As the first all-white school to be integrated in Florida, Orchard Villa Elementary was once a symbol of progress in race relations.
Today, it’s an example of other powerful social changes: Dramatic demographic shifts that have changed the face of Miami-Dade County’s population — and of the students that fill its classrooms.
In 1959, four black kids broke the color barrier in at Orchard Villa. This fall, only two white students were enrolled.
The Liberty City school is far from alone in seeing the integration goals of a landmark Supreme Court order erode and even reverse over the last half century.
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A Miami Herald analysis shows that tens of thousands of black and Hispanic students attend class in schools that would have fit the definition of “segregated’’ during the three decades that the federal courts monitored Miami-Dade’s integration efforts.
Close to half of Miami-Dade’s roughly 460 traditional and charter schools now meet the bar that the court once set to define ‘isolated’ — comprised of 85 percent of one racial group. Overall, one in three black children are enrolled in such schools, and more than half of Hispanic students.
The percentage of students in these racially or ethnically “isolated” schools has increased since 2001, when a judge lifted court supervision and said the district had eradicated the symptoms of a once-segregated system. Activists at the time warned that the district would backslide.
“You can go anywhere in this country. Schools have re-segregated,” said Adora Obi Nweze, president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the NAACP and the national organization’s education chairwoman. “That’s not a secret and it’s not isolated to Miami.”
One study released this week by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that 60 years after the Supreme Court ruled “separate but equal” systems of education unconstitutional, large school districts like Miami-Dade have seen poor Hispanic and black students become more concentrated in schools following release from desegregation orders. Its authors don’t say segregation is back, but rather that massively changing demographics and court rulings have stripped away at some of the progress made after the Brown ruling.
That’s arguably most evident in Dade, where a combination of white flight and surges in Hispanic and Caribbean black populations have radically changed the county’s racial and ethnic makeup. At the same time, the district has distanced itself from race-based programs, saying the Supreme Court has ruled diversity measures like racial quotas as unconstitutional.
Plus, there simply aren’t enough white students to balance things out anyway. Where three decades ago whites made up a quarter of the student body, they now make up less than 8 percent of the public school system. Meanwhile the number of Hispanic students has jumped dramatically to nearly 70 percent.
That means the diversity of many Miami-Dade schools is mostly defined by their surrounding neighborhoods — which in many cases also have become increasingly isolated. The exception are magnet programs and charter schools, which are now booming in Miami-Dade as the primary method for promoting integration.
“The reality is, as long as Miami-Dade is completely segregated in some communities, making diversity happen in those schools — if you don’t do busing — can only be accomplished through parental choice,” said Maria Kramer, head of Miami-Dade schools’ diversity committee.
Kramer said the district does well with its available options. Between magnet and charter schools, the district now offers roughly one in three students a seat at the school of their choice. The school system has also been recently recognized for boosting academic achievement and access to rigorous courses among black and Hispanic students.
“For anyone to say that we’re not providing access to all black schools, the [contradicting] data is there,” said Gisela Feild, the district’s head of data analysis.
Some local activists, however, say many black and Hispanic students remain disadvantaged in their home schools. Earlier this month, a coalition of non-profits that includes the local teacher’s union appeared before the school board and argued that the district needs to focus more resources into those schools.
“I can’t believe that would be the case,” said School Board Member Wilbert “Tee” Holloway, whose district includes several isolated black schools. “Not today.”
Still, the performance of Dade’s isolated schools are mixed. While the students in many isolated Hispanic schools perform better on Florida’s standardized reading tests than the average Hispanic student in Miami-Dade, the students in isolated black schools are overwhelmingly poor and tend to struggle.
“Every school should be treated the same and they’re not. Every school should have the same opportunity and they don’t,” said Fedrick Ingram, president of the United Teachers of Dade, said. “Some of the kids that attend these urban schools are in absolute survival mode.”
Some small programs, special education centers, and vocational and alternative schools were excluded from The Herald’s analysis.