Tennessee Schools Struggle With Modern-Day Integration

As Memphis and Shelby County schools gear up for the largest school district merger in history, old ideas about race and education come to the surface.

Posted: 11/10/2011 07:11 PM EST
Filed Under segregation, Memphis

Earlier this year, a federal judge decided that the heavily African-American public schools of Memphis, Tennessee, were to be be consolidated with the majority white schools of surrounding of Shelby County beginning in 2013-14. As the date approaches and preparations for the merger begin, racially charged issues of budgeting and logistics are coming to the fore.

 

The merger is the largest school district consolidation in American history and will force officials to tackle problems of mixing unionized and nonunionized teachers, the operation of yellow buses, down to deciding which school’s preferred textbook will be adopted as the standard. However, among these, race seems to fuel the subtext of many of the discussions.

 

The City of Memphis is 63 percent Black, and the public schools' student body reflected such demographics. After federally mandated desegregation forced the city’s schools to integrate some 40 years ago, many whites fled to the suburbs rather than have their children attend school alongside Blacks.

 

While the practice sounds like a vestige of the past, some have the same worries about integrationas they did back then.

 

“There’s the same element of fear,” Joseph A. Clayton, 79, a member of 23-person team overseeing the merger told the New York Times. Amid the start of busing in the 1970’s Clayton quit his job as a public school principal in Memphis and left to head an all-white private school.  “In the 1970s, it was a physical, personal fear. Today the fear is about the academic decline of the Shelby schools. As far as racial trust goes, I don’t think we’ve improved much since the 1970s.”

 

However, not everyone is as pessimistic about the future of the merger. Kenya Bradshaw, secretary of a separate 21-member commission set up to recommend policies for combining the new districts, hopes the merger will breathe new life into the school system.

 

“I hope people can see that this is an opportunity to reflect on our history and not make the same mistakes,” said Bradshaw, an African-American advocate for educational equity. “If people are leaving for reasons that they don’t want their children to be around children of color or children who are poor, then I say to them, ‘I bid you farewell.' ”

(Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

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