In the 1970s, Angie Ray worked tirelessly to improve conditions at Bradwell elementary, her daughters' school in South Shore. Bradwell then was 98 percent black, and four decades later, it still is.
  • Gene Pesek/Sun-Times
  • In the 1970s, Angie Ray worked tirelessly to improve conditions at Bradwell elementary, her daughters’ school in South Shore. Bradwell then was 98 percent black, and four decades later, it still is.

The Chicago Public Schools recently announced a program, to begin in January, that will “integrate African and African-American studies across all core disciplines at every CPS school.”

That’s a little less ambitious than working to integrate African-American students in schools across Chicago—a responsibility the district and the city have shirked for more than 50 years.

I wish I could report that 2013 was the year Chicago finally began working toward desegregating its schools. Or that it looks like this effort will begin in 2014. Or 2015. But school and city officials, now as ever, seem resigned to an apartheid district. Affluence abounds in and around Chicago, but you’d never know it from the CPS enrollment, which is 85 percent low-income, and also 86 percent African-American and Hispanic.

What’s remarkable about Chicago’s schools is not only how deeply segregated they are, but how long that’s been true—and how blase everyone is about it. Except for a handful of selective-enrollment and magnet schools, the schools have been nearly all black, brown, and low-income for more than 25 years now. The schools were also segregated in the 1960s and 70s, but in a different way: the enrollment was about half white and half black, but the two halves went to different sets of schools, with conspicuously different conditions.

Segregated schools would be a problem even if the students in them got equal academic educations. Schools prepare students socially as well as scholastically. Racially and economically separate schools prepare students not for life in an increasingly diverse nation, but for more segregation. Kids who attend poor African-American schools are much more likely to remain in poor African-American neighborhoods when they grow up than kids who start out in such neighborhoods but attend integrated schools.

Moreover, we know that schools with large proportions of low-income students do not provide their students with equal academic educations. Across the city, county, state, and nation, kids in such schools lag far behind their peers on every academic measure. Yes, this gap is partly due to what happens in homes long before children begin school. Affluent parents generally are better than impoverished parents at helping their kids develop cognitively in the critical early years. Given the stresses of poverty and the lesser educations of low-income parents, this is hardly surprising.

But instead of narrowing that early-childhood gap, segregated schools expand it. That’s largely because kids learn from each other as well as from their teachers. Low-income children do better in classrooms that are socioeconomically diverse—and middle-class children do well in them too. Chicago offers that kind of classroom to hardly any of its public school kids.

I wrote a series for the Reader this year on the city’s rampant and enduring school segregation. In the last of the stories, I discussed a couple of possible remedies. One of them is a city-suburban magnet school program; such programs have helped alleviate school segregation in Saint Louis, Boston, Milwaukee, Omaha, and Hartford. In 1980, when Chicago finally succumbed to pressure from the Justice Department and agreed to work toward desegregating its schools, the consent decree the board signed called for it to pursue an interdistrict program—but the board never did. A CPS spokesperson told me this summer that there are no plans to do so now.

School desegregation wouldn’t be quickly and easily accomplished in a city and region that are residentially segregated, and fresh ideas for moving in that direction are needed. But this isn’t a challenge we should keep shrinking from simply because it’s hard. We’ve already sacrificed the futures of countless kids for generations.

It amazes me to think about how little progress has been made on school segregation in Chicago in so many years. In the summer of 1975, when I was 21, I wrote one of my first magazine features, a story for the Sun-Times Sunday magazine. It was about a segregated Chicago school.

Specifically, it was a profile of Angie Ray, a woman who led boycotts of Bradwell elementary, the overcrowded South Shore school her four daughters attended. Bradwell had been built 80 years earlier, and was big enough for 1,000 students, which is how many it had in the 1960s, when the students were white. Then the neighborhood changed racially, and by 1974, Bradwell had 2,250 students, 98 percent of whom were black. Students were on triple shifts, with many of them attending school only four hours a day. Teacher turnover and absenteeism was high, which the acting principal attributed to low morale caused by the crowding and the triple shifts.

Think for a moment about how long such circumstances would be allowed to persist if the students suffering them were white.

The conditions at Bradwell were hardly unusual in Chicago in the 1960s and 70s. Throughout the city, neighborhoods and schools were changing from white to black, the schools were overflowing and deteriorating, and black community leaders were calling for an end to the segregation that was so tightly linked to the inequalities. School officials responded by doing whatever they could to keep the schools segregated. Students in the black schools were scoring well below their peers in the white schools. Eighth-graders at Bradwell were testing at the 17th percentile—33 points below the national average.

Things at Bradwell did improve, slightly, because of the pressure put on the board by the school’s parent-teacher council, headed by Ray, who was then 33. The boycotts she organized prodded the board to oust an unsympathetic principal, start a busing program to temporarily ease the overcrowding, and make plans to build a small school nearby.

Ray told me back then that the uncle and aunt who’d raised her in Alabama “taught me that when something is wrong, you don’t sit around and gossip about it. You get up and do something about it, or you don’t say anything, you accept it and leave it alone.”

From the 1950s through the 1970s, CPS lost most of its middle-class enrollment, as many families fled for the suburbs, a movement nurtured and funded by the federal government, which subsidized the highways and suburban infrastructure that made sprawl possible.

The overcrowding in black schools began easing in the late 1970s, as southern blacks realized that Chicago was not the Promised Land they’d thought it was, and no longer moved here.

More recently, African-Americans have been moving out of the city—to southern and western suburbs, and back to the south. From 2000 through 2010, Chicago’s Hispanic population grew 3 percent and its non-Hispanic white population held steady, while its African-American population declined 17 percent.

Chicago also began welcoming charter schools during the 2000s, further shrinking enrollments in schools in African-American neighborhoods. Almost all of the 50 schools CPS closed this year because they were “underutilized” were in black neighborhoods.

Bradwell, with 800 students, was deemed only 14 percent underenrolled, and so it survived. It will likely become even more underenrolled in coming years if CPS approves a pending application for a charter in South Shore.

So in four decades, Chicago’s African-American schools have gone from overcrowded to “underutilized”—with the segregation changing not a bit. Bradwell today is 98 percent black and 91 percent low-income. It’s also been on CPS probation the last seven years. There’s been modest improvement in test scores since 2010, when the school was the subject of a “turnaround”, but the scores remain dismal. Bradwell eighth-graders last year were reading at the 7th percentile nationally.

But Bradwell students now at least will have the new African-American studies program. Presumably they’ll learn about the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board ruling, in which the Supreme Court declared that racial segregation in schools “deprives children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities”, and that the separate-but-equal doctrine “has no place in the field of public education.”