Longform

The Next Test

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But Samierah is optimistic. "Everybody's gonna show up on Friday, because that's always what happens."


When Nancy Sutton held her first meeting with Manual's faculty, back in 1996, many teachers were unhappy about losing the more affluent student population of the busing years. Some faculty members were thinking about trying to convert Manual into a magnet school. Sutton would have none of it. Teachers remember her saying: "Anybody who doesn't want to work with poor black or Latino kids -- there's the door."

The following summer, many people used that door -- 25 of Manual's seventy teachers left. Twenty more left the year after, once they were convinced Sutton was serious. Santo Nicotera estimates that 75 percent of his fellow teachers have turned over in the past few years.

"I think there was a lot of fear," says Sutton. "They didn't know what the school was going to be."

But Sutton did. Before she took the Manual job, she'd been the principal of Northwest High School in Indianapolis -- an inner-city school that, in the early 1990s, was the worst-performing high school of that city's seven. Introducing such innovations as student portfolios and longer classes, Sutton helped turn the school into Indianapolis's best-performing public high school. "You bring a lot of those things," she says of coming to Manual. "The thing I brought most was sort of getting everybody on board."

Sutton says she fell into the principal posts after working as both a teacher and a school administrator. She knew her stint at Northwest was good practice for Manual, which was about to enter the post-busing world.

"In some ways, and on some days, I'd say yes, it's putting the community back together," Sutton says. "But some of the decisions might have been more proactive. I think the districting shed a real negative light on this community."

Andrea Guinta, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, also considers the end of busing a mixed bag. "I don't think it's a dead issue," she says. "I think what teachers are busy doing is addressing the needs. Especially in Denver, the majority of the schools are going to be in the unsatisfactory category. You can look at the economic status of those neighborhoods and pretty much see a correlation there. I think, perhaps, people have been so busy trying to address the details, they're not looking at it as much as a systemic problem. Teachers don't have the luxury of sitting back and thinking about the ills of society."

Scholars do. A CU symposium last fall brought together prominent law scholars, social scientists, educators and others to discuss desegregation, both in Denver and nationwide. "One theme is that there's a huge group, especially in academia, that really is adamant that the school desegregation movement should not be ended, and this is a very unfortunate thing we're seeing," says CU law professor Robert Nagel. "The other side says when you study it carefully, you don't see that the premise behind Brown v. Board of Education is true."

That landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision found segregated schools to be inherently unequal and unconstitutional, but a follow-up decision in 1955 set no specific timetable for school desegregation and allowed school districts, mainly in the South, to stall for years.

Some experts contend that desegregation efforts were difficult to implement nationwide because Northern states weren't committed to the process (they were only committed to seeing the South desegregated) and residential segregation in virtually every major American city created an almost insurmountable barrier. "It's really hard to have school integration if you don't have residential integration," University of Virginia professor Michael Klarman said during the symposium. "What we've had post-World War II is a suburbanization pattern where whites move to the suburbs, deserting the cities, and the city schools are left to blacks and other racial minorities." Massive busing was the only remedy, he added, but fragile public support meant it couldn't be maintained over time.

In 1974, the Supreme Court refused to allow the desegregation of whole metropolitan regions, a process that would have forced increasingly white suburbs to integrate their students with increasingly black and brown inner cities. Later decisions found that once a school district was deemed "unitary" -- that is, no longer unequally segregated -- districts could resegregate their schools.

U.S. District Judge Richard Matsch released Denver from mandatory busing in 1997. "We are cautiously optimistic that we'll look back and say this was the right way to go," says DPS spokesman Mark Stevens.

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T.R. Witcher