When the Wichita district ended its system of busing for integration, many worried about a return to single-race schools – a system of haves, have-nots and racial isolation.
“There’s very little diversity when those students stop getting on the buses,” Kaye Monk-Morgan, a member of the district’s committee on diversity, equity and accountability, told school board members in 2009.
“We’re going to have a problem. … We could very easily have single-race schools within two years.”
Seven years later, nearly a quarter of Wichita’s 85 schools are considered single race in that they have 60 percent or more of students of one race, according to district data.
Some schools in predominantly African-American neighborhoods – including Adams, L’Ouverture, Mueller and Spaght elementary schools – have lost the racial balance they once achieved through forced busing.
Similarly, some schools in predominantly white neighborhoods – Benton, Chisholm Trail, McCollom and Peterson – have seen their numbers of minority students drop by as much as 40 percent.
And schools in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods – single-race ones even during forced busing – continue to be among the most segregated, some with more than 95 percent Hispanic students.
District leaders say pockets of segregation, particularly at small neighborhood elementary schools, were bound to occur once the district stopped forced busing because of segregated housing patterns.
Wichita continues to value and encourage racial diversity, they say. But now it’s up to families to integrate themselves through the district’s network of magnet programs and other types of school choice.
“We’ve got more choice available than maybe any other school district in the country,” said superintendent John Allison. “Families are making decisions about ‘Do I want my child at the neighborhood school? Do I want them to be in a district magnet?’
“Our parents are making those selections.”
To encourage integration in the wake of forced busing, the Wichita district is spending millions each year trying to sway families toward certain schools.
A $12 million federal grant awarded in 2013 aims to reduce minority isolation by beefing up magnet programs and attracting more students to five schools in economically disadvantaged areas of Wichita: Brooks Middle School, Jardine Middle School, Buckner Elementary, L’Ouverture Elementary and Spaght Elementary.
The grant has financed projects ranging from new engineering labs and iPads to fresh coats of paint, better lighting and new entryways. The district also hired a full-time recruiter to promote the schools across the city.
“When we do have visitors in, it’s a bright, cheery, happy place,” said Jennifer Nicholson, a technology coach at L’Ouverture Elementary near 13th and I-135. “That has been really positive.”
Meanwhile, the district continues to offer an array of school options to families in the “assigned attendance area,” the predominantly black central-northeast neighborhoods that once were subject to forced busing. But fewer families are sending their children to faraway schools.
In 2007, the last year of busing for integration, 688 black students living in the assigned attendance areas attended schools outside their neighborhoods. This year, 138 do so.
A labyrinthine map still assigns middle- and high-school students in the assigned attendance areas to schools all over the city, because schools in or near the areas don’t have enough space to accommodate all the students. And the district provides bus service to any elementary students in the assigned attendance areas – not just black students – who want to attend their previously assigned school or a magnet school.
Allison, the superintendent, points to millions invested in new or expanded school buildings in northeast Wichita, thanks to the 2008 bond issue. Updated facilities, combined with standardized curriculum and professional development across the district, help ensure equity even if the racial balance at some schools is skewed, he said.
“Families are shopping around, and they’re coming to realize that a first-grade education is a first-grade education, whether it’s at College Hill or Buckner or wherever,” he said.
‘Is it a big deal?’
The Wichita district is more diverse today than it has ever been. Ground-shifting demographic changes over the past two decades have resulted in a district that is about one-third Hispanic, one-third white, 19 percent black and 15 percent children of other races or multiracial.
Even so, many schools continue to lack diversity, and experts say that’s bad for children regardless of their race.
Predominantly minority schools tend to serve predominantly low-income students. Students at those schools routinely have lower rates of achievement than students at middle-income schools, and the schools have a hard time engaging parents and attracting and retaining high-quality teachers.
All five Wichita schools with the highest percentage of students of color – Irving, Cloud, Spaght, Mueller and Gordon Parks Academy – have been identified as among the lowest-performing schools in the state.
“I think it’s very, very difficult to maintain equal education in schools where you don’t have integration,” said Chase Billingham, an assistant professor of sociology at Wichita State University who studies segregation trends across the country.
“I am skeptical of that idea, that you can have separate schools that are still equal.”
In the 1988-89 school year, among public school districts of the 100 largest American cities, Wichita’s was the least segregated, Billingham’s research shows. Since about 2005, though, the district has moved steadily toward the middle of the pack.
Wichita’s segregation levels remain far lower than those of many major American cities, such as Atlanta and Chicago. Still, integrated schools are a worthy goal and one community leaders should strive for, Billingham said.
“It continues to be the fundamental debate: Why do we value integrated schools, and is it a big deal?”
Perhaps not, judging from how often it’s talked about in Wichita and elsewhere. A new U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation report, “The Path Forward: Improving Opportunities for African-American Students,” doesn’t mention the terms “integration” or “desegregation,” though the report bemoans key academic indicators that show black students scoring far below their white peers.
“It’s more than just the number of black or white kids at a school,” said Sandra Rankin, education chairwoman for the Wichita chapter of the NAACP.
The end of busing for integration in Wichita opened options for black families, Rankin said. Now the challenge is making sure all schools, regardless of their geography or racial makeup, set high standards for students, she said.
She and other activists say the district should focus on diversifying its pool of teachers, targeting more resources toward low-income schools, beefing up early childhood programs and improving the graduation rate among black students.
“We just need to emphasize the importance of education in our community – the whole community,” Rankin said. “The big challenge right now is poverty and everything that brings with it.”
One school, two stories
When Tennele Hankins was shopping for schools for her eldest child, she knew what she wanted – and it wasn’t the kind of experience she and her husband had had growing up in western Kansas.
“Everybody looked like us,” said Hankins, who is white and was raised on a farm near Colby. “Until I moved to Wichita (for college), I didn’t know anybody of another race.”
When she started teaching science at Curtis Middle School in southeast Wichita, “I was apprehensive, because I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know any different, and that really affected me,” she said.
“I didn’t want my girls to ever think that the color of skin had anything to do with who somebody was. I wanted them to get to know every race they could, every type of person they could, from the very beginning of their schooling.”
The Hankins’ neighborhood school, Chisholm Trail Elementary in Park City, is about 70 percent white. The magnet school they ended up choosing for their daughters, L’Ouverture Career Exploration and Technology Magnet, is 10 percent white.
Hankins’ older daughter, Grace, attended L’Ouverture and is an eighth-grader at Stucky Middle School now. Sara, a third-grader, attends L’Ouverture and is doing well, her mother says.
“I love that when it’s time to invite kids to birthday parties or whatever, it’s a wonderful mix – Hispanic, African-American, Arabic, it’s just everything,” Hankins said. “She has never spoken about feeling out of place.
“This is her world, and I love that, because it’s the real world.”
BreAnn Collins also chose L’Ouverture for her daughter, Ty, now a second-grader. As a child, Collins, who is black, was bused from her home near 16th and Grove to schools in west Wichita. Her husband, Kareem, also was bused out of his neighborhood.
“I felt like I had a good experience,” said Collins, who graduated from Northwest High in 1999. “It wasn’t the most convenient location for my mom and dad, but it worked, and they made it work.”
Even so, when it came time to choose a school for their daughter, they opted for L’Ouverture over their neighborhood school, Allen Elementary, in part because it had more black students. Ty, a second-grader, also appreciates the technology programs at L’Ouverture, where lessons incorporate laptops, iPads and other devices, Collins said.
“For me, I’m more focused on the education the school can provide,” she said. “My husband more wants diversity.
“We don’t live in a neighborhood that is predominantly black, so the fact that this school had a high percentage of black students was a plus for us. He wanted her to get an experience of what she’ll see after she leaves school.”
Still under OCR agreement
From 1971 until 2008, under a voluntary agreement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Wichita assigned thousands of black students to schools with predominantly white populations and hundreds of white students to schools with predominantly black populations.
The agreement applied only to black and white students. It did not include or even mention Hispanics, who now make up more than a third of the Wichita district.
In 2008, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to assign students to schools based on race, the Wichita school board ended its busing plan. The district has not yet been released from the 1971 agreement, though it has been amended several times, most recently in 2013.
According to the diversity and equity plan, “insofar as possible,” the percentage of black and white students at each Wichita school should be “reasonably consistent” with the composition of the district as a whole, plus or minus 20 percent for each race.
By that standard, no Wichita school should be more than 40 percent black or more than 55 percent white. Currently, 27 schools exceed those thresholds.
The plan calls for the district to “improve its magnet school program, in particular to reduce racial isolation.” But it’s unclear what consequences the district would face for not meeting its obligations.
“We continue to work with the district to ensure full compliance,” OCR spokesman Jim Freeman said in an e-mail.
Allison, the superintendent, said the district would like to be released from the consent agreement and plans to request that soon. According to the latest version of the agreement, “It is the District’s position that the District has fulfilled its obligations to desegregate its school system.”
‘Gains and losses’
At Peterson Elementary School in west Wichita, the end of busing for integration didn’t have much effect at first. Most students assigned to the school from northeast Wichita chose to continue attending Peterson.
Over the past few years, though, as those students advanced into middle school, the number of black students at Peterson has dropped to pre-busing levels. This year, about two dozen of the school’s 480 students are black.
“I think there are gains and losses on both sides,” said Tammy Alexander, principal at Peterson. “I do think there’s real value in a neighborhood school, because for some parents, the distance was a disadvantage. … Attending conferences, coming to a music program, any of those things are just harder when you live far away.
“But I also think our schools lost when they lost that part of the community,” she said. “As the numbers dropped and we didn’t have that diversity, we didn’t reflect greater society as much as we did before.”
Kim Burkhalter, the district’s director of diversity, equity and magnet programs, said strong magnets and other school options are “the way any urban district is going to get the best lift in diversifying schools” in the wake of busing for integration.
“We don’t want magnet programs that are in name only. We want programs that will become drawing cards that will draw families from all over the city,” Burkhalter said.
Several years ago, the district considered tweaking its magnet selection process – now a random lottery – so that family income or address could be factored in, further customizing magnet populations. Some districts elsewhere in the country, including Raleigh, N.C., have changed the way they fill magnet slots to encourage diversity.
Allison said he doesn’t foresee any changes to the magnet process. The district plans to continue marketing its school options at events such as the annual Choices Fair and encouraging tours of magnet schools.
He said he understands concerns about decreasing diversity at some schools, particularly elementary schools. Those shake out, though, as students advance into middle and high schools, which draw from wider areas and tend to more accurately reflect the diversity of the district as a whole.
Allison added that the racial makeup of any one particular school is not as important as the district’s overall commitment to equity.
“The world walks in our hallways,” Allison says. “That is an absolute benefit to our students, because that’s the world they’re going to live in, the world they’ll be a part of.”