This Mostly White City Wants To Leave Its Mostly Black School District

Originally published on December 22, 2016 9:50 am

DeVonte Kirkland is in his second to last year of school at Center Point High in Jefferson County, just outside of Birmingham, Ala. When he graduates next year he wants to head to Alabama State University.

DeVonte also wants a car, so he's taking some serious time to learn how to work on them. Every day, he rides a school bus 25 minutes, each direction, for an auto tech class at Gardendale High, another school on the south side of the district.

Unlike the Jefferson County schools on whole, the student body inside Gardendale's schools is mostly white. At Gardendale, DeVonte says, he's making friends, many of whom don't look like him. "Sometimes we see each other out of school, and we talk in school too. I'm learning something new from them every day," he says.

Next year, though, Gardendale's programs might not be an option for DeVonte and hundreds of other students from around Jefferson County.

Several years ago, voters in the city of Gardendale raised property taxes on themselves to try to start their own school district. The mayor of the city, Stan Hogeland, says the proposal to leave the county school system doesn't have anything to do with race, but calls it a move to do what's best for the kids in the city. "If we had our school system, with a local superintendent, and a local board that lives in town that you see when you go shopping or at church," there would be more accountability, he says.

The final decision, though, is up to a federal judge who could decide, any day now, whether Gardendale is violating civil rights if it pulls out of the Jefferson County school district.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate is not equal, some 60 years ago, federal courts have kept an eye on specific school districts across the country that showed a tendency toward segregation. One of those districts is Jefferson County.

The oversight dates back to 1971 when several African-American residents sued the district for segregating black and white children, and won. Since then, the federal courts have had the final say on any movement in or out of the district.

"Nobody has ever said anything to me about the real reason why they want to form their own system," says Craig Pouncey, superintendent of the schools in Jefferson County.

If Gardendale splinters off, he says, it'll disrupt the larger district's efforts to desegregate. "Diversity actually builds strength, in my opinion. Because it opens people's minds. Now, I've seen where our schools, particularly in the last two years, have really thrived on that diversity."

If Gardendale leaves, it won't just hurt diversity. It could also take with it money, some staff, and special programs like the auto tech class DeVonte Kirkland buses to.

"I don't fault a city for wanting to do this, but they have to be mindful of the overall impact," says Pouncey.

But leaders in Gardendale have tried to make the case that what they're doing is best for their kids. They claim they aren't violating civil rights, and aren't segregating. Part of the plan allows about 300 African-American students from one specific area to remain in the new majority-white system, even though they live outside city limits.

The federal judge will soon decide whether that makes the system truly desegregated.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

For more than 60 years now, since Brown v. Board of Education, federal courts have kept an eye on specific school districts across this country with a history of segregation. One of those is the Jefferson County School District just outside Birmingham, Ala.

And it is now up to a federal judge to decide whether a predominantly white city within the district can secede from its larger majority-black system and start its own. Sherrel Wheeler Stewart from member station WBHM reports.

SHERREL WHEELER STEWART, BYLINE: That mostly white city is Gardendale, Ala., where Friday nights are ruled by high-school football. The schools here in Gardendale are among the best-performing in Jefferson County. But being the best in Jefferson County isn't enough for Mayor Stan Hogeland.

STAN HOGELAND: As the mayor of the city, you know, I'm not all-knowing. I don't pretend to be. But students perform better in city-run systems.

STEWART: He wants out of the county system. And so do a lot of people in Gardendale. That was clear three years ago, when city residents voted to increase their own property taxes to start a school district of their own.

HOGELAND: You know, if we had our own system with a local superintendent and a local board that lives in town that you see when you go shopping or at church - maybe a little more accountability.

STEWART: But it isn't as easy as that. In 1971, African-Americans sued the district for segregating black and white students and won. Since then the federal courts have always had the final say on any movement in and out of the district. And soon, the federal judge in this case will decide if this is another move to segregate.

CRAIG POUNCEY: Nobody has ever said anything to me about the real reason why they want to form the district.

STEWART: That's Craig Pouncey, the superintendent of Jefferson County Schools.

POUNCEY: Diversity actually builds strength in my opinion because it opens people's minds. And I've seen where our schools, particularly in the last two years, have really thrived on that diversity.

STEWART: He says that diversity, additional money and even access to some special programs all go out the window with Gardendale.

POUNCEY: I don't fault a municipality from wanting those things. But we have to be very mindful of the overall impacts.

STEWART: Impact, too, on hundreds of students who take advantage of specialized classes Gardendale schools offers to kids from around the county - students like 11th grader DeVonte Kirkland. He makes the 25-minute trek every day from the high school near his home in northeast Jefferson County to Gardendale for an autotech class.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah. Loosen it up just a little bit.

STEWART: Students hover around a car as DeVonte is focused on changing the oil.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Let it dry. There you go.

STEWART: After he graduates, he hopes to go to school at Alabama State University but likes this class because he wants to know how to work on his own car when he gets one. He's also making friends, some who don't look like him, some who come from other parts of the county.

DEVONTE KIRKLAND: Sometimes, we see each other out of school. And we talk in school, too. So I'm learning something new from them every day.

STEWART: But students like DeVonte wouldn't have access to Gardendale if it leaves the county system. City leaders there have tried to make the case they aren't segregating by allowing about 700 black students to remain in the new majority-white system even though they live outside city limits. The federal judge will soon decide whether that would make the new district truly desegregated.

For NPR News, I'm Sherrel Wheeler Stewart in Jefferson County, Ala.

GREENE: And Sherrel's story was produced in partnership with the Southern Education Desk, a public media consortium. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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