It’s been 24 years since a federal magistrate proclaimed the Rockford Public Schools had “raised discrimination to an art form” and ordered the schools to desegregate.
The court remedy set up a system of school choice, which led to racially balanced schools. In 2010, the order was lifted and the district chose to return to “zoned schools.” Students now attend schools close to their homes -- but that has led to re-segregation.
Rockford parents, teachers and clergy members gathered several times recently to address the disparities in educational opportunity for white and minority students. Ald. Linda McNeely hosted her second town hall meeting about it last month. The audience was eager to speak in City Hall chambers.
“Teachers are of the mind that all children can learn,” said Briquelle Backeman. “That’s what all teachers sign up for.”
Yahcolyah Muhammad said the roots of the problem run deep. “Racism is not just a Confederate flag,” he told the small crowd. “It’s not calling somebody the n-word, it’s not being prejudiced. It is the systematic oppression of elevating one race over another.”
For Louveanger Dishman, the quality of Rockford schools is personal. “My granddaughter asked me tonight, was I going to fight for her education? I need help, because I’m fighting,” she said.
This wasn’t just a one-time sentiment. Many of the same people have been showing up at school board meetings and other forums on school re-segregation.
The discussion was revived recently after the Rockford Register Star published an analysis of how race and student achievement play out in the district’s best and worst schools. Reporter Corina Curry looked at the scores for each school in the district on the state’s annual standardized tests, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers -- or PARRC. Then she looked at the racial makeup of each school and found the disparities to be larger than she expected.
“And then we started to look at if we found any commonalities among the best schools, the best performing schools on the state tests and the worst performing schools on the state tests, Curry said. “And that’s when we started to see a separation and a difference in what the racial make-ups of those schools were.”
More than 28,000 students are in the Rockford Public School system. The racial makeup is roughly one third white, one third black, and one third Hispanic. In the 1990s, a lawsuit led by concerned parents called “People Who Care” eventually resulted in a court-ordered desegregation plan. Every school had to be within 15 percent of the district’s overall racial make-up. Curry says most of the 20 schools she evaluated -- the ones with the best and the worst test scores -- wouldn’t reach that standard now.
In 2010, the “choice” model was scrapped. It had assigned students to schools by considering their top school choices, which included a number of themed schools scattered throughout the district. They would get one of their top choices, but the decision was based on the racial make-up of that school. Now the district has returned to a system where students attend near their neighborhoods.
Curry says choice and zones are sensitive subjects in the community. “There are a lot of people who really support the concept of zones.” said Curry. “And just as many who would like to see, not necessarily choice, but they want better. They think that the community can do better for these children who are in these lower performing schools.”
Dr. James Cohen is an assistant professor of education at Northern Illinois University. His research focuses on literacy instruction for immigrant and non-native English-speaking students. Cohen says integrated classrooms help everyone, not just students of color.
“If you never have the opportunity to work with people who don’t look, think, act, speak, believe, behave like you do,” said Cohen, “you think the whole world is just like you. People don’t know how to work with each other if you don’t have diversity. No pun intended, but it’s very black and white.”
Cohen says all parties involved in education need to practice a commitment to diversity and a multicultural approach to learning if they want to increase the quality of education for all students.
“We’ve been researching these issues for decades. The answers are not difficult,” he offered. “We have racial issues. We have income inequities. We have folks, whether it’s teachers or the school itself or the school district, who view certain populations as 'less than.' They’re 'othered' all the time.”
Erica Frankenberg, an Associate Professor of Education and Democracy and the Director of the Center for Education and Civil Rights at Pennsylvania State University, says integrated schools help diminish the formation of prejudice and stereotype in children and young adults.
She says diversity in the classroom enables cross-racial friendships, which enhance social and psychological development. And all of this adds up to a future generation of adults better able to benefit their community and the economy.
“For example,” Frankenberg said, “graduates of diverse schools are more likely to live in more integrated neighborhoods as adults. They report that they feel more comfortable working in more diverse workplaces. So these are not only benefits for students but benefits for our society.”
She says segregation in schools disproportionately affects the academic achievement of minority students, since racially isolated minority schools typically have access to fewer educational resources. She notes that one researcher termed a group of black and Latino high schools “drop-out factories,” due to the strong correlation between minority isolation and low graduation rates.
Frankenberg explains: “It’s not because the schools have a lot of black and Latino students per se, it’s because of the way in which we have systematically in our country not been able to have the same kind of educational resources, so ... fewer AP classes, fewer experienced, qualified teachers that remain at the schools ... Things like that really matter for the kind of education students experience.”
Frankenberg studied Rockford Public Schools as part of an analysis of districts that received grants after the court order was lifted to redesign how they assign students to schools. She says segregated schools aren’t unique to our area. “One thing I think is really important to remember -- and is certainly the case in Rockford and other communities around the country -- is that we’re still a very residentially segregated nation,” she said.
Without a sustained focus on both residential and school integration, Frankenberg says, unequal opportunity for white and minority students will continue to exist. She says the best first step to closing the educational achievement gap is to acknowledge that race still matters in our society and also is often linked to economic prosperity.
“To simply go back to a neighborhood school plan without acknowledging the ways neighborhoods are racially patterned and expect integration is just not going to happen," she said. "Continuing to place a priority on integration, it’s the critical first step.”
The Rockford Register Star hosted another community meeting this week to discuss race and the city’s children. More than 130 people attended.
Sidella Hughes, a plaintiff in the People Who Care lawsuit, says Rockford is right back where it started prior to the integration efforts. She urged action, and said, “Schools are worse, children don’t have the opportunities. We don’t need another study. We have a room full of studies.”
Sara Dady, an immigration lawyer who attended Rockford Public Schools and is now a candidate for Congress, says Rockford always has been a segregated city. “It would be very important for our school board and leaders to admit that going back to school zones was a mistake," Dady said, "and that we need to move forward by making sure that, if schools will be successful, neighborhoods around them must be successful.”
Bryant Moore is a social studies teacher in Rockford and the parent of a preschooler in the district. He’s running for state representative in the 67th legislative district next year. “I would like to see the [school] district take this conversation seriously,” he said. “I was disappointed that the superintendent did not show up. And that’s really disappointing, because this is an issue that really affects the African-American community that you can see we’re passionate about.”
It has been more than two decades since the People Who Care lawsuit drew national attention to school segregation in Rockford. It’s still a sore spot for many. Now the return to segregated schools has reopened more old wounds. But reporter Corina Curry says it’s an opportunity.
“One of the most important questions is about the kids who are in those poor-performing schools and what needs to be done for them differently than what’s being done today," Curry said. "Change their fate. If you don’t like the idea of kids attending schools that score so low, what’s the future for that child?
"How will he do well in school, in high school, in life -- especially when he is achieving so low in elementary? The focus needs to be on those children.”