Desegregation funding dries up in Little Rock, but problems remain

Recent settlement to dismantle the desegregation efforts that had historic start in 1957

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Much has changed at Little Rock Central High School since the 1957 desegregation crisis that brought federal troops to the streets here to help nine African-American students integrate the institution.

The once all-white high school is now majority-minority, like much of the Little Rock school system, a reflection of the demographic shift in the city. And a majority of Central’s students in advanced-placement courses are minorities.

As Nancy Rousseau, the principal, walked through the hallways on a recent Thursday afternoon, students greeted her affectionately with "Hey, Mrs. Rousseau!'' coming from kid after kid. Some former students are now teachers here.

"It's all about creating a good culture,'' Rousseau said. "If you create an environment and culture where students feel empowered to learn about and respect each other, they will.''

The historic front of Little Rock Central High School.
Visions of Sohm/Getty Images

Rousseau might not know every student by name — although she does seem to know a vast majority —  but she knows them by face. All 2,516 of them.

And she knows that change is coming yet again to Little Rock’s schools.

A federal judge ruled last month that it was time to end annual state payments of nearly $70 million to programs designed to desegregate the city's school districts. School officials hailed the decision as a sign of progress. Federal District Judge Price Marshall wrote that it was time for "a new day.’'

Over the next three years cross-town busing programs will gradually wind down, magnet schools created specifically to alleviate segregation problems will stop accepting new applications and the school districts will return to neighborhood-based zones, which the superintendents acknowledge could lead to an increase in school segregation based on the racial makeup of Little Rock's different neighborhoods.

So in what could be called the cradle of desegregation, education administrators and parents are left with the same question that bedevil many schools across the country: What happens when the notion of returning to "local'' schools solidifies the very segregation people vowed to fight?

Discriminating by design?

There are three school districts in Pulaski County, the area that defines Little Rock, and as with every school district in the country, boundary lines and school attendance zones are a contentious issue.

The settlement approved by Marshall, for instance, brings to an end a lawsuit filed in 1982 by the Little Rock School District and a group of advocates for minority students known as the Joshua Intervenors, who sued the North Little Rock School District, the Pulaski County Special School District and the state of Arkansas to remedy the severe white flight and institutional segregation practices that heightened the lack of integration.

“It’s a question of whether or not the segregation that has been re-established has been intentional, and I think it is,” said John Walker, the attorney representing the Joshua Intervenors.

Walker is one of several critics in the African-American community who take issue with the school zones in each of the districts, among other things.

“I think it’s intentional when you gerrymander attendance zones in order for Central High School to have as many white kids as they have. You have two schools at Central, a school for black kids and a school for white kids,” Walker said.

“They find a way to discriminate by design.”

Kaadijah Aquil, a bus driver for the Little Rock School District and a Central High parent, agreed with Walker.

“Central’s school zone is extremely far away from the school, it’s way out west. The kids that live right by Central High School get shipped to Hall or McClellan High School,” she said.

Aquil, who has been driving buses for 10 years in the city, said she had to move so her child could attend Central, even though they previously lived fairly close to the school.

“If you let the school district tell it, they say the first choice goes to people who live within the school zone, then it goes to those who have family members within the school zone, and then whatever is left is given out,” Aquil said.

But she doesn't believe the district. Instead, kids from the farthest, and wealthiest, parts of the zone get first priority, she said.

It’s that kind of inequity that bothers Dale Charles, president of the Arkansas chapter of the NAACP.

“When you start looking at equity in the Little Rock School District, there was no reason” the 1982 settlement should have ended, he said. “The achievement gap of our children has not come close to compliance.”

This isn’t the first time Rousseau has heard such criticism, and she publicly addressed it on the 50th anniversary of the school’s desegregation.

“I get sad when people make judgments based on perception vs. reality,” she told Al Jazeera. “So, when an entity does not have the data but makes a judgment, it is disappointing.”

A district divided

It can be surprisingly cold in Little Rock, something the students at Jacksonville High School know quite a bit about.

While the school districts still have four years left of state desegregation money, a key part of the settlement requires that all the $70 million in the final year be spent on facility upgrades.

Jacksonville High could certainly use an upgrade.

The old auditorium at Jacksonville High School, where some of the chairs are held together with ropes.
Justin Clemons for Al Jazeera America

The school sits in the working-class section of the Pulaski County Special School District (PCSSD), and it seems almost forgotten when compared with the other schools.

If the school district gets its way, the Jacksonville area would separate and become its own district. Residents of Jacksonville also want to split, because there are millions of dollars in state funds coming their way if they do.

But it would carve up an already divided county further — four school districts in a county of just under 400,000.

Jacksonville High isn’t shy about showing its age. The campus was built in 1968, and outside of some minor aesthetic changes, the school has remained basically the same.

The three-story campus is a series of connecting open-air corridors, allowing the frigid draft to whip through hallways and pierce coats as students walk from one wing to another, trying to switch classes without being in the cold for longer than necessary.

There are missing ceiling tiles in the gym, the locker rooms are far too small, and one of the old dressing rooms has been converted to office space.

The school’s auditorium hasn’t seen any sort of face-lift since the day it was built. Some of the old wooden chairs are held together with rope and locks; others are beyond repair and need to be replaced.

A comparison of the old wooden lockers at Jacksonville High School and the new ones at Maumelle High School, both in Little Rock, Ark.
Justin Clemons for Al Jazeera America (2)

The inadequate number of lockers the school has are made from wood and are original to the building. Because the codes to the locks were lost, students carry all their books with them. A single textbook can weigh several pounds on its own.

The school’s newest building is more than 20 years old and is completely detached from the main building. The bathrooms don’t have any heat or hot water in this part of the school.

At nearby Jacksonville Middle School, built in the 1950s, things aren’t much better.

Verna Sharble, the school’s media specialist, points to major ground work being done between two of the building’s wings: emergency plumbing work for the bathrooms.

The music room is sometimes home to a lively family of raccoons, so the kids can’t always use it. It’s an ongoing, annual problem.

There’s a stark difference between these schools and Maumelle High School, the district’s newest campus.

Maumelle’s facilities rival those of a college campus. It’s completely enclosed from the elements, and there isn’t a single tile out of place.

The cavernous hallways are completely empty and virtually silent during classes. They’re lined with state-of-the-art classrooms, two basketball gyms (one for games and one to practice in) and a 2,500-seat auditorium.

“The Jacksonville area has been ignored, or purposely treated unfairly, in some of their needs,” said Pulaski County’s new superintendent, Jerry Guess. “They have very bad facilities. 

“Some of the district has excellent facilities. The Jacksonville area is in terrible need of facilities improvement.”

These are the sorts of problems all the districts are actively trying to confront in the wake of the settlement, sooner rather than later.

Planning for change

Outside of the obvious needs at Jacksonville High, the Pulaski district is planning several major construction projects. There’s even a plan in place to finally fix Jacksonville High if the split isn’t approved.

It’s not the only one building.

The North Little Rock School District is essentially knocking down or renovating each of its buildings to get things up to par, and the Little Rock district is planning to ask residents for a tax increase, referred to locally as a “millage increase,” to fund a large-scale building program.

The three (or soon to be four) school districts are rolling out a dizzying array of programs to bolster their offerings: new STEM programs (for science, technology, engineering and math), retooling their magnet schools to serve local populations, reviewing zoning areas where necessary and more.

In many ways this divided region is putting up a united front, hoping to finally put a very painful chapter of history behind it. At the same time, people know that segregation and racism still have roots in the area, something that will continue to be a problem, not just here but across the country.

Back at Central High, Kaadijah Aquil is sitting in her school bus, waiting to take students home.

“As a bus driver, I’m glad that they are doing away with the desegregation funding because now we won’t have kids who live way across town that we are trying to get home late in the day,” she said.

“Black or white, I want the best for all the kids.”

But to her, the real remedy isn’t one that requires extra funding, complex zoning maps or lots of politics. It’s a simple fix.

“If they really wanted to make it fair, they wouldn’t have three school districts. They would just have one.”

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