Now the focus shifts from integration to achievement for all
By Julian E. Barnes
Robert Novak's classroom door repeatedly slams shut, with a reverberating boom so loud it feels as if it could shake the peeling paint from the walls. With each explosion, students saunter in late to join the rest of their eighth-grade classmates, who are singing, gossiping, and flirting. Novak, 27, a first-year teacher at nearly all-black John Philip Sousa Middle School, hands out a description of a research project on black Revolutionary War figures. He calls on one lanky boy to read it aloud. "He can't read," a classmate taunts. The young man growls back: "Who can't read?" The class breaks out laughing.
The student begins the passage. He stumbles and his classmates chuckle. As he struggles with the word "declaration," Novak rescues him, explaining that the Declaration of Independence inspired blacks to join the Revolution and "to fight because they believed the words of the Founding Fathers that all men were created equal." Which prompts another student to shout:
"Who were the Founding Fathers?"
It wasn't supposed to be this way at Sousa. Fifty-four years ago, Spottswood Bolling Jr., an 11-year-old African-American, walked in the front door and asked to be enrolled in what was then a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility on the white side of the District of Columbia's legally segregated school system. The principal refused, and Spottswood's mother sued.
A victory. Meanwhile, 1,100 miles away in Topeka, Kan., a 7-year-old girl named Linda Brown was also trying to gain admission to an all-white school. In May 1954, the Supreme Court decided Spottswood Bolling's case alongside the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, striking down the "separate but equal" doctrine that had prevailed for 58 years.
The impact of Brown was electric. Its declaration that educating black and white children separately was unconstitutional made real the possibility that the great injustice of segregation would at last be righted, first in the law books, then in schools, and perhaps finally throughout American life. The resistance was mighty, the results imperfect, but there was no denying the great symbolism, justice, and social import of the court's action. " Brown opened up schools, but it did more. In D.C., restrooms were no longer segregated, water fountains weren't separate," says Frederick Gregory, one of three black ninth graders to enter Sousa in September 1954. "Integration said there were no borders or boundaries."
Gregory went on to become an astronaut, the kind of inspirational achievement that reformers hoped integration would foster. But Sousa's integration proved short-lived. A decade after Gregory enrolled, Washington's whites were fleeing for the nearby suburbs, and the school had become all black. Until the early 1980s, Sousa retained a good academic reputation, but today the 406-student school ranks among the worst middle schools in one of the worst school districts in the country. Last year, for example, 48 percent of Sousa's students scored below grade level in reading. Math scores were even worse.
This, then, is the tragedy of American education. Fifty years after Brown, the nation still has not figured out how to educate all of its children. African-Americans, on average, start kindergarten behind whites academically, and the gap grows during elementary school. The ripple effect carries into high school--and beyond. Although blacks and whites enter college at similar rates, 36 percent of whites graduate with a four-year degree, compared with only 18 percent of blacks. Black jobless rates are higher than whites', and black income is lower. The achievement gap between whites and blacks remains an affront to the national creed that Novak was teaching to his class: that all are created equal. What caused this racial chasm, and why does it linger? More important, what can schools do to close the gap?