The Dr. King School sits right on the western shoulder of the southern end of the elevated section of I-81 in the city of Syracuse. The elementary school is surrounded by housing projects run by the Syracuse Housing Authority which primarily serves people living in poverty. Dr. King is the one school of three that were once primarily Black schools that survived the Civil Rights push to desegregate schools in Syracuse.
Attending the Dr. King school today, 121 Black students, eleven Hispanic, one Native-American, six multi-racial and one white child. Statewide, the average performance for elementary schools on English Language Arts tests for 3rd and 4th grades in 52% proficient. At Dr. King school, the ELA proficiency is 3%. Only 3 of 121 Black students scored proficient on the test, according to the most recent state data. For more than a decade, New York State labeled Dr. King school: failing.
In 1954, Syracuse had a thriving center city. The city's population was at its peak of 220,000. 6,000 Black people lived in Syracuse they lived mostly in the same four census tracts on the eastern edge of downtown. The children attended three mostly Black schools. It was the year the Supreme Court of the United States ruled "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
The plaintiffs in that consolidated case came from Virginia, Delaware, South Carolina and Kansas. All states that operated dual school systems. One for White. One for Black. The court stated that practice must end. Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote referring to the Black children in those states, "by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment."
In other words, "the doctrine of separate, but equal has no place." It was the new law of the land.
The court did not demand swift action by the state's operating segregated systems. In fact, it created a standard "with all deliberate speed" that allowed school districts across the country to find reasons to delay integration. There was no clear deadline set.
Read more about Syracuse's history of school segregation and the Campus Plan that could have changed the direction of segregated schools in Syracuse.
Schools in the South had de jure segregation with specific and separate schools for white and black children. In the North, including Syracuse, segregation was de facto. Children mostly attended schools by neighborhood, but neighborhoods in cities and growing suburbs were shaped by a series of government policies.
Sharlene McKenzie researched and wrote her Thesis on "The Effect of Segregated Schools on African American Students and Dr. King School in Syracuse while getting her Masters of the Arts at UCLA. She now teaches African-American students at a high school near Los Angeles. California.
Her interest in the topic began while living in Syracuse. She worked in the Syracuse schools and also area Catholic Schools. Her daughter attended Syracuse schools. McKenzie recognized the shortage of resources for children. But, it's not just about resources. It's about segregation by race and income. "The Syracuse schools are definitely segregated." When beginning studies on her advanced degree she "started doing research on the failure of public schools, urban public schools in particular and saw that segregation was a key issue in that failure."
That's why efforts by New York State or the Board of Education to close and reopen schools usually do not work. McKenzie has seen examples of administrators hiring new staff and putting new systems into place only to have the same negative result. "The research shows segregation is the problem. Even in Syracuse history when they did integrate the schools, students did better," said McKenzie.
The Map of 1919 is meaningful to McKenzie. She was not surprised to see the label "NEGRO" on the redlined section where the relatively small Black population was living at the start of the great migration from the South. In her research, she tracked the attempts to desegregate Syracuse schools while up against the force of housing segregation created by discriminatory police including redlining. She recognizes the foundation of segregation that started a century ago, manifested itself in broader terms in the post-World War II era.
"It was the creation of the suburbs that caused the problems in the city. The housing practices that wouldn’t allow black families to move into certain areas and wouldn’t allow funding for the purchase of homes by black families," said McKenzie citing research. "It’s the creation of the suburbs that causes this very urban problem."
SEGREGATION IMPACTS TEST PERFORMANCE
The most current state report card breaks down students by race and performance on the English Language Arts or ELA tests. In the third and fourth grade combined at Dr. King School, there are 121 Black students, 11 Hispanic, one Native-American, six multi-racial and one white student.
The statewide proficiency on those ELA tests is 52%. Only three percent of the students in those grades at Dr. King scored proficient. Only 3 of the 121 Black students were proficient.
Integration into a suburban school district impacts achievement for Black students. Just five miles away from Dr. King school sits Moses Dewitt Elementary in the Jamesville-Dewitt school district. In the third and fourth grades there, there are 14 Black students, seven Hispanic, six Asian, seven multi-racial and 77 White.
Their ELA test scores meet the state average of 62% proficiency. Of the Black students at Moses Dewitt 6 of 13 are proficient. That's 46%.
Their performance is 15 times better in the integrated school compared to the segregated school in the urban setting.
INTEGRATION CLOSES ACHIEVEMENT GAP
Dr. George Theoharis has spent a career studying equity in education. "As our schools become more integrated the achievement gap closes. Steadily paired exactly with integration," said Theoharis. " When we see opportunities expanding for students of color who have been denied certain opportunities, we see their achievement improving. We don't see white students dipping we see their achievement improving."
The professor calls for an end to policies that attempt to improve schools without including a remedy for segregation. "We're committed in the northeast in Syracuse to segregated schools. And that says something about us," said Theoharis. "That says something about us well-intentioned folks in Central New York. We're committing to segregation. "
Theoharis admits he does not hear anyone talking about integrating schools in our region. McKenzie knows it would take a commitment across Onondaga County, not just in Syracuse. "You do need large-scale buy-in and you do need people willing to make that sacrifice," said McKenzie.
"Usually when people have the advantage they are not willing to sacrifice that. Even if you do want change. How much are you willing to sacrifice? Because change comes with a price tag and the price tag is usually more than just money. "
The latest change to come to the now-former Dr. King School to improve student performance, the Syracuse schools renamed it STEAM at Dr. King School. The school has operated under that name for nearly two years. Due to Covid disruptions, there are not yet test scores to offer a comparison on how the children are doing in class. It is also worth noting the Syracuse School District High School Graduation Rate has significantly improved over the last five years.
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