Researching Public Law and Public Policy in the Public Interest

How School Segregation Divides Ferguson — and the United States

Fifth-grader Naomi Goodloe, 11, on her way to her new school in the Francis Howell School District in the St. Louis suburbs. Credit Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, via Associated Press

From The New York Times

ON Aug. 1, five students in satiny green-and-red robes and mortarboards waited in an elementary school classroom to hear their names called as graduates of Normandy High School. This ceremony, held months after the official graduation, was mostly for students who had been short of credits in May.

One of those new graduates was Michael Brown. He was 18, his mother’s oldest son. He had been planning to start college in September.

Eight days later, he was dead, killed in the streets of nearby Ferguson, Mo., by a white police officer in a shooting that ignited angry protests and a painful national debate about race, policing and often elusive justice. Many news reports after Mr. Brown’s death noted his graduation and his college plans. The implication was that these scholarly achievements magnified the sorrow.

But if Michael Brown’s educational experience was a success story, it was a damning one.

The Normandy school district is among the poorest and most segregated in Missouri. It ranks last in overall academic performance. Its rating on an annual state assessment was so dismal that by the time Mr. Brown graduated the district had lost its state accreditation.

About half of black male students at Normandy High never graduate. Just one in four graduates makes it to a four-year college. The college where Mr. Brown was headed is a for-profit trade school that recruits those it once described in internal documents as “Unemployed, Underpaid, Unsatisfied, Unskilled, Unprepared, Unsupported, Unmotivated, Unhappy, Underserved!”

Just five miles down the road from Normandy lies Clayton, the wealthy county seat where a grand jury recently deliberated the fate of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Mr. Brown. Success there looks very different. The Clayton public schools are predominantly white, with almost no poverty to speak of. The district is regularly ranked in the top 10 percent in the state. More than 96 percent of its students graduate. Eighty-four percent head to four-year universities.

Decades of public and private housing discrimination made St. Louis one of the most racially segregated metropolitan areas in the country. A network of school district boundaries has, to this day, divided students in racially separate schools as effectively as any Jim Crow law.

Michael Brown’s education was not exceptional, then, but all too typical, and it illustrates the vast disparity in resources and expectations for black children in America’s segregated school systems.

As hundreds of school districts across the nation have been released from court-enforced integration over the past 15 years, the number of what researchers call “apartheid schools” — in which the white population is 1 percent or less — has shot up. The achievement gap, narrowed during the height of school integration, has widened.

According to data compiled by the Department of Education, black and Latino children nationwide are the least likely to be taught by a qualified, experienced teacher; to be offered courses such as chemistry and calculus; or to have access to technology.

“American schools are disturbingly racially segregated — period,” Catherine Lhamon, head of the Education Department’s civil rights office, said in a speech in October.

Since Aug. 9, the day Mr. Brown’s lifeless body lay for hours under a hot summer sun, St. Louis County has come to illustrate the country’s racial fault lines in police conduct and the criminalization of black youth. But most black youth will not die at the hands of the police.

They share the fate that was already Michael Brown’s.

IN 1954, when the United States Supreme Court rejected the notion of separate but equal schools in its Brown v. Board of Education decision, St. Louis ran the second-largest segregated school district in the country.

After the ruling, school officials promised to integrate voluntarily. But the acceleration of white flight and the redrawing of school district lines around black and white neighborhoods allowed metropolitan St. Louis to preserve its racial divide. Nearly 30 years later, 90 percent of black children in St. Louis still attended predominantly black schools.

In 1983, a federal judge ordered a desegregation plan for the entire metropolitan area. At its peak, some 15,000 St. Louis public school students a year attended 16 heavily white suburban districts. Another 1,300 white students headed in the opposite direction to 27 new magnet schools in St. Louis.

The program left another 15,000 of St. Louis’s black students in segregated, inferior schools. But for the transfer students who rode buses out of the city, the plan successfully broke the deeply entrenched connection between race, ZIP code and opportunity. Test scores for eighth- and 10th-grade transfer students rose. The transfer students were more likely to graduate and go on to college. In surveys, white students overwhelmingly said they had benefited from the opportunity to be educated alongside black students. The St. Louis model was heralded as the nation’s most successful metropolitan desegregation program.

But from the moment it started, the St. Louis desegregation plan was under assault. The cost would eventually reach $1.7 billion. In 1999 the program was made entirely voluntary. Today, about 5,000 students get to escape the troubles of the St. Louis public schools — a small fraction of the number who apply for the privilege of doing so.

Incorporated in 1945, Normandy became a destination for St. Louis’s fleeing white working class.

Nedra Martin’s family was among the black strivers who began to make their way to Normandy in the 1970s. Ms. Martin, who still lives in Normandy and works in human resources at Walmart, said her parents settled in the town in 1975. They both worked in government jobs — her dad was a welder for the city, her mom an aide in a state group home. But as black families like the Martins moved in, “For Sale” signs went up and whites fled to new exurbs.

After 1970, black enrollment in the Normandy schools exploded, more than doubling within eight years to 6,200. By 1978, only St. Louis itself enrolled more black students than Normandy.

For years, Normandy’s schools struggled to meet minimum state requirements for student achievement. Then, in 2009, the state decided that the Normandy school district would absorb the ailing Wellston school district.

Wellston was also high-poverty, and Missouri’s only 100 percent black school system. State officials had called conditions in Wellston’s schools “deplorable” and “academically abusive.”

But its students were not sent to the high-performing, mostly white districts nearby. Michael Jones, a state board of education official, was blunt about the reason: “You’d have had a civil war.”

BY the time Michael Brown was a high school junior, he had spent most of his educational career in racially segregated and financially disadvantaged schools. Behind in credits, he entered Normandy High in the spring of 2013.

The state’s most recent assessment of Normandy’s schools was spectacularly bleak: Out of Missouri’s 520 school districts, Normandy, among the state’s poorest and 98 percent black, was marooned at the very bottom.

But last year, the Normandy district was thrown an unlikely lifeline. Its schools had failed so badly that the state had formally stripped it of its accreditation. And the Missouri State Supreme Court had just upheld a state law allowing students in unaccredited districts to transfer to accredited ones.

Nedra Martin, had a daughter stuck in Normandy’s failing schools. Just like that, the state’s decision erased the invisible, impenetrable lines of segregation that had trapped her child. “I was elated,” Ms. Martin said. “Just elated.”

Parents in the school district that had to take Normandy’s students — Francis Howell, an 85 percent white district 26 miles away — were not. Officials there held a public forum to address community concerns. More than 2,500 parents packed into the high school gym.

Would the district install metal detectors? What about the violence their children would be subjected to, an elementary school parent asked. Wouldn’t test scores plummet? The issue wasn’t about race, one parent said, “but trash.”

Mah’Ria Pruitt-Martin, a rising eighth grader, was sitting in the audience that night with her mother. Hers was one of the few brown faces there, and the girl said she wiped away tears.

 “It made me heartbroken because they were putting us in a box,” Mah’Ria said. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘Would you want some other parents talking about your kid that way?’ ”

In the fall of 2013, nearly 1,000 Normandy students — about a quarter of the district’s enrollment — switched to schools in accredited districts. More than 400 headed to Francis Howell.

Mah’Ria said that she was, in fact, welcomed into her new middle school by students and teachers. Despite the fears, recently released state data show that with the exception of one district, test scores in the transfer schools did not drop.

But there was a cruel twist. The state required any failing district whose students were allowed to transfer to pay the costs of their education in the adjoining districts. The payments drained Normandy’s finances. Normandy closed a school and laid off 40 percent of its staff.

“In order to save the district, they killed the district,” said John Wright, who spent stints as superintendent in both St. Louis and Normandy.

The state then announced that it was taking over the Normandy Public Schools district and reconstituting it as the Normandy Schools Collaborative. As a new educational entity, the district got a clean slate. It no longer was unaccredited, but operated as a “state oversight district.” The transfer law, the state claimed, no longer applied. One by one, transfer districts announced that Normandy children were no longer welcome.

Ms. Martin and other parents sued, asserting that the state had no legal authority to reconstitute the district to change its accreditation status. On Aug. 15, after the school year had begun in some districts, a state judge granted a temporary injunction allowing the plaintiffs to enroll their children in the transfer districts.

“Every day a student attends an unaccredited school,” the judge wrote, the child “could suffer harm that cannot be repaired.” The state is fighting the ruling, but most school districts have reopened their doors to the transfer students.

When asked whether black children in Missouri were receiving an equal education, Commissioner Chris Nicastro, the state’s top education official, paused, then inhaled deeply. “Do I think black children in Missouri are getting in all cases the same education as their white counterparts?” Ms. Nicastro said. “I’d have to say no.”

STUDENTS who spend their careers in segregated schools can look forward to a life on the margins, according to a 2014 study on the long-term impacts of school desegregation by Rucker C. Johnson, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley. They are more likely to be poor. They are more likely to go to jail. They are less likely to graduate from high school, to go to college, or to finish if they go. They are more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods as adults. Their children are more likely to attend segregated schools, repeating the cycle.

“You know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate?” Michael Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, cried on the August day he died. “You know how many black men graduate? Not many.”

Michael Brown was buried in the old St. Peter’s Cemetery.

It lies next to Normandy High School.