DAVID GREENE, HOST:
For more than 60 years now, since Brown v. Board of Education, federal courts have kept an eye on specific school districts across this country with a history of segregation. One of those is the Jefferson County School District just outside Birmingham, Ala.
And it is now up to a federal judge to decide whether a predominantly white city within the district can secede from its larger majority-black system and start its own. Sherrel Wheeler Stewart from member station WBHM reports.
SHERREL WHEELER STEWART, BYLINE: That mostly white city is Gardendale, Ala., where Friday nights are ruled by high-school football. The schools here in Gardendale are among the best-performing in Jefferson County. But being the best in Jefferson County isn't enough for Mayor Stan Hogeland.
STAN HOGELAND: As the mayor of the city, you know, I'm not all-knowing. I don't pretend to be. But students perform better in city-run systems.
STEWART: He wants out of the county system. And so do a lot of people in Gardendale. That was clear three years ago, when city residents voted to increase their own property taxes to start a school district of their own.
HOGELAND: You know, if we had our own system with a local superintendent and a local board that lives in town that you see when you go shopping or at church - maybe a little more accountability.
STEWART: But it isn't as easy as that. In 1971, African-Americans sued the district for segregating black and white students and won. Since then the federal courts have always had the final say on any movement in and out of the district. And soon, the federal judge in this case will decide if this is another move to segregate.
CRAIG POUNCEY: Nobody has ever said anything to me about the real reason why they want to form the district.
STEWART: That's Craig Pouncey, the superintendent of Jefferson County Schools.
POUNCEY: Diversity actually builds strength in my opinion because it opens people's minds. And I've seen where our schools, particularly in the last two years, have really thrived on that diversity.
STEWART: He says that diversity, additional money and even access to some special programs all go out the window with Gardendale.
POUNCEY: I don't fault a municipality from wanting those things. But we have to be very mindful of the overall impacts.
STEWART: Impact, too, on hundreds of students who take advantage of specialized classes Gardendale schools offers to kids from around the county - students like 11th grader DeVonte Kirkland. He makes the 25-minute trek every day from the high school near his home in northeast Jefferson County to Gardendale for an autotech class.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah. Loosen it up just a little bit.
STEWART: Students hover around a car as DeVonte is focused on changing the oil.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let it dry. There you go.
STEWART: After he graduates, he hopes to go to school at Alabama State University but likes this class because he wants to know how to work on his own car when he gets one. He's also making friends, some who don't look like him, some who come from other parts of the county.
DEVONTE KIRKLAND: Sometimes, we see each other out of school. And we talk in school, too. So I'm learning something new from them every day.
STEWART: But students like DeVonte wouldn't have access to Gardendale if it leaves the county system. City leaders there have tried to make the case they aren't segregating by allowing about 700 black students to remain in the new majority-white system even though they live outside city limits. The federal judge will soon decide whether that would make the new district truly desegregated.
For NPR News, I'm Sherrel Wheeler Stewart in Jefferson County, Ala.
GREENE: And Sherrel's story was produced in partnership with the Southern Education Desk, a public media consortium.
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