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Published August 17 2011

Segregation remains in subtle ways

Story originally appeared Aug. 27, 2007


Fifty years after a Fargo judge ordered school integration in Little Rock, Ark., officials there say work is still needed to improve race relations.

Little Rock School Board President Katherine Mitchell said Central High School is desegregated on the surface, but “many of the classes in the school are still segregated.”

“If you go to Central High and you visit some of the classes, especially the AP (Advanced Placement) classes … you would not find too many African-American students,” she said.

Few black students receive staff recommendations to enroll, she explained.

And although there isn’t much fighting or disrespect among students, there are still instances of blacks and whites not sitting together, she said.

The separation of the races is particularly evident during the elementary years, however, because black students go to public school and many white students are sent to private school, Mitchell said.

Using Arkansas Department of Education statistics, a look at 15 of the public elementary schools in Little Rock shows an enrollment of 6,355 students in 2006-07. Of these, 4,038, or 64 percent, were black and 1,567, or 25 percent, were white.

Magnet elementary schools – those that offer specialized curriculum – were not included in the tally.

Meanwhile, 55.1 percent of the city’s population is white and 40.4 percent is black, according to the Little Rock Workforce Investment Board. The city’s population is estimated to be 184,000.

Mitchell thinks there are a few reasons why white student numbers are low in elementary schools.

“Some of them (parents) do fear for their children in predominantly black schools. That’s a given,” she said.

Other parents see No Child Left Behind test results that deem a school as not making adequately yearly progress and decide to enroll their students in private schools, Mitchell said.

In some instances, class plays more of a role than race in the separation, she said. Blacks and whites tend to live in their own corners of the city, and many black people live on minimum wage, she said.

Students are more likely to merge in high school, when white students transfer to public school to better qualify for college admissions, she said.

According to Arkansas Department of Education enrollment numbers, 53 percent of Central High students were black and 42 percent were white in 2006-07. The school’s enrollment was listed as 2,400.

Despite separation created by private and public schools, integration of black students into public schools “has fully worked,” said C. Fred Williams, a history professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Until this past year, the federal government was monitoring the situation, he said.

“In February of this year, the court acknowledged that the district had made a good-faith effort at integration and withdrew its supervision,” he said.

Central High Principal Nancy Rousseau said all freshmen are required to read “Warriors Don’t Cry” by Melba Pattillo Beals, one of the Little Rock Nine involved in the 1957 integration case.

“Every child in this school is well versed in the history of ’57,” Rousseau said.

She thinks her school is “doing great” 50 years after integration.

“We celebrate our differences and respect each other,” she said.

“Is it perfect? No. That’s part of what this anniversary is all about: looking back at ’57, looking where we are now and moving forward to even more enlightened times.”