San Bernardino Desegregation : Magnet Schools the Key to Success of Voluntary Plan

Times Urban Affairs Writer

At Kimbark Elementary School, on the edge of the San Bernardino National Forest, racially mixed groups of youngsters maintain a nature trail, study beaver ponds, build small dams to hold debris and learn to grow vegetables year-round in an “environmental education” program.

At Urbita Elementary School, in a heavily Latino neighborhood near Interstate 215, a professional actor instructs a group of Asian, Anglo, black and Latino third-graders in the art of make-up, in a special after-school class that is part of the school’s “extended day” program.

And at a third school, Marshall Elementary, kindergarten pupils greet a visitor with buenos dias. These are English-speaking pupils, including many Anglos, who have been bused to Marshall, which is located in a mixed Anglo-Latino neighborhood, to learn Spanish as a second language.


All of these are part of the San Bernardino Unified School District’s “magnet schools” program--a voluntary desegregation effort that has achieved remarkable success in its first decade.

San Bernardino has avoided many of the problems that have plagued the school desegregation efforts in Los Angeles.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, about 26,000 youngsters attend 86 magnet schools as part of the district’s all-voluntary desegregation program. Although the district’s magnet schools enjoy strong academic reputations, they have been only moderately successful as an integration tool. Seats for Anglo students at inner-city magnets go unfilled while magnets in predominantly Anglo areas are deluged with applications.

But in San Bernardino, the magnet schools seem to be accepted in both the predominantly Anglo and largely minority sections of the city. White flight--Anglo parents moving out of the city or sending their children to private schools--has not been a problem, although rapid increases in Asian and Latino enrollment are making it difficult to maintain racial balance in some schools. And pupil test scores have been rising in recent years.

The San Bernardino magnets appear to have provided a relatively successful solution to what was once a bitter controversy.

In 1972, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, on behalf of a group of black parents, sued the school district to force it to desegregate elementary schools. At that time, six elementary schools west of Interstate 215 had 90% or more minority group children, while 23 schools east of the freeway were 70% or more Anglo.

In 1978, after a lengthy trial presided over by Superior Court Judge Paul Egly, who later conducted the remedy phase of the Los Angeles school desegregation case, the voluntary magnet school approach was approved, although Egly insisted on a mandatory busing plan as a back-up in case the magnets did not work.

Although the order is technically still in effect, there have been no legal proceedings for several years. And, the plaintiffs appear to be satisfied with the remedy.

With the magnets as the “carrot” and the mandatory plan as the “stick,” San Bernardino school officials set about correcting racial imbalance in the district.

There now are 36 magnet programs in 21 elementary schools, as well as a few in what were once called junior high schools but now are known as intermediate schools.

(San Bernardino solved the segregation problem in the city’s three senior high schools by shifting attendance boundaries.)

About 14,000 of the district’s 24,000 elementary pupils (kindergarten to sixth grade) are enrolled in magnet schools. Of these, about 5,000 board buses daily for cross-town trips that generally do not exceed 20 minutes.

As the magnet school approach has grown more popular nationwide in recent years, one serious problem has been that minority youngsters are willing to attend magnets in Anglo neighborhoods but the reverse often is not true.

In San Bernardino, however, many Anglo parents are busing their children out of the neighborhood to take advantage of special programs. About 35% of the pupils bused to magnet schools are Anglos. School officials have encouraged this by placing many popular magnets--the “Vanguard” gifted programs and the “extended-day” offerings, which, in effect, provide free before- and after-school child care--in minority areas.

Neal Roberts, who was in charge of the desegregation program before he was named superintendent of schools in 1981, said the district was determined to use the court order to improve educational quality.

“There has been a commitment on the part of the (school) board and myself that the only way to get quality education is in an integrated, desegregated mode,” Roberts said. “We have gone for quality at every opportunity.”

Factors in Success

The quality of the magnet programs, the manageable size of the school district, the voluntary nature of the program and the commitment of the superintendent and the Board of Education to make it work all seem to have contributed to the success.

In addition, special money the state has provided since 1982 to districts facing court-ordered desegregation has helped. In 1987-88, these funds amounted to $309 million statewide, according to the state controller’s office. The lion’s share--$224 million--went to Los Angeles, but the $5 million San Bernardino received “made a tremendous difference,” Roberts said.

The money is spent for extra teachers and counselors, special equipment and field trips, among other things.

“If we tried to do away with some of those magnet programs, or if the state withdrew its support, I think parents would fight to keep them,” the superintendent said. “And most of them probably don’t know that the programs came about as a result of desegregation and integration.”

The “environmental education” magnet program at Kimbark Elementary has won several national awards and has served as a model for environmentally oriented programs in several other cities.

All of the school’s 678 pupils--including 106 minority youngsters who are bused in from Westside black and Latino neighborhoods--take part in the classes, learning to grow plants and vegetables, maintaining their own greenhouse, caring for animals. All this is combined with conventional elementary school subjects such as reading, writing and computing.

“We’re trying to build an awareness of, and an appreciation for, the environment,” said Principal Zoneth Overbey. “This is the only way the citizenry of tomorrow is going to know how to vote” on environmental issues.

“Along the way, I think we build a good self-image for these kids,” he added.

A highlight of the year is a three-day camping trip in the mountains for fifth- and sixth-graders.

“When they come to us, a lot of our inner-city kids have never been to the mountains, even though they’re only about 20 miles away,” Overbey said.

In the affluent, largely Anglo northeast corner of San Bernardino, the desegregated magnet schools have brought enormous changes to Belvedere Elementary School.

Ten years ago most Belvedere pupils came from the surrounding neighborhood but now half the students are from racial minorities. About 250 arrive on buses, mostly non- or limited English-speaking Latinos who come for a language immersion program called HILT-- High Intensity Language Training.

Youngsters in bilingual education programs usually are taught most subjects in their native language until they are thought to be ready for the transition to English, but HILT pupils begin to speak only English in kindergarten.

“The earlier you get them, the easier it is for youngsters to learn English,” said Mildredan H. (Danny) Ward, Belvedere’s principal and also coordinator of the district’s magnet programs. “If we get a youngster in kindergarten or first grade, by sixth grade you’ll have a fluent English speaker.” Other magnet offerings include an elementary school with a performing-arts emphasis, another that stresses science and history, a school with a “computer approach to basic skills” and one at which children learn to read by writing stories.

In some schools the magnet program is thoroughly integrated into the entire curriculum, while at others it is a “pull-out” program for a limited time each day or several times a week.

In some places all children are in the magnet program, in others they are not. This presents problems of “second-class citizenship” that school administrators try to solve by mixing the magnet and non-magnet children in at least one class a day, as well as on the playground and at lunch time.

Not all magnet programs work. A science program was dropped, as was a math clinic, both because they did not attract enough students. Enrollment in a magnet for the performing arts at California Elementary School has been marginal and physical education magnets have not proved to be as popular as district officials expected.

But the biggest problem is the steadily declining percentage of Anglo students, which makes it increasingly difficult to maintain a good racial mix in many magnets.

Ten years ago San Bernardino enrollment was 60% Anglo. Now it is 41% Anglo, 59% minority--not because Anglo pupils have left but because so many new Asian and Latino students have arrived.

Enrollment Climbing

The problem is likely to grow worse. Enrollment is expected to climb from 37,000 to 50,000 by 1995 and most of the new students are expected to come from racial minorities.

District officials have been opening new magnet programs, closing those with low enrollments and moving programs from one school to another, in an effort to keep minority enrollment below 80% in all elementary schools. But it climbed past 80% at one school this year and several more are in the mid- to high 70s.

“We’re hoping the influx of new homes will bring us more (Anglo) kids and enable us to keep some balance,” said Ward, the magnet coordinator. “If it doesn’t, I don’t know what we do. We’re up against a hard rock.”