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Racial division still among struggles in Little Rock school district


Much like 1957, 2007 has proven to be a highly divisive year for the Little Rock School District but the developments this year pitted a black-majority school board against the district’s black superintendent, rather than a battle over integration.

After the board voted to fire Superintendent Roy Brooks and buy out his contract for $635,000 some white school board members fretted that the turmoil in the district could lead more parents to pull their kids out of the state’s largest school district and put them in private schools.

“We’re broke and we’re going to get broker as we lose enrollment due to the fact that we’ve not settled this,” board member H. Baker Kurrus said after the board fired Brooks in May. “We’ve divided our community. … The next thing that happens is we dismantle our school district because we lose enrollment.”

Responded board president Katherine Mitchell, who is black: “I think I got a pretty good … education in the Little Rock public schools in an all-black setting, so I’m not saying that we don’t need all students,” Mitchell said. “But I don’t think that if people make the decision to leave the public schools that’s going to lead to the destruction of the schools.”

Fifty years after Central High’s integration, race still matters in Arkansas’ capital city. It affects dealings with educational issues, and also is a factor in where people live.

Overwhelmingly, whites live in west Little Rock, an affluent area with views of the Ouachita Mountain foothills and Arkansas River, while eastern and downtown parts of the city are home to the majority of Little Rock’s black residents, according to Census data.

The fast-growing Hispanic population has set up home in southwest Little Rock, where taquerias and Spanish-language churches are the norm.

There’s no violence or race riots 50 years after Little Rock was divided along black-white lines, but self-segregation still happens, leaders say.

Since 1957, “things are way better, but you still have to work at it,” said Ruth Shepherd, executive director of Just Communities of Central Arkansas, an advocacy group that aims to improve race relations. “A white person could live in Little Rock, Arkansas, and never interact with any person of color, except at a store or something, a place of chance. So you’ve got to work at it.”

School-watchers also point out that the racial division is striking among students in terms of who they hang out with, what classes they take and how they perform on tests.

“Up through about the fifth or sixth grade, there’s not much differentiation based on race. There’s beginning to be differentiation on gender, when the kids get to about that middle school, that they begin to self-segregate,” she said.

That has a lot to do with puberty and a child’s family life, Shepherd said.

“My sense is that then once the kids get to that age, they have to make a conscious effort to reach across boundaries,” she said.

Little Rock’s Racial and Cultural Diversity Commission works with youth diversity councils in some central Arkansas high schools. And among the sponsored activities is an annual “Mix It Up” day where students sit with different people at lunch, said Carlette Henderson, the commission’s executive director.

“This is an opportunity for them to find someone they have not had any experience with and actually have a conversation,” she said. “The whole point is to know that basically we’re all the same we come together in spite of our differences.”

An essay by Central High’s student body president last year, Brandon Love, stirred up racial talks among students, with its frank commentary on division and racism at the school.

Love wrote a college essay that was quickly distributed throughout the school and city. Nicknamed “Two Centrals,” Love’s essay disputed the notion that Central has completely moved on from its volatile past.

“The greater part of my world consists of a predominantly white Central pervaded by prejudice and stereotypes,” wrote Love, who is black. “As the only African-American in most of my classes, I experience firsthand what some dismiss as ‘subtle’ racism.

“When food is the subject, my schoolmates stereotypically assume that my favorites include fried chicken, watermelon and Kool-Aid. When the classroom lights dim in advance of a film, somebody always feels compelled to say, ‘Where’d Brandon go?’ as if my skin caused me to blend with the now dark room.”

Love, who planned to attend Vanderbilt University, also noted that Advanced Placement “is synonymous with white.”

“That imaginary line Advanced Placement has negative implications that extend well beyond the classroom,” Love wrote. “Advanced Placement has driven a deep wedge between black and white. For instance, if a homecoming queen is black one year, the next year she has to be white or vice versa. During lunch, blacks eat inside the cafeteria and nothing short of a downpour causes the whites to leave their tables outside to come in.”

Central High Principal Nancy Rousseau and Leslie Kearney of the school’s guidance department responded to Love’s piece with an essay that was published last spring in the weekly Arkansas Times newspaper.

“Central, like all schools, is divided among the haves and the have-nots of all races,” they wrote. “We are riddled with problems brought to us from the violent streets and the dysfunctional homes. Our test scores range from good to excellent, yet the disparity between scores of blacks and whites still exists.”

Performance on standardized tests by students of different races varies widely, with white students consistently having higher scores. Officials differ on how to close that gap.

Gov. Mike Beebe has consistently touted enhanced preschool programs and funding as a potential solution.

“I’m a firm believer that (preschool) in the long run will allow more children, particularly those disadvantaged economically which disproportionately affects African-Americans and Hispanics and other minority groups that that in the long term will elevate the achievement in such a way that it will do more to close that gap than virtually any other single thing we can do,” Beebe told The Associated Press in an interview earlier this year.

U.S. Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who visited Little Rock in the spring, said in an interview that President Bush’s No Child Left Behind plan was working to improve achievement among poor and minority students.

“We need to expand the Advanced Placement or rigorous courses more broadly,” Spellings said. “We need to make sure that we provide incentives for experienced teachers to teach in our most challenging educational environments. The president’s proposed a teacher incentive fund that would do just that.”

Discussions on the Central High integration and current educational issues should go hand-in-hand, Spellings said.

“One of the things that’s important about commemorating an anniversary like this is that we educate our young children about how profound that moment was, which I think they often take for granted,” Spellings said. “I have two children that I don’t think really understand and appreciate really the struggle that that was. And that we also have to continue that struggle as we now confront these challenges of inequity in our system.”

–Associated Press 

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