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Integration a work in progress

2 Philadelphia-area schools a microcosm of U.S. racial realities

PHILADELPHIA — Like many large urban schools, West Philadelphia High School strives to accommodate all comers: aspiring collegians and potential dropouts, gang members and gospel singers, teenage moms with their babies in tow.

Yet diverse as they are, in their promise and problems, the 1,600 students are nearly uniform in one respect: 99 percent are black. Most come from low-income families; their school has battled a reputation as one of the city's most troubled.

Ten miles away, schools in the prosperous suburb of Cheltenham have a very different racial mix. Because of fine-tuning of the township's internal boundaries, all seven of its schools are roughly 55 percent white, 35 percent black, 10 percent Asian or Latino. Cheltenham's high school is renowned for academic excellence.

"We are what the country looks like. We're dealing with all the pluses and all the challenges," said Rick Topper, a white English teacher at Cheltenham High.

The contrast between the two high schools is vivid evidence that, nearly 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated public schools unconstitutional, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling remains a work in progress.

The 1954 decision had immense impact, triggering the steady, though often contentious, integration of school districts nationwide. Yet the trend has started reversing in the past 15 years, even as America overall has become more ethnically diverse.

In communities nationwide, the ruling now poses an abiding challenge: Can America ensure educational equality for all its youth, regardless of race and place of residence?

In Cheltenham, educators and parents know it will take hard work to avert white flight and narrow an academic achievement gap between black and white students. At West Philadelphia, segregation is simply reality — its staff and students clamor for better programs and more resources, not for an overhaul of racial demographics.

"I don't have a magic wand," said Clifton James, West Philadelphia's first-year principal. "But we have to start producing. What schools like this have to fight against is the perception that the grass is greener somewhere else."

The Brown case — one of the launching points for the civil rights movement — consolidated lawsuits filed by the NAACP in four states challenging school segregation. The case was named after Oliver Brown, whose daughter Linda was barred from a white elementary school near her Topeka, Kan., home.

On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that separating black and white children in public schools was unconstitutional.

"In the field of public education, the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place," Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote. "Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."

What followed over the next 30 years was tumult and confrontation in many communities, remarkable strides toward diversity in others. Scores of cities and towns implemented desegregation plans, in some cases triggering an exodus of whites to private schools or less diverse communities.

School integration reached its peak in the 1980s; since then segregation has increased as demographics shifted and court orders expired. Support for court-ordered busing has waned among both whites and minorities.

According to Harvard University's Civil Rights Project, more white children go to overwhelmingly white schools and more minority children to predominantly nonwhite schools than a decade ago. Some all-black schools excel, but many inner-city schools have suffered as the brightest local students choose magnet and charter schools.

"You have to pursue both improving schools where they are and opening up the doors of every school to children of every background," said the Civil Rights Project's director, Gary Orfield. "If we're going to make 'segregation' work, we have to really invest in it, massively and carefully."

West Philadelphia, a red brick colossus built in 1912, was once a virtually all-white school but has been mostly black for about three decades. Its recent problems have included arson outbreaks, low test scores, crowded classrooms and high staff turnover.

"It's been a rollercoaster ride," said Henry Gordon, a West Philadelphia teacher since 1980. "You'd wake up in the morning and wonder who the principal is today."

Gordon, who is black, has stayed put even as many colleagues left. "I don't want to teach white kids," he said. "My people need me more."

Enforcing discipline — in a school designated by the state as "persistently dangerous" — is challenging, yet Gordon empathizes with his students. "Society is kicking these kids' behinds," he said.

Two white teachers, Jason Klugman and Pat O'Hara, say insufficient funding underlies many of West Philadelphia's problems. "If we're spending $3,000 less per pupil than in the suburbs, nothing's going to change," Klugman said.

O'Hara, whose pupils have included young offenders coming straight out of custody, says the city's magnet schools undercut neighborhood schools like West Philadelphia. "The students with parents who advocate for them go away," he said.

Yet the mood in much of the West Philadelphia community is cautiously upbeat. The city school district has promised to replace the aging school building within three years; both an alumni association and a group of activist students want a voice in planning the new facility.

The district's chief executive, Paul Vallas, says he wants to help minority-dominated neighborhood schools compete with magnet schools and private schools.

"If students view themselves as attending a school of last resort — we want to change that," Vallas said

Among West Philadelphia students, there are mixed feelings about whether they would be better off in a racially diverse school or with improved resources for a virtually all-black school.

One worried that incoming whites might include racists who would incite violence; another joked that the whites, after initial unease, would quickly adopt inner-city dress and slang.

"The white kids are going to hang with the white kids, black kids with the other blacks — it's not going to make it any better," said sophomore Turquoise Whitfield.

But Whitfield acknowledged she worked harder while attending a racially mixed school in ninth grade.

"As soon as I came here, I slacked off," she said of her switch to West Philadelphia. "You're around people not doing anything, and pretty soon you do the same thing."

Mary Wells, a junior, went to a mostly white school in sixth and seventh grade, and said she feels more comfortable now. "When I'm around my own kind, I can be myself," she said.

In Cheltenham, a township of 36,875 with a median household income of $70,000, the integrated schools are a source of pride for many parents and students.

"The academics are great," said Rebecca Soltoff, a white junior at Cheltenham High. "But the interaction with people is so much better than anything you get in your classroom. I really feel blessed to go to here."

Some white families have pulled their children out of the public schools, but the diversity has been a drawing card for other whites, and for many middle-class black families.

Steve Tolliver, a black lawyer, could have afforded to move to any of several affluent, mostly white suburbs. "But I didn't want my kids moving out to where there'd be one or two black kids in the class," he said.

As a measure of his commitment, Tolliver founded a weekend program aimed primarily at minority students that combines basketball with academic enrichment classes — part of Cheltenham's effort to narrow the racial achievement gap.

A key player in that effort is Anthony Stevenson, educated at all-black schools in South Carolina. As assistant vice principal at Cheltenham High, he prods black students to challenge themselves.

Stevenson himself didn't attend classes with whites until graduate school. "That's one of the things I'm jealous of the kids here," he said. "The opportunity, not just academically, but socially, to live and learn with people different from you."

Though some teachers described Cheltenham's student body as color-blind, that's not quite true — many of the 1,700 students separate themselves by race in the lunchroom. But Steve Sargent, a black 12th grader, said interracial harmony runs deep.

"You don't need to worry about someone coming at you because you're different," he said.

Cheltenham's racial mix is fluid; minorities account for 34 percent of the township's population, compared with 10 percent in 1980. But parents and educators believe diversity can be preserved if the schools remain strong.

"We have to deliberately hold on to it," said Pam Hart, a black woman who is principal of one of Cheltenham's four elementary schools. "But I think the people are willing to do the work."

Hart said she sometimes finds herself with goosebumps marveling at the extent of interracial goodwill in the town — for example, when a parent-student choir performs periodically at her school.

"It's a rainbow of folks, singing gospel music, Hebrew music — all kinds of beautiful music," she said. "It's magical."