By the numbers, the public schools in this manufacturing city were desegregated during the 1970s and 1980s, as required by court order and government agencies. In real life, however, the students could not have been more divided by race.
Integration, Rockford style, meant making sure that black and white children in the same school building were learning in separate classrooms. At several schools, they ate at separate lunchtimes, even entered through separate doors and used separate bathrooms in separate corridors.
Latino students traveling to schools in white neighborhoods for bilingual education were forced to wait on the bus before morning classes began, while the local Anglo children played football and basketball and talked among themselves outside.
All children in kindergarten were placed in an academic “track” that most of them would stay in for the rest of their student careers. One district official described the Rockford tracking as “a system of apartheid.” The whites went into honors and college-prep classes; minorities--even some who scored in the 99th percentile in testing--were mostly consigned to the slow-learner sections.
Now the school district stands accused by a federal magistrate of operating for decades a massive shell game rather than a desegregation program, and of consistently undermining educational opportunities for minority students.
In a country where racism retains a stubborn hold, the Rockford case could reverberate among other American cities that have no doubt established their own creative “solutions” to integration orders. For the first time, a federal court has exposed how one such system worked, explaining how code words and special programs added up to a pattern of one educational order for Anglos and another, inferior experience for African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans.
The Rockford School District “has committed such open acts of discrimination as to be cruel,” wrote Magistrate JudgMichael Mahoney in a report released last week, “and committed others with such subtlety as to raise discrimination to an art form.”
Those harsh words hurt, School Supt. William Bowen said in an interview, but he acknowledged their truth. Bowen, who plans to retire next year, ticked off reasons for the district’s tactics of isolation: pressure from white parents, officials who didn’t realize the cumulative effects, even incompetence. He didn’t mention racism. But soon he paused. “None of it,” he said, “sounds defensible.”
Soon--perhaps by January--U.S. District Judge Stanley J. Roszkowski is expected to impose sweeping changes designed to make integration real for the 27,000 students here. Both the magistrate’s report and the anticipated remedies stem from a six-week trial held last spring in a class-action suit filed by a community group in 1989.
“Nobody will be doing anything out of the goodness of their heart,” said Beulah Tripplett, a black parent who is a plaintiff in the suit. “I do know that we will have to be constantly watching.”
Under court prodding, some corrective steps were taken as the district sought unsuccessfully to avoid the trial. If reaction to those measures is any indication, Rockford schools are in for an explosive year or two.
In the last year, 600 students have withdrawn from the district. All of those who departed are Anglos.
The only Anglo adult plaintiff in the lawsuit has picked up the telephone to hear someone hissing epithets on the other end. She has answered the door to find a man who demanded to talk to her because “this is costing us too much money.”
Bowen, too, endures constant, if sometimes sheepish, complaining from white parents about the expense of upgrading equipment for minority-neighborhood schools. “I suppose you could say it’s polarizing the community,” he said.
And yet, he added, minorities still are not ensured fair access to college preparatory and honors classes, or to extracurricular activities.
Minority students still are the only ones who face mandatory busing, with long hours of commuting added to the school day. Anglos still are bused only if they choose certain magnet-school programs.
“Educational deficiencies in the bilingual program . . . remain today,” Mahoney wrote in his report.
“Oh, yes, it’s still going on,” said Raul Medrano, 24, who testified in the case about his experiences in Rockford schools. He is now employed by a Latino community group. “In my work, I talk to children all the time, and they tell me,” said Medrano.
A son of Mexican immigrants, Medrano earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and plans to attend graduate school in public administration. “But I credit that to my parents,” he said.
Medrano changed schools nearly every year as the bilingual education program was moved to another school in another white neighborhood--apparently to whichever one needed minority students.
Once, the switch came in the middle of the school year. At the first school, the children had been learning multiplication. At the second, the new teachers expected them to know division. “They never explained it,” Medrano said. “I’m still not very good at dividing.”
With each change, the commute from his southwest side home took longer. At 8, he was getting up at 6:30 a.m. to make the bus. He’d get home about 10 hours later.
The bus arrived 15 to 20 minutes before the school building opened every day, but the children were required to remain on board, while the Anglo students were on the playground. African-American students on other buses were bound by the same rule.
As an eighth-grader, Medrano and a friend mustered the courage to ask the principal to let them out on the playground. The principal “told us we were lucky to have a ride,” Medrano said. “He said if we didn’t like it, we should walk.”
White students traveling voluntarily to minority-neighborhood schools were similarly isolated.
Sue Curtin’s daughter, for example, attended a gifted-student program at a school in a predominantly black section of town.
“The only reason these children are here,” she remembers the principal telling her, “is for integration.” That made Curtin happy. But when her daughter was in sixth grade, Curtin discovered that the “gifted students,” who were all white, not only had separate classes but different entrances and different lunchtimes. They even used bathrooms in their own corridor, away from the “neighborhood” kids.
“My daughter,” she said, “had absolutely no contact with any minority children.”
For the half of the minority student population that was not bused, school has been a place filled with obstacles to learning.
Beulah Tripplett’s daughter, Anissa, learned her name, address and ABCs at a Lutheran preschool. By the end of first grade, she had forgotten all that. Tripplett visited the school to find out why.
“In every class, there were 26 or 28 first graders,” Tripplett said. “Things were chaotic, children out of their seats, noise.”
She got her child transferred to a “white” school. In three years there, Anissa never had more than 17 classmates. “They had a little computer lab,” Tripplett said. “They had teacher aides. They had access to library books.”
Tripplett spent a lot of time at the new school. She suspected that if she hadn’t, Anissa might have been treated differently from the white children.
Such fears were apparently legitimate. Bowen testified that when he was an assistant principal at a high school in a white neighborhood, black children bused in were punished more harshly than the local kids. He observed that the school nurse sprayed deodorant in her office whenever a black student left and wiped off her desk if the student had touched it.
But it was the tracking program that was arguably the most important form of discrimination practiced by the Rockford district. Bowen referred to the tracks as “tubes"--and once in a particular classification, it was rare for a student to move to another. An analysis by UCLA education professor Jeannie Oakes showed that white children who took a test at the end of kindergarten could end up in the “honors” track even with low scores, while high-scoring black children were often excluded.
Objections to the tracking system were raised often enough, the magistrate wrote, that school authorities “knew about it, understood what was happening.”
In the face of such entrenched tradition, a group called People Who Care formed to challenge the district’s policies with a class-action suit in 1989. “Nobody thought we could win,” Tripplett said.
But indeed there have been victories along the way to last week’s watershed report.
In the last four years, more minority children have been admitted to the gifted programs, though they are still filled mostly with “snobby white kids,” in the words of James Curtin, 13.
James, who has always followed the gifted-student curriculum, doesn’t remember any black or Latino classmates in elementary school. Now, though, several minorities in his middle school classes are his friends. He hesitated before naming them, but only because he’s not used to thinking about what race they belong to.
“If that’s what this lawsuit did,” said his beaming mother, “that’s wonderful.”