US Schools Watch Busing-by-Income Program in Wisconsin Series: School Desegragation RACE AND CLASS COLLIDE. Last in a Three- Part Series on the Progress of School Desegregation in the United States Nearly 40 Years after the Supreme Court Decision That Began the Process. First of 2 Articles Appearing Today

By Laurel Shaper Walters, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, November 9, 1993 | Go to article overview

US Schools Watch Busing-by-Income Program in Wisconsin Series: School Desegragation RACE AND CLASS COLLIDE. Last in a Three- Part Series on the Progress of School Desegregation in the United States Nearly 40 Years after the Supreme Court Decision That Began the Process. First of 2 Articles Appearing Today


Laurel Shaper Walters, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


THE tranquillity of this picturesque town, wedged between the Mississippi River and a line of bluffs, masks the controversy caused by a plan that assigns students to public schools according to their family income.

More than three-quarters of the 7,800 students in the La Crosse School District are white. The largest minority representation is Asian. Fifteen years ago, Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia began settling in the area and now make up about 15 percent of the public-school enrollment.

Despite this lack of racial diversity, the La Crosse School District has undertaken an integration experiment that is being watched nationwide.

Last fall, La Crosse opened two new elementary schools to alleviate overcrowding. Because the schools were built on the north and south edges of town, busing was required to fill them.

The principals of Hamilton and Jefferson Elementary Schools on the less-affluent north side of town saw this as an opportunity to distribute poor students more evenly throughout the city's 11 elementary schools.

The question was: "If you're going to bus some children, which children should you bus?" says Jay Thurston, the principal at Hamilton. "Harvey {Witzenburg, the principal at Jefferson} and I got together at Mr. D's Donuts and wrote a letter to the board and the superintendent." All the elementary-school principals signed the letter.

Principals Thurston and Witzenburg proposed redrawing school boundaries to include a mix of incomes in all 11 schools.

According to the standards of the federal free-lunch program, about 30 percent of the students in La Crosse are considered poor. Children in a family of four with an annual income of less than $18,655 qualify for a free lunch at school, according to the Department of Agriculture, which administers the program.

Nearly 70 percent of the students enrolled at Hamilton and Jefferson qualified for free lunch. Yet at State Road School, in a wealthy section of town bordering the tree-covered bluffs, only 4 percent of students qualified for free lunches.

"There is a fairly strong feeling on the part of our teaching staff that when you get these high concentrations of children from poor families, there's a price to pay," says Richard Swantz, superintendent of schools in La Crosse.

Andrea Mekkelson, a second-grade teacher at Hamilton, knows the educational cost of having mostly poor students in a classroom. During the past 15 years of teaching at the school, she has watched the percentage of needy students increase year after year. "So many kids come to school in the morning without proper rest or nutrition," she says. "They're dirty. You begin to think, `Maybe I should go back and get my degree in social work so I can help these kids.' "

There are few role models in schools with high concentrations of poverty, Ms. Mekkelson says. "These children just don't have experiences to draw on. That has great implications for the atmosphere and what you can do in a classroom."

It was listening to teachers like Mekkelson and watching the impact of poverty on their schools that convinced Thurston and Witzenburg to propose busing students by income.

"It's not a matter of race but economics that divides our country," Witzenburg says.

In 1991, the local school board agreed and adopted the socioeconomic busing plan by an 8-to-1 vote. They set a goal of assigning 15 to 45 percent low-income students in each elementary school.

"That's when all the fireworks started," says Superintendent Swantz. "We had some interesting times there for a while."

The uproar from parents and other citizens brought a recall election and ultimately led to three school-board elections in two years. Swantz nearly lost his job as well.

Two of three incumbents up for reelection in April 1992 were voted out of office; the third declined to run again. …

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US Schools Watch Busing-by-Income Program in Wisconsin Series: School Desegragation RACE AND CLASS COLLIDE. Last in a Three- Part Series on the Progress of School Desegregation in the United States Nearly 40 Years after the Supreme Court Decision That Began the Process. First of 2 Articles Appearing Today
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