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Dwindling But Not Dead: School Desegregation In St. Louis

Bryson Mahari, a seventh-grader, lives in the city of St. Louis but attends school in the Clayton school district as a part of the region's voluntary desegregation program.
Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
Bryson Mahari, a seventh-grader, lives in the city of St. Louis but attends school in the Clayton school district as a part of the region's voluntary desegregation program.

Earlier this year, President Obama sat in front of a room full of reporters and presented the final budget of his presidency.

Tucked inside the sprawling 170 page policy document — on page 35, to be exact — was the announcement of a new education initiative.

“Stronger Together” is a relatively benign label for what is, in fact, a large federal proposal to address stubborn racial segregation in many of the nation’s schools.

Under the proposal, up to $120 million in grants would be issued to schools trying to foster socioeconomic diversity within their hallways.

Why is giving out incentives for more school integration a national priority in 2016?

Because despite the decades long fight for school desegregation, America is, for the most part, still sending its white and black children to separate schools.

Here in St. Louis, this angst over school segregation and integration never really went away. In fact, St. Louis is home to the largest and longest running formal desegregation program in the country.

So as the nation once again takes a fresh look at an old problem, we do the same. On this week’s show: the story of how St. Louis is still trying to integrate schools.


The big picture:

St. Louis, like many places, started its formal school desegregation program in the early 1980s. At its height in the early 1990s, it served more than 14,000 students — a figure which includes white kids who attended the city's regular and magnet schools, but mostly it was black students who were bused to suburban schools. These days, African American students from St. Louis are still getting bused to suburban schools for the sake of diversity. But the stream is not as strong.

Now, there are about 4,500 kids in the latest iteration of the program, now known as the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation (or VICC, for short).

Some history:

We should all, by now, know about the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case. But if you don’t, it’s in the podcast. We also enlist Dana Thompson Dorsey as our history and policy guide to explain the case and the changes that followed it. Dorsey is a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill who researches how education policies affect marginalized students. She tells us how desegregation programs, like the ones in St. Louis and elsewhere, became mandatory under court orders. And also how, beginning in the 1990s, those programs lost their teeth as a result of subsequent court decisions.

What’s changed:

A bunch. Including:

  • The aforementioned recent court decisions, which basically told school districts they couldn’t explicitly use race in student assignments anymore. (Hence the emphasis on “socioeconomic diversity" in Obama’s proposal)
  • School choice: Families have way more educational options than they did when the original school desegregation program was put into place.
  • It’s no longer mandatory for St. Louis area districts to participate. In 1999, officials negotiated a settlement that made the desegregation program voluntary. And since then, a handful of districts have opted out.  

What hasn't changed:

A bunch. Including:

  • The cultural hurdles that exist for students in the program now, particular black children going to majority white schools.
  • Segregation: We still segregate ourselves where we live, which has a lot to do with where people send their children to school.
  • Debate about the importance of diversity. A survey of parents by the Century Foundation found that diversity remains a distant priority for many parents who were asked to design their “ideal” school.
Darlene Donegan jokes with students in her government class at the Lieberman Learning Center.
Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
Darlene Donegan jokes with students in her government class at the Lieberman Learning Center, part of the University City School District.

Stories of people who went through the program in its early days

St. Louisans Darlene Donegan and Drew Brown have vivid memories of the 1980s deseg program, but for different reasons. Donegan, who grew up to become a teacher, remembers being bused to the majority white Lindbergh High School.

“I definitely felt like a guinea pig, an experiment,” she told us. It was a culture shock, Donegan said, that was made even more uncomfortable by a white-student walkout in 1987. Brown, on the other hand, stayed in city schools. He watched as friends left his south St. Louis neighborhood for whiter, richer suburban schools.

Portrait of Drew Brown
Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
Drew Brown attended Roosevelt High in south St. Louis in the 1980s. While other kids from the neighborhood went into the deseg program, his family kept him in neighborhood city schools.

“It created tension,” he said. “It would kind of kill the dynamic in the neighborhood because the kids in the transfer program got all the resources and kind of looked down at the other kids.”

Stories of people going through the program now

Anitra Mahari, who participated in the first iteration of the desegregation program in the 1980s and 90s, had some initial reservations about putting her son Bryson in the current VICC program. But she and her husband decided it would be worth it for his future. He now attends school in the Clayton School District, coveted throughout the region for its resources.

What about white people?

Paul and Angelee Brockmeyer grew up in small towns and went to almost all white schools. They both said they had good school experiences, but wanted something different for their kids. So they moved to the city and have enrolled their kids in a school almost 80 percent black. They also run a website that helps other urbanites navigate school choice in St. Louis. In the podcast, we also go through the results of this study from the Fordham Institute that found diversity is something that parents want in schools, but the degree of how much they want it varies. Survey respondents, no matter their race, put academics at the top of the list. That finding is hardly a surprise. But diversity was near the bottom, although black families listed it as being a slightly higher priority than white families.

Where do we go next?

David Glaser, who heads up the VICC program these days, said the program — while not as robust as before — fills a great need here in St. Louis. And the demand hasn’t faded among black families. Glaser said there are about seven times as many applications as spaces available each year. But the settlement provides that the VICC program will end. Currently, officials have said they will stop accepting new students after 2018, but Glaser said he’s hopeful suburban districts will agree to at least one more voluntary extension.

Sources for timeline: The Southern Poverty Law Center, Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation.

Kameel Stanley co-hosted and co-produced the We Live Here podcast—covering race, class, power, and poverty in the St. Louis Region—from 2015 to 2018.
Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.

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