40 YEARS AFTER RULING, CITY SCHOOLS ARE FAILING SOME STUDENTS OPT OUT; OTHERS HAVE NO CHOICE Series: BLACK, WHITE and BROWN 40 YEARS OF DESEGREGATION

Article excerpt

FORTY YEARS after Brown vs. the Board of Education, many schools in St. Louis and other big cities offer education that is separate and manifestly unequal.

At Beaumont High School, for example, 99 percent of the students are black. No one has a chance to take calculus. The advanced English class has been axed. And there's no drama club to fill the renovated auditorium.

It's no wonder that four decades avter Brown vs. the Board of Educationk, Derrick Brooks gets on the bus to the suburbs.

It's 5:20 a.m. and Derrick Brooks is in high gear ironing his shirt for school. The bus comes at 6 for the trip from the city to Kirkwood High School.

When Derrick was placed in an overcrowded first-grade classroom in the city, his mother, Verdell Brooks, enrolled him and his brothers in the voluntary city-county transfer plan as it entered its second year, in 1984.

The decision has been a success. Derrick has a 4.0 grade point average, is an officer of his junior class and treasurer of the National Honor Society. He's a role model for black students and shatters whites' stereotypes.

"Hey, reverend, what did you get?" a white student yells to Brooks after the history teacher passes back tests later in the day. The white student's 94 is two points better than Brooks' 92.

"I beat the reverend. I beat the reverend," he chants.

If Brooks attended his neighborhood school, Beaumont, he'd find no white students measuring themselves against him. Nor could he pencil in calculus on his senior class schedule, as he has at Kirkwood in preparation for a career in chemical engineering. Brooks illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of the St. Louis desegregation program, the nation's most expensive school desegregation plan per pupil.

Here's a report card on the desegregation plan, based on interviews with educators, classroom observations and written reports:

The unique city-to-suburbs transfer plan offers Derrick and 13,000 other students each year a bus ride to a good education in an integrated setting. The program has problems, but it shows modest educational gains and launches exceptional students to college.

The city's magnet schools also offer top-flight, integrated education. But many students can't get in, some magnets have deteriorated, and others still aren't up and running.

The program to improve the quality of education for those left in segregated city schools has fallen far short. Forty years after the U.S. Supreme Court said "separate but equal" schools were unconstitutional, some St. Louis city schools are separate and unequal.

"If I were the judge, I would require the St. Louis school board to come up with a plan that would work and right now," says James D. Dixon II, director of the court-appointed Education Monitoring and Advisory Committee. He adds, "There is a lack of vision, and the Board of Education lacks the vision."

The Missouri Constitution required separate schools for "children of African descent" until 1976, 22 years after Brown.

Six weeks after Brown, the Missouri attorney general issued an opinion telling school districts they could decide "whether (they) must integrate." The opinion was the first of a long line of unsupportive pronouncements from Missouri attorneys general on school desegregation - a line extending into the 1990s.

"We got no help whatsoever from the state," recalls Daniel L. Schlafly, a member of the St. Louis Board of Education when the court ruled on Brown in May 1954.

The St. Louis school board was ready with a plan to desegregate, and it voted unanimously the next month to put it into effect. But, Schlafly says, the enrollment at schools like Soldan and Northwest high schools "sadly and inexorably" became more and more black in the 1960s. Whites were moving to the county.

Meanwhile, Minnie Liddell was getting angry. …

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