Back in 1965, plaintiffs sued the Bolivar County school system, including what is now the Cleveland School District, to end white-only and black-only schools. Unlike other Mississippi Delta school districts at that time, the leadership in Cleveland looked for ways to keep both its white and black community-based schools open for business.
How they did it was all legal, at least on paper. They knew they couldn’t stop integration, so they crafted ways to integrate the schools more slowly. They worked even harder to keep the broader community engaged with the public school system.
To an extent they have been successful. There are two public high schools in Cleveland: Cleveland High School which is now nearly 50 % black and East Side High School which, like most public schools in the Delta, remains predominately black. Their two respective junior high schools, Margaret Green and D.M. Smith, follow the same racial breakdown. The schools are separated by a railroad track where the trains no longer run.
Other successes include: two historically black elementary schools — Hayes Cooper and Bell — which are now highly successful magnet schools with enrollments that mirror the district’s overall make-up. East Side High School has an International Baccalaureate Program, which CHS students also can access through the district’s busing system. Every day, dozens of CHS kids are bused to East Side High School to take classes where students from ESHS and CHS learn side by side.
Now a few well-intentioned groups continue to push the courts to consolidate the schools in Cleveland, in spite of the fact that Margaret Green Junior High School and Cleveland High are the most integrated public schools in the entire state.
While not perfect, both Cleveland High and East Side High are exactly what one would think of when you imagine a neighborhood school. There is a strong sense of community. The neighboring families are accountable to the schools and the schools are accountable to those families.
Neither Cleveland High nor East Side High supporters wish to see consolidation. They believe the push is coming from legislators and groups from other districts who resent Cleveland’s ability to keep the broader community involved in the public school system.
Very recently, U.S. District Judge Glen H. Davidson ordered the Cleveland schools to open the two high schools and two middle schools to all students and drop attendance zones defined by the tracks that split the town. In his ruling, Davidson was very complimentary of the how the school district has been managed and operating over the years. Of course, Judge Davidson is no longer on the case, so the consolidation camp wants to return to court.
If they win, it will prove disastrous for the only district that seems to have gotten it right. The historical evidence from throughout the state shows that once public schools are consolidated families leave. That means a loss of money and opportunity for those left behind.
Consolidating Cleveland’s secondary schools would prove expensive. A new school would have to be built to the tune of $35 million or more. Until that happens, there would be plenty of upheaval as the entire East Side community would be turned into one big junior high school and Cleveland High and Margaret Green would become the new high school. A powerhouse football team might emerge, but you would lose the Cleveland High/East Side rivalry, a very healthy rivalry that helps bring the town together.
And let’s face it, consolidation ruined high school basketball in northeast Mississippi and took away the opportunities for more kids to play school sports and take part in other activities.
Even before integration, there was a big push for public school consolidation. During the Cold War years, the Soviets were doing it and the nation feared falling behind in the “education race.” There was also an economy of scales argument which is still being used today. But when it comes to public school expenditures, recent studies have shown that per pupil costs begin to rise when districts begin to exceed certain numbers. Even adjusting for inflation, it cost nearly 10 times more to educate a public school student today than it did in the 1940’s. And that’s not all teachers’ salaries.
Overwhelming evidence also suggests students in small schools achieve higher levels of academic success than their peers at larger schools. This is especially true for disadvantaged students and in Mississippi many of our public school students suffer from a host of disadvantages.
Our public education problem is about more than racial equality now. It is about educational and economic opportunity for all of our citizens. The real strength of our nation can only be measured by our weakest link. If even one child falls through the cracks, ending up neglected, their very spirit destroyed by a poor public education system, it is our nationally shared failure.
It might have been better if we had attempted to integrate our public schools gradually starting with the first grade and moving up each year with a group of students and their families growing to know and care for one another. A group of leaders from the Delta pleaded for such an arrangement with the Justice Department before 1970. They were denied and as a result many whites fled the pubic school system and the Delta entirely.
The Justice Department’s intentions for swift and immediate integration may have been good, but we all know how you pave the road to hell.
» David Dallas is a political writer. He worked for former U.S. Sen. John Stennis and authored Barking Dawgs and A Gentleman from Mississippi.
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