This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 3, 2008 - On the morning of Aug. 25, 1983, about 300 St. Louis children boarded buses for trips lasting as long as 45 minutes to schools in the Ritenour District. In some cities, the sight of black children headed for predominantly white schools in the suburbs had triggered anti-busing rallies and, in some instances, violence. But the 300 kids who rode to Ritenour schools that morning enjoyed a quiet and peaceful trip, which set the tone for the start of perhaps the largest and certainly one of the longest running school desegregation initiatives in the nation.
Ritenour was the first of 16 suburban districts to open its doors to city school children that year as part of a court-sanctioned desegregation plan. At its height last spring, the program covered 15,034 black children. The desegregation program now serves about 7,000 city children, and fewer youngsters will be accepted as the program slowly winds down and ends in 2014.
On this 25th anniversary year of school desegregation in St. Louis, Bruce Ellerman, the executive director of the St. Louis Student Transfer Program, says the plan's voluntary nature explains why the St. Louis experiment generally went off without a hitch. City parents could choose from several county districts to which to send their children, and county parents had the option of enrolling theirs in city magnet schools set up mainly to attract white students from the suburbs.
Early Opponents of Deseg
Still, not everyone was excited about this program. Some black leaders called it a brain drain, claiming that county schools would skim the best and brightest city school children, further undermining the city school system.
Others, such as former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., opposed the busing. For a variety of reasons, his message resonated with lots of whites and young blacks in St. Louis, but his message made just as many civil rights era politicians, including his father, an alderman, shake their heads in disbelief because they had fought for years for integration. The gist of young Bosley's message was that the money spent on desegregation, which has now cost more than $1.5 billion, should have been spent to improve city schools and, by extension, shore up crumbling neighborhoods.
Yet others opposed the deseg program because they doubted that busing black children to predominantly white schools would make a difference in academic performance.
The Deseg Scholastic Advantage
Ellerman takes issue with most of these arguments. The desegregation program, he says, has not attracted a disproportionate percentage of smarter children from the city. In fact, he says, the program serves part of a disadvantaged population like that in city schools. He says the percentage of desegregation students eligible for the free or reduced priced lunch program, which tends to correlate with low achievement, is similar to the percentage of children eligible for the program in the city school system. Just over 80 percent of city school children qualify for the free lunch program.
Ellerman also points to a widening gap in MAP index scores for math and communication arts. For math, the scores of black students in the city and blacks in the desegregation program are in the 700 to 710 range at the third grade level. By the 10th grade, the average score of blacks in the desegregation program is just above the 670 range, compared to about 620 for blacks in city schools.
In communication arts, the average score for both groups is in the 705 to 715 range for third graders. By the 10th grade, the average score of desegregation program students is about 715, compared to 685 for 10th graders in city schools.
The higher the grade level, then, the wider the gap in test scores between these two groups, Ellerman says. He says this shows that the voluntary transfer program has led to significant improvement in black student achievement. In addition, Ellerman argues, the program has led to higher graduation and college enrollment rates among black kids and has resulted in more racial, cultural and economic diversity among students in participating school graders in the city.
The Legacy Of Minnie Liddell
Though this is the 25th anniversary of the deseg program, the successful court case that prompted it is much older. The case was brought by the late Minnie Liddell and several other North Side parents. They argued in their civil rights suit, filed in February 1972, that city, county and state officials were responsible for segregation in the city school system. Under a plan hammered out by U.S. District Judge William L. Hungate, black students were allowed to transfer to any of 122 suburban schools in the 16 districts until between 15 percent to 25 percent of the student population in each district was black.
The anniversary has been overshadowed by polarization in the city school system, with its two boards and its tendency to change superintendents about as frequently as some kids change brands of sneakers. For that reason, Ellerman is asking hard questions about the future of the city school system, the state's largest district, because its track record for providing all its children with a decent education hasn't improved in recent years. That may not change by the time the desegregation program ends in 2014.
"The quality of city schools is worse today than it was when this (desegregation) program started 25 years ago," Ellerman says, adding that city school officials are facing a nearly insurmountable challenge in the next five years.
"They are trying to do in five years what they couldn't do in 25 years" he says. "Can it be done? We hope so."