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Thursday, July 29, 2004 05:11 pm

Closing the gap


When the federal district court issued its Springfield consent decree in 1974, it aimed at the achievement gap but missed.

Because racially segregated schools were unequal, integration was proposed as a remedy. Busing was the blunt instrument employed to equal things up, and it helped. School buildings were integrated and resources were improved, but the achievement gap remains. Now we need more tools. While 53 percent of white students at Washington Middle School met eighth-grade reading standards in 2003, only 27 percent of black students met those same standards. The gap in reading and math scores is pronounced at all the city's middle schools.

Out of frustration with the gap, school board member Cheryl Wise proposed lifting the consent decree to eliminate busing for integration. The savings on transportation costs, which she estimates at about $2 million a year, would help fund smaller class sizes, teacher incentives, and stronger programs for low-income students in elementary schools while giving parents more ownership and better opportunities to be involved in their neighborhood schools. Wise started a good discussion.

At a special school board meeting July 6, the proposal to eliminate busing for integration received little public support, and Wise concedes defeat, at least temporarily. "Ending mandatory busing is a dead issue for now," she says in an interview with Illinois Times, "but we can work on the other parts of my proposal." At that hearing, Wise, inexperienced as a public speaker, learned how difficult it is to speak sensitively on racial issues. "I was upset with myself for making some pretty foolish comments," she says. She insists that eliminating busing is only a way to find money for better schools.

There are better ways to fund schools, particularly when Illinois ranks near the bottom of the list of states in education funding. There is no guarantee that the busing dividend would go to education, and even $2 million a year wouldn't go very far. Rudy Davenport, the venerable president of the local NAACP chapter, notes that closing the achievement gap is a bigger and more expensive job than anyone has recognized.

"We've barely started," Davenport says. "We haven't yet seen leaders come forth and make a commitment to first-rate education. We've seen politicians run on a platform of diminishing public education with pledges of 'no new taxes.' If they believe in America, they should be supporting education. It's a patriotic duty." If we're serious about closing the achievement gap, he says, we should support the national NAACP's five-year plan, with recommendations for increasing access to early-childhood programs, creating smaller class sizes, reducing the dropout rate, and increasing parental involvement.

These changes can't wait for a governor courageous and skillful enough to enact the kind of sweeping school funding reform Illinois needs. A New York City school reformer, Geoffrey Canada, has pioneered a program combining school with educational, social, and medical services in a 60-square-block area called the Harlem Children's Zone. "The objective," says the New York Times, "is to create a safety net woven so tightly that children in the neighborhood just can't slip through." On a smaller scale in Springfield, Sheila Stocks-Smith, the mayor's education liaison, proposes that schools increasingly become the "point of delivery" for programs provided by other groups. Services such as preventive health care, housing assistance, and neighborhood revitalization efforts; alcohol- and drug-abuse programs; and job training could help kids and families better if they were available at school.

The NAACP's "Back to School/Stay in School" program pairs a potential dropout with a volunteer who becomes deeply involved with the student, the teacher, and the family. "We're usually successful because we take the time to find out what the real problem is," says Davenport. The mayor's office, District 186, and the Urban League are preparing to launch a major effort to reduce the high school dropout rate.

During the discussion that Wise started, many people said in various ways that they aren't ready to give up on integrated public schools. It is what makes the achievement gap not just a black concern but a community concern. "We're all the problem," said Ida Jackson at Second Timothy Baptist Church. "The only way is to love one another," said Carolyn Blackwell of District 186. "We can use education as a means to rehabilitate the community," said Davenport.

"Diversity is the strength of our community," said Stocks-Smith. "That's the greatness of public schools. It's not just about low-income kids or upper-income kids, or black kids or white kids. It's about all kids. We can preserve that strength."

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