A New Approach to School Equality

Times Staff Writers

Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared deliberately segregated schools unconstitutional, racial isolation is intensifying on California’s public school campuses amid vast Latino immigration and a retreat from busing and other efforts to diversify enrollments.

Nearly 1 million Latino and African American schoolchildren in California now attend highly segregated campuses with few if any white or Asian students -- more than triple the figure of isolated minorities from two decades ago.

Yet many educators, civil rights leaders and minority parents have given up on the possibility of large-scale integration. Instead, they are clamoring to improve education on campuses where African American and, particularly, Latino youngsters predominate.

“The reality is that ... there are going to be racially segregated schools. Given that reality, as much as we don’t want to accept it, what do we do for the children in those schools?” asked Theodore M. Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which won the argument against legal segregation with the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision on May 17, 1954.


“How do we guarantee the children get the resources they need, the quality education they deserve?”

California voters and post-Brown court rulings have effectively ended mandatory busing for integration in the state. Voluntary programs are available but, in a sign of the times, parents such as Lupe Mendoza-Fernandez are turning down the offers.

“The only way you can make a difference is by keeping your children within your community,” said the Echo Park mother, who has kept her three children close to home even though that has meant sending them to segregated, crowded and ill-equipped campuses.

Mendoza-Fernandez feared that long bus rides to higher-performing, racially diverse campuses in the San Fernando Valley or Westside would rob her children of after-school activities and make it impossible to stay involved in their education.


“The more we put our kids on the bus,” she said, “the more we’re continuing the cycle of unequal education.”

Large-scale Latino immigration over the last two decades in California, coupled with the movement of white -- and to a lesser extent, black -- families to suburbs and private schools, has produced some of the most segregated schools in the nation.

Today, Latinos and African Americans make up 90% or more of the enrollments at 1,228 of the state’s 9,000 public school campuses, up from 435 such schools in the early 1980s, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of state data.

“California reflects the transformation that is going on in states that are immigration destinations,” said Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, which in a recent study found similar levels of segregation in Texas, New York and Illinois. “It is a cosmic change in the country.”

The demographic pressures facing schools are evident in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where Latinos now make up 72% of the 746,000 students. More than half the schools -- 370 campuses -- are composed almost entirely of minority students, up from 206 such campuses in 1981.

“We don’t sit around saying one of our goals is to integrate the schools,” said Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer, who is overseeing a $14-billion school building effort.

That program aims to reduce overcrowding in Los Angeles’ poorest neighborhoods and allow children to attend neighborhood schools without being forced into problem-plagued year-round schedules.

“We have a different way of coming at equality now than we did years ago,” Romer said. “Our goal now is to have equality of educational opportunity.”


Integrated schools have not disappeared entirely from California’s educational landscape. Many suburban schools enjoy a balance of racial and ethnic groups. This is especially true in places such as the Inland Empire, where African Americans, Latinos and Asians have entered suburbs that had once been mainly white.

Some urban campuses also are racially mixed, primarily the result of students taking advantage of voluntary integration programs. In L.A., 53,000 students are enrolled in magnet programs that blend racial and ethnic groups in specialized classes.

But racially isolated campuses blanket large stretches of Southern California, dominating systems in Compton, Lynwood, Inglewood, Santa Ana, Montebello, Paramount, Baldwin Park and Pomona. Though blacks once were predominant in some of those cities, and continue so in a handful of schools, their numbers have been overwhelmed by Latinos in many cases.

“These are almost apartheid schools,” said Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who has written about inequities in education.

With housing patterns and school district boundaries dividing rich and poor, even longtime civil rights advocates acknowledge that new strategies are needed to address those schools’ well-documented problems.

In California four years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and others sued the state over its schools. But the Williams vs. California suit, which is now one of the most closely followed educational equity cases in the nation, did not seek the desegregation of campuses as a goal.

Instead, it alleged that the state denies tens of thousands of poor and minority students an equal educational opportunity by allowing them to attend subpar schools. The groups demanded that the state ensure sufficient textbooks, trained teachers, clean facilities and other “minimal educational standards” for students.

“The law has evolved in such a way that integration really cannot be the focus,” said Hector Villagra, regional counsel of MALDEF in Los Angeles. “The focus has to be equity.”


Belmont High School -- the campus near downtown Los Angeles attended by all three of Lupe Mendoza-Fernandez’s children and one of the schools named in the Williams lawsuit -- illustrates the conditions that prompted the litigation.

Latinos -- many from immigrant families living in the small stucco homes, garages and apartments near the school -- make up 90% of Belmont’s 5,300 students.

More than half of Belmont’s students are still learning English. Eighty percent are poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized lunches.

The school is so crowded that it stays open year round, running students on three separate tracks that each slash 17 days from the school year. Belmont’s replacement campus -- just five blocks away -- sits unfinished after years of financial, environmental and planning problems. Officials now hope to have the new high school open by 2007.

Mendoza-Fernandez, who came to Los Angeles from Mexico as a little girl, graduated from Belmont High 30 years ago. Her oldest daughter, Ana, now a UCLA senior, finished four years ago. Her other daughter, Rita, is a Belmont senior. Their brother, Francisco, is a sophomore.

Like their mother, both of Mendoza-Fernandez’s daughters feel it is important to attend local schools. Both feel, however, that their educations have suffered because of packed classes that offer little individual attention.

Rita recalled, for example, that she had to prepare for the Advanced Placement biology exam last year while off track by conducting an enzyme experiment in her teacher’s Echo Park kitchen because her science classroom at school was occupied by students who were on track.

And for most of this year, Rita said, she and her classmates in AP psychology had to use photocopies of assigned chapters because there weren’t enough books for everyone.

The 17-year-old feels a nagging sense of cultural isolation at Belmont. She is headed to Occidental College in the fall but feels wholly unprepared to mix with students who differ from her.

“My biggest fear about going to college,” she said, “is going to school with white people because they [seem] so weird to me.”

Avoiding that sort of isolation is part of what motivates 17-year-old Novelette Brown.

Each morning at 6:07, she boards a yellow school bus in her South Los Angeles neighborhood to make the hourlong commute to Taft High in Woodland Hills. An African American, Brown wanted to attend an ethnically diverse campus with rigorous Advanced Placement courses and a variety of activities that she feels are unavailable at Fremont High, near her home.

Roughly a third of Taft’s 3,200 students are white, another third are Latino, and about 17% are African American. Asian Americans and other groups made up the rest. Like Brown, more than 725 of the students arrive in district buses.

“I have friends from many different groups. My family’s religion is Catholic, but I have been to a Jewish [Passover] seder,” said Brown, who is headed to Boston University in the fall.

Her mother, Judy Schaffer, agreed that part of Taft’s appeal is its diversity. “Kids who know only one culture really miss out,” she said.

For most students, however, diversity does not appear to be a compelling issue.

Brown is one of only about 4,200 minority students in Los Angeles -- less than 1% of all Latinos and African Americans in the district -- who take part in a voluntary busing program that delivers them to more diverse campuses in the San Fernando Valley and the Westside. That is down from a peak of 19,000 in the mid-'80s, officials said.

Moreover, for those who do take the bus, academic equality remains elusive. School district evaluations throughout the 1980s revealed that students who made the long bus trips did little or no better than peers who stayed behind in segregated schools, and they trailed their schools’ resident students in math and reading. The district stopped keeping track of achievement for traveling students in the 1990s because of budget cuts and a shift to evaluating students in racially isolated schools.

At Taft, African American and Latino student scores on standardized tests lag far behind those of white and Asian students. The same pattern appears in other integrated schools and has given rise to a whole new strain of civil rights advocacy alleging that minority students are “tracked” into lower-level classes. “In diverse high schools across this country, you can walk into a class and be quite certain by looking at the color of kids’ skin whether it’s an advanced class or low-level class,” said Jeannie Oakes, director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access.

The Brown ruling in 1954 launched a movement to erase such disparities for minority schoolchildren. In that case, the Supreme Court unanimously concluded that intentional school segregation was “inherently unequal.”

In the 1970s and ‘80s, school districts such as Los Angeles and Pasadena launched mandatory busing in response to lower court rulings, achieving some racial balance but also causing many white families to flee for suburban districts or private schools. Subsequent Supreme Court rulings blocked busing beyond city boundaries and made it easier for districts to end their desegregation orders.

In California, voters in 1979 approved an amendment to the state Constitution -- Proposition 1 -- that said busing could be ordered only to reverse intentional segregation. The measure set the stage for the end of mandatory busing in Los Angeles Unified in 1981, after less than three years, and elsewhere in the state.

School districts now have few alternatives for far-reaching desegregation, said Los Angeles school board President Jose Huizar, a product of public schools on the city’s heavily Latino Eastside, which he represents. “We’re a 90% minority district, and the paradigm of integration doesn’t fit public education today,” he said.

Huizar and many students, parents and teachers now argue that students should be able to get a first-class education in their own communities, no matter the ethnic composition of the student body.

That is the consensus at Santa Ana High School in Orange County. There, the overwhelmingly Latino enrollment was evident on a recent day as Gary Reynolds, a 17-year teaching veteran, grabbed a stack of tests to distribute in his physics class.

“Gonzales, Mercado, Sosa, Agosto, Murillo,” he called out, handing the work back as he went. “Lopez, Castro, Rodriguez.”

Except for two students, Reynolds’ class was entirely Latino -- a big change from his first days on the job, when many of his students were white.

The few African American, Asian and white students stood out as throngs of teenagers jammed the halls of the 4,000-student campus.

Santa Ana Unified’s superintendent, Al Mijares, said students pay a price for attending schools in a district where desegregation is “an almost impenetrable challenge.”

Mijares worries that students suffer not only from cultural isolation but from lack of access to the English language. More than two-thirds of Santa Ana Unified’s students are still learning English, and teachers often are the only native English speakers in their classrooms.

“These kids are not getting the benefit of interacting with Caucasians, African Americans, Asians or any other ethnic group,” Mijares said. “Our students not only forfeit that opportunity, but other groups forfeit the opportunity to learn from our students.”

Students, however, say they enjoy the cultural familiarity.

“I come from Santa Ana. I feel secure here,” said Monique Escamilla, 17, a talkative girl whose parents emigrated from Mexico. “Given a choice, I would still stay here. There are good teachers and good programs. I know it will be different when I go to college, but I was able to find myself here and I think I’m prepared because of my experiences here.”

Parents, teachers and administrators at Santa Ana High said their school has little in common with those of the segregated South half a century ago. Opportunities abound at the school district’s flagship campus, and expectations are high.

The school, for example, now offers Advanced Placement courses in all major subjects, up from just one AP English class in the mid-1980s.

“We’re living in a different world from 50 years ago,” said Principal Dan Salcedo. “I don’t look at my students as being at a disadvantage because they live in Santa Ana. If you are a student here we are going to push you, prod you and hold you accountable for what you have to learn. We’re not going to push you down and let you say, ‘Woe is me, I can’t learn.’ ”



Changing school population

These school districts are among the most segregated in California, and they have grown more racially isolated over the last two decades. On many of their campuses, the students are almost all Latinos and African Americans.

Most segregated Southern California school districts (Among 100 largest districts statewide.)

Percent of schools in each district that are 90% or more African American and Hispanic combined

*--* District Total schools Segregated schools % Segregated Compton Unified 1981 36 34 94.4 2003 40 40 100 Inglewood Unified 1981 19 16 84.2 2003 20 20 100 Lynwood Unified 1981 12 7 58.3 2003 14 14 100 Paramount Unified 1981 12 0 0 2003 18 15 83.3 Montebello Unified 1981 27 5 18.5 2003 29 23 79.3 Santa Ana Unified 1981 36 7 19.4 2003 56 43 76.8 Pomona Unified 1981 32 2 6.3 2003 40 28 70 Baldwin Park Unified 1981 19 0 0 2003 22 15 68.2 Los Angeles Unified 1981 703 206 29.3 2003 693 370 53.4 Oxnard Elementary 1981 16 1 6.3 2003 21 11 52.4


Enrollment in California public schools, by ethnic designation

California’s public school enrollment grew from 4,046,156 in 1981-82 to 6,244,403 in 2002-03 as the Latino school population nearly tripled, replacing whites as the state’s largest group.

*--* Ethnicity Total enrolled % of total enrollment Hispanic 1981-82 1,045,186 25.8% 2002-03 2,819,504 45.2% White non-Hispanic 1981-82 2,282,828 33.7% 2002-03 2,106,042 56.4% Black non-Hispanic 1981-82 399,171 8.3% 2002-03 515,805 9.9% Asian 1981-82 221,899 5.5% 2002-03 502,676 8.1% Other 1981-82 97,072 2.4% 2002-03 300,376 4.8%


Source: Calif. Dept. of Education data with analysis by Richard O’Reilly, director of computer analysis and Sandra Poindexter, data analyst.


Richard O’Reilly, The Times’ director of computer analysis, and data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.