Fifty Years After Landmark School Segregation Report, Small Towns and Big Cities Wait for the Tide to Turn

African American students are just as likely to attend segregated schools today as they were in 1966, the year the seminal study known as the Coleman Report led to the desegregation of public schools.


A recent conference at Johns Hopkins University marking the 50th anniversary of the report offered scholars a chance to examine both the success and failures of desegregation. During the event significant time was spent discussing what could be done in the city that is the university’s home, and also mine — Baltimore.

Recently in the Hechinger Report, writer LynNell Hancock looked at a small town in Mississippi that served as Coleman’s model of desegregation. Similar to Baltimore, both locales have struggled to close the opportunity to learn gap between African-Americans and Whites.

In his report, Coleman noted, that student achievement was not the singular reason for gaps between African American and White students. In fact, Coleman concluded that familial and community factors were better predictive measures.

Conclusions from the study continue to reverberate in public education. For example, some pundits continue to suggest that underserved communities are by default responsible for their circumstances.

However, researchers including Pedro Noguera and Linda Darling-Hammond assert that the nation has never provided the necessary funding or support to turn the tide in public education.

The plight of school districts including Baltimore mirror an all too familiar blame game; the struggles of underserved communities are ignored because the nation refuses to acknowledge its clouded past. For instance, there is a discernible link between the discriminatory housing practices in Baltimore, hyper-segregated communities, wealth and education. Currently, only 13.7 percent  of black Baltimoreans have a bachelor’s degree compared with 49 percent of whites.

Addressing the wealth and education disparities must include continued federal and state funding dedicated to communities that have been ignored for far too long. Recently, the Baltimore City Public School system received a $2.3 million federal grant aimed at funding resources for trauma.

The funds are dedicated to West Baltimore, where Freddie Gray was born and tragically lost his life. The connection between the Coleman Report and the events following Freddie Gray’s death should not be lost. Fifty years after the report was published the city in which it was written sits at the center of the debate regarding race, class and community policing.

Post-Freddie Gray, it is vital that government leaders work closely with education advocates to develop a bottom up approach. While the $2.3 million grant will make a tremendous difference in the lives of bright and eager students; there is much more work to be done to address years of systemic racism. Ensuring students live in communities with access to health and mental health resources is paramount.

For more than a year, Baltimore experienced a spike in violent crimes, which can negatively impact the academic performance and social emotional functioning of students. Youth exposed to primary and secondary traumas including intrafamilial violence and the retelling of violent acts don’t have the coping skills to rationalize events.

For this reason, private and public organizations have to collaborate to address years of inequitable school funding and the lack of economic investment in the African-American community. Baltimore, similar to the rest of the nation, was built along unstable racial fault lines that will continue to buckle. Consequently, organizations including the Middle Grades Partnership in Baltimore are seeking to address a variety of education issues by bringing together private and public schools. The city cannot be expected to solve issues without a significant investment from philanthropic organizations.

Fortunately, the school district has a transformational leader, new CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises. Coupled with an infusion of state and federal funding and the school district has the chance to fulfill the hopes of researchers including Coleman.

However, this can only occur when we seek to address historical inequities that continue to haunt some Baltimoreans. As a resident and concerned parent I believe that children regardless of their race and socio-economic status deserve the opportunity to maximize their potential.

While I’m optimistic about the city’s future I recognize that a paradigm shift won’t occur overnight. We have to work diligently to counter long held beliefs and misconceptions regarding specific communities in the city.

It’s important to recognize that the West Baltimore community is filled with committed parents, community activists, secular and non-secular leaders.

Moreover, organizations that seek investment in underserved neighborhoods throughout the city cannot adopt a paternalistic approach. Everyone has to be viewed as equal partners. True collaborative efforts between public and private entities can turn the tide in the city.

In retrospect, the findings from The Coleman report had a negligible effect on creating opportunities for African-American students. Today, public schools serve predominantly minority students from underserved communities.

For this reason, changing outcomes for racially and ethnically underserved populations must become our number one priority. Ignoring the current trends would hamper efforts to prepare students to compete in the global economy.

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