What do Boston & Cambridge have to say to Champaign Unit 4?

violin_may06Ann Abbott inspired me to say more about the connections between the Boston desegregation experience in my last post and that of Champaign Unit 4.

I’d have to say that Boston is a good example of how not to do it. As I said in that post, Judge Garrity made the correct, and only legally justifiable decision, but rulings alone cannot accomplish much if there is widespread resistance, especially from political and religious leaders, school officials, and media. The racism thwarted integration of the schools, and in the process did major damage to the school system and to Boston as a civilized city.

In contrast, just across the Charles River, Cambridge managed relatively successful desegregation during the same period. Cambridge adopted a “freedom of choice” or “controlled open enrollment” desegregation plan in 1981. Parents would specify a list of  the schools they wanted their children to attend. Their preferences were followed as long as explicit desegregation controls could be maintained. There were no guarantees of attending any particular school.

Graham_parksBecause the program was coupled with interesting magnet programs at every school, there were many viable options for families. As parents we almost welcomed the fact that we didn’t have to make the final choice between the Maynard School’s dual language (two-way Spanish-English bilingual) program, Tobin’s School of the Future, with innovative uses new technologies, the Graham & Parks Alternative Public School, with its open education plan (see mural above), or the closer by Peabody, Fitzgerald, or Lincoln schools, each with things to recommend it. It helped that Cambridge did not have the urban sprawl of midwestern cities, which meant that unlike Champaign, Cambridge offered several schools within walking distance.

Although not without its problems, this plan was effective in substantially desegregating Cambridge schools, and maintained public support and involvement with the public schools. It’s not surprising then that Robert Peterkin, Superintendent, was called in as a consultant on the similar plan in Champaign. The story in Champaign is still unfolding (as it is in Cambridge and Boston as well). But if I had to draw lessons today from these three experiences, I’d say that it’s essential for Champaign residents today to avoid the disastrous path of resistance that Boston experienced

champaignThe Champaign school district has been struggling to address concerns such as too many black students in special education and discipline referrals; too few in gifted and honors classes; and black students being bused out of their neighborhoods. Responses such as denying the problems or siting new schools outside of black communities (though still technically north side) remind me of Boston’s response. Everyone would benefit if the school system and residents were to embrace not only the technical details of the Cambridge (or similar) plan, but also the spirit that saw how desegregation could enrich the learning for all.


4 thoughts on “What do Boston & Cambridge have to say to Champaign Unit 4?

  1. Hi Charles! I think you touched on some of those societal elements already. And White Privilege is a big part of it. I’m working on a post on that anyway.

    In Champaign, as elsewhere, there’s a full spectrum: Some parents (the adults you mention) actively oppose any attempts at meaningful integration per se. Others don’t say they’re opposed to integration, but couch their resistance in terms of needing high quality resources for their own children, without going the next step of working to ensure high quality education for everyone.

    There are also obstacles in all the areas that affect our communities and schools. For example, simple things such as it being difficult to cross University Avenue on foot, reinforce segregated housing. The talk now is to use stimulus money to speed up vehicle traffic there by synchronizing the traffic lights. That might or might not be a good thing on its own terms, but one thing it does is to divide the community further. We literally don’t see how these forces operate, yet taken together, they reinforce a divided community.


  2. I stumbled upon this blog entry and pleasantly surprised to see that Imani has already been here. =)

    I have spoken with Imani on several occasions and have some idea of where she is coming from. Chip, let me ask you, in your opinion, what exactly are the societal elements that “thwart integration”? How exactly does that resistance manifest itself?

    From what little I know, I think we have some of the same going on over here in Champaign. As Imani pointed out, it is the adults that need to get this figured out, and my heart goes out to the children.

    As a white person, I have recently become aware of this nasty thing called “White Privilege”, the idea that white folks have a right to many things “just because”. Not only that, but the fact that statistically speaking, the upper-class, wealthy areas of town are predominantly white, and the lower-income less-mobile parts of town are predominantly black only reinforces common stereotypes, stereotypes that I think get in the way of any kind of racial reconciliation. I am beginning to see (finally!) that those who have privileges do not easily give them up, even if it eventually means enriching the community as a whole.

    I am hoping that we become more like Cambridge, and can be wise enough to stay away from Boston. =)

    Thanks for your post, Chip. I look forward to continuing this discussion at a later point.



  3. Thanks for your insightful comments! I agree that we must have that broader commitment and action.

    Garrity ruled in the Boston case for desegregation absent that commitment. I still say he was right to do so, because we can’t allow racist opposition to dictate civil rights, but it’s very unfortunate that the broader commitment didn’t develop to support his ruling. As you say, the jury is still out on Champaign.


  4. Chip,

    Thank you for following up with your last message to bring the conversation home.

    Yesterday I spent the morning (almost late to 1:45pm class 🙂 in the federal court house in Urbana as Judge McDade held his (likely) last hearing on the Champaign Schools consent decree.

    I have not yet fully assimilated the reality and implications of the end of the decree…having worked intensely for the past 13 years; I’m sure you can sympathize.

    Yes, it was Dr. Alves (the original designer of the Controlled Choice model…Peterkin being the first superintendent to implement it) who consulted with us to develop a school desegregation plan that controls for race, sibling and proxity preferences in the context of magnetized schools.

    I think you and others make the case for not embarking on a school desegregation plan in isolation of a broader commitment..and action…dedicated to educational equity. I think we would all agree that placing the burden for the integraton (not to be confused with desegregation…a more limited intervention) of society on the shoulders of children is unfortunate to put it mildly.

    Our schools are segregated because our neighborhoods are segregated because the adults in the lives of children can’t seem to get our acts together.

    Anyway, our approach in Champaign was quite comprehensive, including not just school deseg goals, but attendance, discipline, participation, professional and community development, achievement and graduation goals as well.

    It is undeniable that we are not where we used to be…and not yet where we want to be. The true test of our school district’s commitment and the courage of our community’s convictions being the day the judge turns his back and the monitoring ends…surely the jury is still out.


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