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Activists differ on race ratio issue

It has been 22 years since a federal judge ordered Hillsborough County public schools to aim for a race ratio of 80 percent white, 20 percent black. Today at many schools, those ratios are decidedly out of whack.

What, if anything, should the district do about that?

This week two black activists proposed very different courses of action. Their proposals raise questions about the district's track record on desegregation and about the future of desegregation in Hillsborough public schools.

Retired teacher Rudolph Harris went before the Hillsborough County School Board this week to call for charter schools for black children. A charter school has a great deal of autonomy and a separate governing board. Harris, a columnist for the Florida Sentinel-Bulletin, a weekly newspaper that covers Tampa's black community, said black children already are in the majority at several elementary schools. (Please see chart.)

Harris asked why not allow the black community to have a hand at steering those schools?

"Charter schools (have) nothing to do with separate systems," Harris said. "We could do something where these schools already exist," he said of the predominantly black schools.

"The last 20 years have not worked. It's time to try something new."

Harris and his son, Marzuq Al-Hakim, a member of the local Nation of Islam mosque, have repeatedly urged the district to establish schools for black children run by the black community.

Harris and Al-Hakim argue that black children have not fared well under desegregation. They point out that the burden of busing falls more on black families, and that black children are over-represented in discipline statistics and special education programs, while under-represented in gifted programs.

So far, Al-Hakim and Harris have been frustrated in their attempts to get the district to establish charter schools. And on Tuesday night, Harris was frustrated again _ even though the district is creating a committee to explore the charter school concept.

Harris told board members that the black community has supported many of the district's efforts, such as the move toward middle schools and magnet schools, which are aimed at lessening the burden of desegregation.

"What have you given the black community in return?" Harris asked.

"Whatever happened to 80/20?'

The other proposal underscores once again that the black community is not of one mind on the issues of race and desegregation in the schools.

Helen LaCount, chair of the NAACP's education committee, has questioned why Van Buren Junior High _ where half the students are black _ has drifted so far from the recommended ratio of 20 percent black and 80 percent white. It has the highest percentage of black students of any secondary school in the district.

"Whatever happened to 80/20?," LaCount said. "I'm not taking issue with the elementary schools. But in the junior high schools it's a different matter."

LaCount said that she was calling for a re-evaluation of the district's commitment to desegregation and the recommended ratio of 20 percent black and 80 percent white.

And she made it clear that she and the NAACP are opposed to Harris and Al-Hakim's proposals to establish black schools.

"The idea of separatism or going back to the way things were, that's something the black community is not going to support," LaCount said. "We can't go backward. We need to be fighting for equity and equal opportunity."

Warren Dawson, the Tampa lawyer who has represented the Legal Defense Fund in the desegregation lawsuit, is the man perhaps most responsible for monitoring the district's desegregation efforts. Dawson said the situation at Van Buren and elsewhere is expected to be temporary.

Dawson said the district is in the middle of a slow, but ambitious restructuring that is expected to reduce forced busing while smoothing out some of therace ratios.

The district is shifting from junior high schools to a middle school configuration, where middle schools include grades six, seven and eight. The district also is moving toward a so-called "cluster plan," where specific elementary schools will feed into middle schools, which will then feed into a specified high school.

Dawson said Van Buren's ratios are expected to change when its cluster goes into effect _ possibly in 1996.

"It's a balancing act," Dawson said. "On the one hand it's not desirable for the schools to become racially identifiable. On the other hand we have to consider the disproportionate busing, which has been a necessary evil.

"In seeking a balance between the two, some of the numbers tend to rise. But in the event that the clusters come on, the ratios will change."

John Miliziano, administrative assistant to the superintendent, said that according to the report by the Middle School Task Force, when Van Buren's cluster goes into effect the school is projected to have about 27 percent black students.

If that happens, it would leave Van Buren with a race ratio very close to the ideal recommended by the courts.

"We have some schools that are areas in transition," Miliziano said. "The neighborhoods are changing, and so the school populations are changing. That's not something that we have done. But when it happens we try to take action to work on the ratios."

LaCount agreed that the ratios might be more acceptable after the clusters are implemented. But she said the process might not be fast enough.

"We're talking about three, four years down the road," LaCount said. "That cluster implementation is long-range. There are kids going there now. They'll be gone by the time it's implemented."

Race ratios

Over the years, the race ratios at many schools have drifted away from the ratios of 20 percent black and 80 percent white recommended by the federal court. Some of the elementary schools are predominantly black. None of the secondary schools are predominantly black, but one _ Van Buren Junior High _ has an equal percentage of black and white students. The chart below shows the ratio of black students to non-black students by percentages.+

SCHOOL 1977-78 1983-84 1988-89 1993-94

Elementary

Cleveland 58/42 63/37 61/39 59/41

Edison 51/49 57/43 65/35 74/26

Foster 35/65 36/64 37/63 57/43

Graham 51/49 49/51 64/36 63/37

Oak Park 44/56 45/55 59/41 66/34

Robles 34/66 69/31 80/20 90/10

Sulphur Springs 22/78 33/67 60/40 70/30

Witter 25/75 27/73 39/61 56/44

Junior high

Middleton 17/83 31/69 44/56 24/76

Van Buren 22/78 25/75 37/63 50/50

Sligh 23/77 27/73 39/61 43/57

High school

Hillsborough 24/76 33/67 36/64 35/65

King 26/74 30/70 26/74 39/61

+ For purposes of the desegregation order, school officials are asked to divide schools into two categories. Each school population includes students of other races and ethnic groups, such as Hispanic students. Under the race ratios, Hispanic and Asian students are included in the white student numbers. So, the ratios represent black and non-black students.

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