores. Hattiesburg was, at one point, known as the center. People were just vying to get in because of student performances and a lot of other opportunities. And now, we have seen a tremendous decline in enrolment over the last few years. As a matter of fact, we've dropped about 100 percent. We've dropped from about 8,000 students to about 45 percent, forty-five hundred students.

We have a major white flight, but I call it more of a middle class and middle-economic flight because we are losing just yearly, annually, about 100 to 150 students moving to the suburban areas that are predominantly white.

Seeing a significant decline as far as test scores are concerned, too, we have several schools who are underperforming now based on the No Child Left Behind and the Mississippi Accountability status - just a major difference in the perception - the community's perception of our school district. We are often fighting the negative perceptions compared to our local suburban district.

CHIDEYA: Well, Annie, we're actually going to take a short break and then continue this discussion, so I want both of you to stay with us.

We're talking with Annie Wimbish, public school superintendent in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Jonathan Kozol, an education veteran whose latest book is called "Letters to a Young Teacher."

You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

If you're just tuning in before the break, we were discussing integration and the modern resegregation of America's public schools with Annie Wimbish, superintendent of public schools in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and educator Jonathan Kozol, whose latest book is called "Letters to a Young Teacher."

Now, Jonathan, the issue isn't just who's in schools but how they're taught. In your new book, "Letters to a Young Teacher," you actually recount a time many years ago when you were fired for reading Langston Hughes to your students. Why don't you tell us about that?

Prof. KOZOL: Well, this was back in the 1960s, really, before the civil rights movement had set in in the North. And I was teaching fourth grade in an all-black school in Boston. It was - I brought in some Langston Hughes poetry because there was no black literature in the curriculum, and the kids loved it. And for the first time, they really seemed excited that year. But I was fired for that because it was not in the approved curriculum.

Now, some may argue it's not as bad as that today, but I would argue that in many ways, we swung back so that it's - in certain ways, even worse because in the all-black and all-Hispanic inner-city schools that I visit, and these schools - I mean, they're as close to perfect apartheid as they could be. Out of 4,000 high school kids, typically I might meet five white children. In these schools, there is now a new regimented curriculum with the same kind of rigid rules that we faced before, and this has been imposed by No Child Left Behind bill.

CHIDEYA: Well, Annie - I want to turn to Annie and ask about No Child Left Behind. So how do you think it's - you know, Jonathan was just talking about what can be rigid curriculum rules. How do you think that plays out?

Dr. WIMBISH: I do think they're extremely rigid curriculum rules. I'm not sure if I agree that bringing in Langston Hughes or something of that nature would be forbidden as it may have been in those days. I do think the rigid rules, of course, limits the curriculum to the - the how and what you can teach simply because of the mandates of curriculum right now, but…

Prof. KOZOL: That's what I meant.

Dr. WIMBISH: Okay. Okay. The lack of time to bring in new things because there's so many mandated things that have to be taught.

CHIDEYA: Now, Annie, you know, I want to ask you about unitary school districts. So on a practical level, the federal government sees no need to continue desegregation enforcement if there is a declaration that the district is unitary. What does that mean and how does that play out in your district?

Dr. WIMBISH: Well, of course, that unitary status means that the schools should represent the demographics of the districts. And if the schools represent the demographics of the district, then you receive that unitary status. In my case, because my district is predominantly minority anyway, the unitary status still doesn't change or happen as far as integration is concerned. We are - as you have indicated earlier, we are 92 percent African-American students at my district. And no matter how we drew the lines, I mean, every school pretty much represent that.

CHIDEYA: Well, Jonathan, what do you think is practical at this point? If there is an area that is mostly black, is it practical to still try to do bussing, to still try to do, you know, programs that try to exchange students between districts?

Prof. KOZOL: Absolutely. First of all, you know, apart from the inequalities that are historically been inevitable when we had segregated schools, the kids - the worse thing is that these kids grow up in total isolation of the - all the reference points…

Dr. WIMBISH: I agree.

Prof. KOZOL: …to the larger society. Teacher in this - a teacher I described in my new book, "Letters to a Young Teacher," sums it up beautifully. On the report card in her school, she's supposed to check off, does the child show respect for diversity? Funny little question. She looks around in her classroom, not a white kid in the classroom, only two white kids in the whole school building. She sits down and she had great courage to do this. She wrote, I'm sure that little Reginald(ph) would show great respect for children of other races if this society should ever decide it would be a good idea to let him meet a few of them.

CHIDEYA: Annie, what about you? What's practical at this point?

Dr. WIMBISH: Again, as far as the best thing, that would not make any difference at all with us. But I do agree with Mr. Kozol in the fact that our children need to be exposed to other people and other things because they don't know what diversity even means in many, many cases. And children live what they learn, and if they don't see something different - don't believe there is something different, how can they possibly compete with other people in our global economy as we hear so much about.

I want to refer to something that Mr. Kozol - Dr. Kozol wrote many years ago in "Savage Inequalities" that I often use in reference to our students and other students, like my students, that we're educating children to either govern or be governed. And oftentimes, unfortunately, in predominantly African-American classes, we are educating our children to be governed. They are not learning how to be the ones in the leadership role. Many times that does happen - not always - but many times that happens.

CHIDEYA: Well, Annie and Jonathan, we want to thank you for your time.

Dr. WIMBISH: Thank you so much for inviting me.

Prof. KOZOL: Thank you. Thanks.

CHIDEYA: Annie Wimbish is the public school superintendent in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and Jonathan Kozol is an author and educator. His latest book is called "Letters to a Young Teacher" and he spoke with us from member station WGBH in Boston.

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