Jerrelene Williamson remembers May 17, 1954, as a new beginning.
In the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision that day, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to separate black students from white students in different public schools.
“When we learned about it, we were so elated,” said Williamson, a lifelong Spokane resident who is African-American. “We knew things would change in the South and that would lead up to other things — that segregated bathrooms and water fountains would change. It was the first time a black organization or person sued the establishment and it came out right.”
Fifty years later, things have changed. But even though children of all colors attend school together, there’s still much room for improvement when it comes to equal opportunities for them. Nationwide and locally, an achievement gap continues to show Asian and white students performing consistently better than their black, Hispanic and Native American peers.
Ken Meyer, deputy assistant to the U.S. secretary of education, visited Spokane’s Stevens Elementary School on Tuesday to praise school officials for the work they’ve done closing the achievement gap there. The school was the only Washington stop on a 20-state tour by U.S. Department of Education officials in honor of the Brown v. Board of Education anniversary.
“Brown v. Board of Education changed public education in our country in a positive way,” he told a group of Stevens students. “Now all of you have the opportunity to get an education, go to college and be successful in life.”
The May 17, 1954, edition of The Spokane Chronicle reported the historic decision and added a local element: “There is no racial segregation of pupils or teachers in any Spokane public or parochial school, officials pointed out. The United States supreme court’s decision on segregation therefore will have no effect in Spokane.”
“There were not as many black people here at that time,” Williamson explained.
Gradually, Spokane’s minority population grew. In 1968, a Spokesman-Review headline read “Desegregation Effort Held Lagging in Spokane Areas.” Though Spokane schools had open enrollment — meaning any student could attend the school of his or her choice — much of Spokane’s minority population ended up living in the same neighborhoods because of housing discrimination, the story reported. That resulted in de facto segregation in area schools.
In 1968, the paper reported that Spokane had a minority population of 5,300 people. Most lived in the southeast area and attended the now-defunct Edison School (near East Central Community Center), which had 44 percent minority enrollment. Grant School served the same area and had 25 percent minority enrollment. At that time, four of the district’s 42 elementary schools had no students of color.
The concern was that the East Central schools were of a lesser quality than others in Spokane Schools, with poor equipment and less experienced teachers.
Today’s concern is that students of color and those from low socioeconomic areas are lagging behind.
“We’ve created two education systems in this country — separate and unequal,” Meyer said. Nationally, black fourth-graders are 28 percentage points behind their white counterparts in reading, and Hispanic fourth-graders are 29 percentage points behind.
In Washington, white and Asian students generally score between 20 and 28 percentage points higher than black, Hispanic and Native American students.
Grant continues to lead the district (except for special schools like Medicine Wheel, where all the students are Native American) in ethnic group enrollment with 36 percent students of color. Stevens, at 1717 E. Sinto, is the next most diverse, with 25 percent students of color. Stevens also has 80 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. In comparison, Hutton Elementary School on the South Hill has 6 percent students of color and 16 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.
“By traditional standards, you would not think (Stevens) could be successful,” Meyer said.
In 1996, just 6 percent of Stevens’ students passed the math section of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, and 31 percent passed reading. But last year, 61 percent passed math and 71 percent passed reading. Statewide, 21 percent of fourth-graders passed math and 48 percent passed reading in 1996. Last year, 55 percent passed math and 67 percent passed reading.
“You feel something happening here, you feel electricity,” Meyer said as he toured Stevens. “There’s artwork on the walls, the kids are engaged — it’s obvious the teacher training is excellent. This is a fine example of how things are being done right.”
Washington state Hispanic affairs commissioner Yvonne Lopez-Morton, who is media relations manager for the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture, said she is impressed with how the district goes out of its way to have open, frank discussions about the achievement gap.
“Spokane is not as diverse as other communities and that gives us a little luxury of time to be prepared as the demographics change,” she added.
Meyer said there are similarities among the schools in the nation that are seeing a narrowing of the achievement gap.
“It boils down to strong leadership, a belief it can be done and implementing a plan,” he said.
Another essential element is awareness.
Gary Livingston, now chancellor of the Community Colleges of Spokane, was superintendent of the Topeka School District from 1988-1993. Even then, the Brown v. Board of Education decision was a frequent topic of discussion.
“The conversation about equity is on top of the table” in Topeka, where people of color make up about 42 percent of the student population, he said. In Spokane Schools, it’s about 14 percent.
Great diversity and a lack of diversity each bring their own challenges, said Livingston, noting the progress he’s seen in the time he’s been in Spokane. Spokane Schools, for instance, has had an equity department and mandatory diversity training for staff for about 10 years.
“A lot has happened here to make it more of a conversation than it used to be. It’s a great thing,” Livingston said. “It’s the right thing.”
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