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Study Finds Resegregated Neighborhood Schools in Oklahoma City Fail to Meet District Promises of Achievement and Equity

The return to resegregated neighborhood elementary schools in Oklahoma City, after 13 years of busing for integration, has not led to the gains in achievement, parent involvement, and equity the school district had claimed, according to a report released today by researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The study, "Resegregation and Equity in Oklahoma City," authored by Jennifer Jellison of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, examined the assumptions underlying the Supreme Court's 1991 Oklahoma City-based Dowell decision, a landmark decision that for the first time sanctioned a return to segregated schooling by stating that districts may be released from a desegregation order if they had met certain conditions.

The Supreme Court based its decision on a lower court's findings that the re-segregated neighborhood elementary schools in Oklahoma City had increased achievement, parent and community involvement, while maintaining equity and integration in the city's schools. These "findings" by the lower court about the purported benefits of neighborhood schools were based entirely on the claims of Oklahoma City School District officials, claims which are currently echoed across the country by school districts seeking to be released from their desegregation orders. The Harvard Project on School Desegregation report examines both these findings and the assumptions upon which they rest using court documents, district and state-level data, and interviews.

"There is little evidence to support the claims about the benefits of neighborhood schools that the district set forth in court," Jellison wrote. "The policies that appeared to ‘work' reveal inequalities when the numbers are disaggregated between the majority-black elementary schools and the rest of the district's elementary schools. And the safeguards installed initially in the [neighborhood schools plan] to ensure equity was maintained for the majority-black schools and that the district remained desegregated have all but disappeared."

The study made the following findings:

  • Segregation has not decreased in Oklahoma City's schools, as the lower court judge predicted would occur due to projected increase in neighborhood integration. The proportion of black students in the majority-black elementary schools has remained consistently high, at 96.7 percent black (as compared with 98.8 percent black in 1985, the first year the district returned to segregated neighborhood elementary schools). Today, 37 percent of Oklahoma city's black students are enrolled in 95 percent or more black schools.
  • The proportion of students in poverty in the majority-black elementary schools has increased over time, and remains at higher levels (currently at 91 percent poor) than the district's other elementary schools (76.6 percent poor.)
  • Although parent involvement did increase in Oklahoma City's elementary schools when neighborhood schools were restored, an even greater increase in parent involvement occurred in the city's middle and high schools, which are still undergoing busing for integration. This evidence strongly suggests that the return to neighborhood schools was not the underlying cause behind the increase in parent involvement at the time neighborhood elementary schools were re-established; rather, the increased effort of school officials at getting parents involved appear to be the source of the increase, an effort that benefited the schools undergoing busing for integration even more than the resegregated neighborhood schools. Parent involvement has recently dropped to below pre-neighborhood school levels.
  • The district had claimed in court that when the elementary grades were returned to resegregated neighborhood schools, safeguards would be installed to ensure that equity was monitored, and that programs would be implemented to foster student integration. These claims, the study found, have gone largely unrealized.
  • The Equity Committee, established as the monitoring authority over equity-related issues in the resegregated neighborhood schools, had disbanded by the time both the lower court and the Supreme Court were making their decision to allow the schools to return to segregation. But because the lower court refused to allow any new evidence about the actual effects of the neighborhood schools plan to be introduced in to evidence, both the lower court and the Supreme Court were unaware of the Committee's dissolution. Although the Committee has been re-established since that time, its power is very limited, and its membership is extremely low, so low in fact that the committee has had difficulty meeting its small self-imposed quorum of 5 out of 21 members to hold a meeting. As of July, 1996, school board members had only appointed 10 out of the 21 members required to be appointed to the committee.
  • The Student Interaction Plan, which was designed to encourage visits once a month between students in majority black schools and majority white schools, was only implemented for a few years (with minimal participation), and was cut entirely from the budget in 1994.
  • The number of students exercising the Majority-to-Minority transfer option, which allowed students to transfer from a school in which they were a majority to a school in which they were a minority, was extremely small to begin with (only 1.6 percent of the district'selementary school students,) and since its implementation, participation has dropped off dramatically, to less than one percent of the district's elementary school students. Parents, furthermore, must rely largely on word of mouth to learn of this option, as they are only notified of this option through a once-yearly advertisement in the local newspaper and in the student handbook, distributed once a year.
  • Magnet schools, although not a component of the original court case, have become a new attempt in Oklahoma City to promote integration through specialty programs, drawing students from all regions of the district. Although district officials claim that these schools are integrated, and reflect the racial makeup of the district, this study found that this claim did not bear out: two of the magnet schools have 28 to 30 percent larger white enrollments than the district elementary white average, while the other has four times the district number of Hispanics. Integration is clearly not occurring in these magnet schools.
  • In court, Oklahoma City school officials argued that returning to neighborhood schools would help boost achievement, and they presented test scores that revealed impressive gains. However, evidence presented in the report sheds doubt these large test score increases: according to an Education Writers Association study, when neighborhood schools were restored, the superintendent in Oklahoma City reduced the number of low-achievers taking the standardized tests by increasing the number of students retained (or "flunked") and implementing transition grades (in which students repeat all or part of the previous grade). Because these low-scoring students are either exempted from taking the standardized test, or re-take the same grade-level test two years in a row, the districts test scores appear much higher overall than they actually are. The test score gains Oklahoma City school officials presented to the court, therefore, are suspect.

"The Oklahoma City case study suggests," wrote Jellison, "that integration plans, with a great deal of effort, can work more effectively and that courts, rather than releasing districts from desegregation plans after only several years of operation, should ensure that everything possible is being done to promote an integration plan's success."

For More Information

Contact Ariadne Valsamis at 617-496-1895

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