Interdistrict Transfer | Feature | Chicago Reader

Interdistrict Transfer 

How it works in Saint Louis and Milwaukee. And how it might work in Chicago.

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While Chicago scrambles vainly to desegregate schools within the city, Saint Louis and Milwaukee are trying a different strategy.

In 1980, a federal court found the state of Missouri and the board of education of the city of Saint Louis jointly liable for the unlawfully segregated school system in Saint Louis. The court ordered the state and the board to share equally the costs of desegregating. The following year, the Saint Louis board sued the state and the 23 Saint Louis County suburban school districts, seeking consolidation of the city and suburban schools into one metropolitan school district. Two years later, the city and the suburban districts settled; the city agreed not to proceed with its suit in exchange for: a voluntary interdistrict transfer program between the city and the suburbs; the creation of magnet schools in the city, to attract white suburban students as well as to provide special programs for city students; and implementation of a comprehensive package of compensatory programs designed to improve all city schools, but particularly those that would remain all black.

Although the state was not a party to the settlement and strenuously resisted financial responsibility, the courts have required it to fund substantially more than half of the total costs of the settlement's components. In the 1986-87 school year alone, $125 million was spent on desegregation in Saint Louis, with the state's share $90 million. New and expanded magnet schools are operating in Saint Louis, and many of the compensatory programs are in place. In the elementary and middle schools that remain segregated, class size has been reduced from 30 to 24, and the court-monitored plan is requiring its reduction to 20 by the 1988-89 school year.

Under the interdistrict part of the plan, 12,000 minority students are attending suburban schools, and 650 white suburban children are attending city schools. "Under a voluntary plan, you'll always have more blacks going out than whites coming in," says Dr. Susan Uchitelle, executive director of Saint Louis's Voluntary Interdistrict Coordinating Council. "But you can balance it better with ideal magnet programs in the inner city. If you offer an exceptional program--something suburban kids can't get in the suburbs--then they'll come in." But state resistance to funding various aspects of the desegregation plan, she says, even in the face of court orders, has so far kept the city magnet schools from being of sufficient quality to attract suburban students.

Before the interdistrict program began, many suburban school districts were 99 percent white, she says; now only 2 of 23 districts have less than 15 percent minority enrollments.

Board members in Saint Louis worried that their best minority students would flee the city schools under the interdistrict program. But Uchitelle says a study showed that the minorities who choose to attend suburban schools are similar demographically to the minorities who choose to remain in city schools. Those who ride buses to the suburbs are showing a lot of motivation, she allows; bus rides are as long as an hour and 20 minutes, though three-quarters of those bused ride for an hour or less. "They're putting up with long rides, alien environments, they stay after school for activities, they get home very late, they have homework to do, they're up at 5, 5:30 the next morning--it's a very long day." Yet few participants opt out of the program, and the numbers applying have grown each year.

The desegregation plan has given minority parents more choices, Uchitelle says. "They can choose a suburban school, they can choose a city magnet school, or they can choose to keep their child in the neighborhood school--and that school should be better, because of the compensatory programs."

The biggest problem, she says, has been constant bickering between city and state; they've never been enamored with each other, and disputes over the desegregation plan haven't improved the relationship. But that considered, the desegregation effort, especially the interdistrict transfer program, has still been "remarkably successful," Uchitelle says. "I can tell you some good stuff that's happened in the last 5 years that hadn't happened in the previous 200. We have county [suburban] kids playing at night with black kids in north Saint Louis, and black kids who are spending evenings at suburban family homes. I see city minority kids benefiting and I see county white kids benefiting just as much. They're all learning to get along in a multicultural world. There's a metropolitan student council--city and county, black and white. I've got a lot of faith in the next generation."

After a federal district court ordered school desegregation in Milwaukee in 1976, the Wisconsin legislature passed a law providing incentives for transfers of schoolchildren in the metropolitan area, both intradistrict and interdistrict. But many suburban districts required Milwaukee students to undergo extensive screening for admittance to their schools--screening that often found the city children unacceptable. By 1984, only 1,500 city schoolchildren were enrolled in the suburbs, and the Milwaukee board filed suit against the suburban districts and the state. Under a settlement reached last year, the suburban districts agreed to student transfer goals that would bring their minority enrollments to 20 percent in the next five years (from the present 2 to 3 percent).

The state is required to pay all interdistrict transfer costs, and to spend a total of $30 million over the next five years on compensatory programs in Milwaukee's all-black elementary schools. It must spend another $5 million on a housing program designed to begin integration in the suburbs, providing bond money for low-interest mortgages for minorities and subsidies for developers who set aside a certain number of units for integrated housing.

Enrollment in the interdistrict program swelled after Milwaukee filed the lawsuit. Suburban districts that had refused to participate began recruiting minorities to make themselves look better in court, says John Peterburs, secretary-business manager for the Milwaukee schools and the chief negotiator for Milwaukee in the suit. Presently, 4,000 minority city children are enrolled in suburban schools, and 1,000 white suburban children are enrolled in city schools. Peterburs expects participation in the program to double over the next five years, to 8,000 city and 2,000 suburban students.

City minority families "who can't afford to live in the suburbs at least can send their kids to school there now," Peterburs says. The suburban schools tend to have better financial resources and smaller class sizes, he says.

Bus rides average 45 minutes to an hour, says Andrew Douglas, coordinator of the program. The length of bus rides "is a poor excuse" for not setting up an interdistrict program, Douglas says. "I think of upper Wisconsin, where the kids ride an hour and 45 minutes to school."

Many but not all minority leaders support the program, Douglas says. A group of black activists wants all desegregation money to be spent on the city's racially isolated schools. They have been lobbying for a separate school district within the city, to be composed of ten all-black elementary schools. Douglas, who is black, thinks that strategy is faulty. "We've seen how 'separate and equal' works, and we know it's never equal. The moneys don't flow [to minorities]. And if our kids are going to be isolated in one little spot--when they go outside of that environment, what's going to happen? That's the problem today--so many people hide in the ghetto. And that's just what the bigots want.

"Your neighborhood today is the whole world," Douglas says. "And kids have to be exposed to that. That's a big part of quality education--getting a chance to mix with other groups, make friendships with different kinds."

How would minority schoolchildren from Chicago fare in the suburbs under an interdistrict program? A 1985 study by the Northwestern University Center for Urban Affairs and Policy Research may shed some light on that.

The schoolchildren studied were suburban Cook County residents, not participants in an interdistrict program; but they were black, from poor families, and former Chicago residents. They and their families had moved to the suburbs as part of the Gautreaux housing desegregation program. (After the federal government was found guilty in 1976 of selecting public housing sites in the Chicago area in a racially discriminatory manner, it was required to fund a program that would help low-income minorities move into private housing throughout the metropolitan area.) The Gautreaux-program families were compared with a control group of city black families with similar incomes, family structures, and educational backgrounds.

Mothers of the black children in the suburban schools reported that the teachers there provided more help to their children, responded better to their educational needs, and generally treated them better than Chicago teachers had. Asked if teachers had gone out of their way to help their children in the past three months, almost twice as many of the suburban mothers (59 percent to 30 percent) reported such extra help. "The atmosphere is different," one suburban mother said. "They'll let you know before marking period that your child needs work in [certain] areas. . . . In the city, the first sign you [would get] was a failing grade on the report card." Reported another mother: "They [teachers] demand more out of the child and pay a lot more attention to the child." And another: "It seems like the teachers are able to treat each child individually--maybe because they have smaller classes."

The teachers' responses were not influenced by the students' participation in the Gautreaux program, the study noted, since that program kept a low profile so as not to stigmatize the children involved. Teachers were not even informed that the children were part of a special program. "We do not know whether these teachers went out of their way more for these children . . . or whether these actions were just their typical way of responding to all children in their classes," the report said. "In any case, their actions impressed many mothers as being quite remarkable."

The suburban school experience was not completely positive. Some black children were picked on or ignored by their teachers, their mothers reported. One lunchroom monitor segregated black children in one part of the lunchroom; a school bus driver made the black kids go to the back of the bus. But these incidents "did not overwhelm the mothers' general feelings of satisfaction," according to the report, and the incidents seemed to decline over time.

The mothers also noted that the suburban schools had higher standards--fourth-grade work in the city was being done in second or third grade in the suburbs. The black children had difficulty at first adjusting to the work in the suburban schools; several were placed back a grade and a higher proportion were placed in special-education classes than had been placed in those classes in the city. Many mothers at first suspected the special-education placements were racially biased. Most eventually concluded that their children were making better progress in the smaller special-education classes and that they were the appropriate placement for their children; some voiced anger at the city schools for not having made such a placement earlier.

Despite the higher standards, the black children did as well on their report cards in their suburban schools as they had in Chicago. "This suggests an impressive ability of these children to respond to the higher demands in the suburbs, probably aided by the previously noted efforts of suburban teachers," the study said. Some of the students, in fact, got even better grades in the suburban schools. "The motivating benefits of good teachers and high standards seem to have brought out previously undiscovered talents," according to the study.

Though they had to make significant social and academic adjustments, the children in the study were much more positive about attending school in the suburbs than in the city.

The University of Chicago's Gary Orfield points out that the suburban schools in the study made no special preparations to help the minority children adjust to their new schools. "Everything about this situation was wrong in terms of good school desegregation results," he says. "There wasn't a critical mass [a minimum proportion of black students in each school], there were few black teachers, there was no special teacher training, no supportive curriculum--nothing. And the kids did damn well. If it can work under those circumstances, then anything is possible."

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