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SAM DILLON TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — After white parents in this racially mixed city complained about school overcrowding, school authorities set out to draw up a sweeping rezoning plan. The results: all but a handful of the hundreds of students required to move this fall were black — and many were sent to virtually all-black, low-performing schools.
Black parents have been battling the rezoning for weeks, calling it resegregation. And in a new twist for an integration fight, they are wielding an unusual weapon: the federal No Child Left Behind law, which gives students in schools deemed failing the right to move to better ones.
“We’re talking about moving children from good schools into low-performing ones, and that’s illegal,” said Kendra Williams, a hospital receptionist, whose two children were rezoned. “And it’s all about race. It’s as clear as daylight.”
Tuscaloosa, where George Wallace once stood defiantly in the schoolhouse door to keep blacks out of the University of Alabama, also has had a volatile history in its public schools. Three decades of federal desegregation marked by busing and white flight ended in 2000. Though the city is 54 percent white, its school system is 75 percent black.
The schools superintendent and board president, both white, said in an interview that the rezoning, which redrew boundaries of school attendance zones, was a color-blind effort to reorganize the 10,000-student district around community schools and relieve overcrowding. By optimizing use of the city’s 19 school buildings, the district saved taxpayers millions, officials said. They also acknowledged another goal: to draw more whites back into Tuscaloosa’s schools by making them attractive to parents of 1,500 children attending private academies founded after court-ordered desegregation began.
“I’m sorry not everybody is on board with this,” said Joyce Levey, the superintendent. “But the issue in drawing up our plan was not race. It was how to use our buildings in the best possible way.” Dr. Levey said that all students forced by the rezoning to move from a high- to a lower-performing school were told of their right under the No Child law to request a transfer.
When the racially polarized, eight-member Board of Education approved the rezoning plan in May, however, its two black members voted against it. “All the issues we dealt with in the ’60s, we’re having to deal with again in 2007,” said Earnestine Tucker, one of the black members. “We’re back to separate but equal — but separate isn’t equal.”
For decades school districts across the nation used rezoning to restrict black students to some schools while channeling white students to others. Such plans became rare after civil rights lawsuits in the 1960s and ’70s successfully challenged their constitutionality, said William L. Taylor, chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights.
Tuscaloosa’s rezoning dispute, civil rights lawyers say, is one of the first in which the No Child Left Behind law has become central, sending the district into uncharted territory over whether a reassignment plan can trump the law’s prohibition on moving students into low-performing schools. A spokesman, Chad Colby, said the federal Education Department would not comment.
Tuscaloosa is not the only community where black parents are using the law to seek more integrated, academically successful schools for their children.
In Greensboro, N.C., students in failing black schools have transferred in considerable numbers to higher-performing, majority-white schools, school officials there said. A 2004 study by the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights documented cases in Florida, Indiana, Tennessee and Virginia where parents were moving their children into less-segregated schools.
Nationally, less than 2 percent of eligible students have taken advantage of the law’s transfer provisions. Tuscaloosa, with 83,000 residents, is an hour’s drive west of Birmingham. During court-ordered desegregation its schools roughly reflected the school system’s racial makeup, and there were no all-black schools.
But in recent years the board has carved the district into three zones, each with a new high school. One cluster of schools lies in the east of the city; its high school is 73 percent black.
Another cluster on Tuscaloosa’s gritty west side now amounts to an all-black minidistrict; its five schools have 2,330 students, and only 19 are white. Its high school is 99 percent black.
In contrast, a cluster of schools that draw white students from an affluent enclave of mansions and lake homes in the north, as well as some blacks bused into the area, now includes two majority-white elementary schools. Its high school, Northridge, is 56 percent black.
At a meeting in February 2005, scores of parents from the two majority white elementary schools complained of overcrowding and discipline problems in the middle school their children were sent to outside of the northern enclave.
Ms. Tucker said she, another board member and a teacher were the only blacks present. The white parents clamored for a new middle school closer to their homes. They also urged Dr. Levey to consider sending some students being bused into northern cluster schools back to their own neighborhood, Ms. Tucker said. Dr. Levey did not dispute the broad outlines of Ms. Tucker’s account.
“That was the origin of this whole rezoning,” Ms. Tucker said.
Months later, the school board commissioned a demographic study to draft the rezoning plan. J. Russell Gibson III, the board’s lawyer, said the plan drawn up used school buildings more efficiently, freeing classroom space equivalent to an entire elementary school and saving potential construction costs of $10 million to $14 million. “That’s a significant savings,” Mr. Gibson said, “and we relieved overcrowding and placed most students in a school near their home. That’s been lost in all the rhetoric.”
Others see the matter differently. Gerald Rosiek, an education professor at the University of Alabama, studied the Tuscaloosa school district’s recent evolution. “This is a case study in resegregation,” said Dr. Rosiek, now at the University of Oregon.
In his research, he said, he found disappointment among some white parents that Northridge, the high school created in the northern enclave, was a majority-black school, and he said he believed the rezoning was in part an attempt to reduce its black enrollment.
The district projected last spring that the plan would move some 880 students citywide, and Dr. Levey said that remained the best estimate available. The plan redrew school boundaries in ways that, among other changes, required students from black neighborhoods and from a low-income housing project who had been attending the more-integrated schools in the northern zone to leave them for nearly all-black schools in the west end.
Tuscaloosa’s school board approved the rezoning at a May 3 meeting, at which several white parents spoke out for the plan. One parent, Kim Ingram, said, “I’m not one who looks to resegregate the schools,” but described what she called a crisis in overcrowding, and said the rezoning would alleviate it. In an interview this month, Ms. Ingram said the middle school attended by her twin seventh-grade girls has been “bursting at the seams,” with student movement difficult in hallways, the cafeteria and locker rooms.
Voting against the rezoning were the board’s two black members and a white ally.
Dan Meissner, the board president, said in an interview this month that any rezoning would make people unhappy. “This has involved minimal disruption for a school system that has 10,000 students,” he said.
But black students and parents say the plan has proven disruptive for them.
Telissa Graham, 17, was a sophomore last year at Northridge High. She learned of the plan last May by reading a notice on her school’s bulletin board listing her name along with about 70 other students required to move. “They said Northridge was too crowded,” Telissa said. “But I think they just wanted to separate some of the blacks and Hispanics from the whites.”
Parents looking for recourse turned to the No Child Left Behind law. Its testing requirements have enabled parents to distinguish good schools from bad. And other provisions give students stuck in troubled schools the right to transfer. In a protest at an elementary school after school opened last month, about 60 black relatives and supporters of rezoned children repeatedly cited the law. Much of the raucous meeting was broadcast live by a black-run radio station.
Some black parents wrote to the Alabama superintendent of education, Joseph Morton, arguing that the rezoning violated the federal law. Mr. Morton disagreed, noting that Tuscaloosa was offering students who were moved to low-performing schools the right to transfer into better schools. That, he said, had kept it within the law.
Dr. Levey said about 180 students requested a transfer.
Telissa was one of them. She expects to return this week to Northridge, but says moving from one high school to another and back again has disrupted her fall.
One of Telissa’s brothers has also been rezoned to a virtually all-black, low-performing school. Her mother, Etta Nolan, has been trying to get him a transfer, too.
“I’m fed up,” Ms. Nolan said. “They’re just shuffling us and shuffling us.”
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