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The price, promise of integration

After a 35-year run, artificial integration of Pinellas schools may be coming to an end. If that happens, more than a dozen St. Petersburg schools in predominantly African-American neighborhoods are likely to begin to resegregate.

With that in mind, education reporter Donna Winchester asked two men with deep ties in the community for their thoughts.

The Rev. Louis Murphy, 48, has been pastor at Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church for eight years. He is a member of the district's choice task force and once considered opening a black private school. His two children graduated from Pinellas County schools.

Lew Williams, 63, spent 34 years in the Pinellas school system and retired as an administrator in 2005. He recently lost his bid for a School Board seat but continues to stay involved in education. His daughter graduated from Lakewood High School, where his son is a senior.In what ways have 35 years of desegregation worked?

Williams: Desegregation has worked for both black and white students. I would say that during the time of segregation, there was a lot of suspicion. With desegregation, a lot of the apprehension and fears and stereotypes were exposed. I think that what we did during that period was prepare our youngsters for the real world.

Murphy: Certainly, we have been enriched from being exposed to each other's culture. I just celebrated my 30th reunion. Going back to my high school, I had the opportunity to meet black friends and white friends. If it weren't for integration, I would not have known the white friends that I made.

In what ways has it failed? At whose expense?

Williams: There are those who would argue that during that 35-year period we haven't come far enough in the sense that we are still making decisions to a large extent based on race. I think that there is some truth to that, but I believe there has been a lot of progress made.

Murphy: The negative behind it, especially with our kids today, is the achievement gap. For whatever reason, our school system has not done a good job educating African-American children. Instead of focusing on diversity so much for the children, I think we need to be looking at diversity on the School Board and among the policymakers. There must be an emphasis on academic achievement at all costs. I think another negative has been children being bused. African-American children have been bused all over the county to meet quotas. It's already hard enough for parents to get to work. They don't have adequate transportation to get to a PTA meeting that's miles away.

Does a racially balanced school still matter?

Williams: Racially balanced schools still matter. We don't have a lot of opportunities to mix otherwise. When we look at our housing patterns and the movement into desegregated housing patterns, you don't see very much progress from the time I moved here in 1970. I think there is definitely something to be said for parents, black and white, who want their kids to go to schools closest to home. We must make a concerted effort to cause parents and students to want to go to schools where their race is a minority. It can be done. Incentives can be given to students to make those kinds of choices.

Murphy: There is a need to have diversity in schools. But I don't think it should be at the expense of busing kids out as it has been done in the past. We've been so focused on diversity that we've left out achievement. I would hope that we would be able to achieve racial diversity because of choice and because of the quality of the schools.

The achievement gap between African-American students and others remains wide. How might resegregation affect that gap?

Williams: I think it's going to make a significant difference if we go back to racially identifiable schools. Having all the brand-new schools south of Central is great. But just having new schools alone is not enough. To make a difference, we have to have quality, certified teachers who want to work with the kids. You have to have good, strong administrative leadership. You have to have good materials.

Murphy: The gap will widen if administrators do not recognize that some schools need more resources than others. We need to be open enough and honest enough to see that. If you do not have policy and people in decisionmaking positions who will have academic achievement at the very forefront of their agenda, you could very well have a situation where you have even more kids not graduating from high school or not achieving academically.

Desegregated schools are often the first meaningful contact young people have with others of different races. What would be the effect of the loss of this contact?

Williams: If we lose that contact, we'll be back to living in a world of our own where we're surrounded by people just like us. We'll be less likely to reach out to people who are different from us.

If you believe that desegregated schools are important, how could you make it happen voluntarily in a county that still has segregated housing patterns?

Williams: One of the biggest ways is to make it inviting for parents and students to choose schools where they're in the minority or in a lesser ratio than the majority. I don't see where we have made concerted efforts to strengthen our magnet programs, to market them in the same way we did when we first built them. If we're going to continue voluntary desegregation, people have to feel they're getting something special.

Murphy: I think that if you have a quality curriculum program at the schools, like the magnet programs, I think that brings white people to schools in black neighborhoods. But if the administration stops putting the resources into those schools and stops going above and beyond to make sure the level is continually raised, people are going to move their kids elsewhere.

Can schools be separate but equal?

Williams: No. I just think it's the same as it was in 1954, that separate is inherently unequal. I don't see us discriminating with resources as may have once been the practice. But resources aren't the only factor. If there is a disparity in the quality of teachers in the school, that's a factor that would keep schools from being equal. I think that when we group an abundance of struggling students together without any role models for them to follow, it makes a difference.

Murphy: I think that all things are possible. The question is, do we have the people, the administration, willing to step up and make it happen? That remains to be seen. Fair is not always equitable because there has been so much neglect in the past. Sometimes in order to be fair, you have to give more to some than to others.

Younger parents have no direct experience with segregated public schools. Are there any lessons they should learn?

Williams: Early on, parents were concerned that if we did not have desegregated schools, we could miss out on something. But as the younger parents began to mature, they would come to my office and want to change their child's placement to get them closer to home. I had parents say to me, "My child won't learn any more by sitting next to a child of a different race." I would say to them, "No, your student won't learn more sitting next to someone of a different race. But there's more to the total development of a child than what's coming from a book."

Say schools become resegregated. A dozen years from now, how would you measure if the public schools are succeeding or failing?

Williams: Look at test scores. Also look at the buildings. Over the years I've had an opportunity to visit many urban school districts that have become resegregated. White flight has taken place. Inner city schools are basically black, and the tax dollars are not there to support the schools sufficiently. We're headed for that if we're not careful.

Murphy: The same things I'm looking at today: academics. How many kids who are graduating from high school can read and write? How many of them are going on to college? How many are ending up on the corner selling drugs? The real issue is not so much concentrating on diversity. Are we trying to get black kids and white kids to sit next to each other in the same classroom, or are we looking to educate children?

It might not be a bad idea for us to have some segregated schools and have a curriculum that teaches our true culture. Our children don't know who they are. How many of them really, really have a good understanding that their forefathers were whipped, tied up to trees, for reading a book? The other question is, are white teachers able to teach black children? I'm not trying to unjustly accuse white teachers, but if a white teacher doesn't know, they don't know.