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Eleven-year-old Najae Johnson transferred to Edgewater Elementary School last year and immediately realized nobody looked like her.
"When I first came here, I was scared because I was the only African-American," she said.
Her mother, Kelly Alford, said she was seeking a better education for her two daughters when she used a provision in the federal No Child Left Behind law that allows students to leave low-performing schools and enroll in others. She picked Edgewater for its high test scores, not realizing right away that the Point Place school is one of four elementary schools in the Toledo Public Schools with an 80 percent-plus white student population, making it much more like a suburban school.
Overall, 43 percent of Toledo Public Schools students are white. Washington Local schools, which serves residents of West Toledo and tiny Washington Township, are 87 percent white. In the rest of Lu-
cas County, white enrollment ranges from Springfield's 79 percent to Anthony Wayne's 97 percent. In Ottawa Hills, fewer than 10 of the 993 students are African-American, according to Ohio Department of Education data from the 2002-2003 school year.
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Among Wood County districts, student enrollment is at least 87 percent white in each, state education data show. Similar or higher percentages of white enrollment can be found in Ottawa, Fulton, and many other northwest Ohio counties.
In Michigan, whites comprise 93 percent of K-12 students in Monroe County, 88 percent in Lenawee County, and 97 percent in Hillsdale County, according to the state center for education performance and information.
Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown vs. Board of Education that public schools couldn't be forcibly segregated, a de facto division remains among most area schools as well as those nationally. Urban districts such as Toledo have high minority and lower-income student populations, while suburban and rural districts remain overwhelmingly white.
In Toledo Public Schools, a review by The Blade found:
●Individual buildings range from Edgewater's district-high 92 percent white enrollment to Nathan Hale Elementary School's 98 percent African-American student body.
●Just four of 46 elementary schools have no clear majority racial group.
●About 87 percent of teachers last year were white compared to 43 percent of students. First-year or early-career teachers are overwhelmingly white and are more likely to work in central-city buildings with high minority populations.
●Student transfer policies can foster an influx of minority students into mostly white schools. Of the 137 students who transferred in Toledo using No Child Left Behind provisions, 82 percent were minorities, though not all of them went to majority- white schools.
●Socioeconomic issues exist that educators say are perhaps more important than any of the other factors in public education. In Toledo Public Schools, 70 percent of elementary-age children are eligible for free- and reduced-lunch programs because of low family income, according to district records.
"These are the Brown vs. Board of Education issues today," said Wendell McConnaha, an associate professor of education at the University of Toledo.
Superintendent Eugene Sanders said any issues the schools have, the city of Toledo as a whole does as well.
"Schools are truly a microcosm of the larger society. Whatever issues our society is challenged with at large, whether they be race, whether they be socioeconomic issues, whether they be housing starts and housing patterns, whether they be economic development, those are issues that the schools end up with being challenged as well," he said.
First-grade teacher Pam Jackson has overheard her Hale pupils discussing her race, wrongly concluding she's not white after she taught a lesson about civil rights and African-American history.
"She's mixed," they said.
Mrs. Jackson, 54, who returned to teaching in 1997 after raising her children, is in her sixth year at Hale school, one of the largest elementary schools in Toledo Public Schools, with more than 700 students. It's among the 19 of 46 TPS elementary buildings with a majority African-American population.
Without her "life experiences," including being married to an African-American man, Mrs. Jackson said she wouldn't have been ready to teach during her first years in a classroom in majority African-American school.
The longer teachers work at Toledo Public Schools, the more likely they are to teach in schools with higher percentages of white students and with a lower proportion of students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, a review of district records by The Blade showed. The teachers' contract allows them to pick their schools by seniority.
"We have a lot of very high- energy, very dedicated young teachers who are anxious to make a difference and actually are anxious to accept positions in challenging environments," Mr. Sanders said.
But as teachers gain enough seniority to pick their buildings, he said, they choose other buildings for a number of reasons, including: proximity to their homes, specific foreign language programs in the school, or the reading methodologies used.
"Some obviously is related to the context of the school itself," he said.
The district would like to offer incentive pay for experienced teachers to work at "challenging" buildings, but Mr. Sanders said budget constraints prevent that policy from being implemented.
Among the eight elementary schools in the Scott High School "learning community" last year, average teacher experience ranged from 11 to 13 years in schools with African-American student populations between 80 and 98 percent. But at elementary schools in the Bowsher High area, average teacher experience ranged from 24 years at Arlington and Glendale-Fielbach to 30 years at Beverly, while the African-American population at elementary schools was between 11 percent at Beverly and 32 percent at Glendale-Fielbach.
In three of the seven learning communities - Bowsher, Rogers, and Scott - the elementary school with the highest percentage of African-American students had the lowest average years of teacher experience. In the Libbey area, the two elementary schools with the highest minority student percentages had lowest average years of teaching experience, while in the Waite and Woodward areas, the two elementary schools with the highest percentages of white students had the highest average years of teaching experience.
While the disproportionate number of white teachers has become a frequent topic of public criticism at school board meetings, not everyone in the district agrees it's an issue at the individual classroom level.
"I like teachers who are dynamic and engaging. I do not believe that the race of the teacher dramatically impacts the ability of a student to learn. I do believe that having minority teachers is valuable and important and they're certainly critical in terms of role models and setting examples," Mr. Sanders said.
At Hale, about 70 percent of teachers are white but that hasn't raised too many eyebrows there, according to some staff.
"We do not have a race issue as far as our staffing being white females coming here to teach the little black kids," said Trudie Neely, a social worker at Hale.
Still, Stacey Scharf, principal at Edgewater, acknowledged that differences between teachers' backgrounds and students' - whether racial, cultural, or socioeconomic - can pose challenges in the classroom.
"It's been an issue and we've had growth," Ms. Scharf said.
When the Johnson sisters began at Edgewater, Ms. Scharf quickly intervened when the girls were harassed by other students. Najae said whatever problems she faced when she started have been solved as people got to know her as an individual.
"Some people have thought they're better than me, but I know everybody's equal," she said.
Poverty blurs race
Ms. Scharf said Edgewater has worked to raise teachers' awareness about not only racial and cultural issues, but socioeconomic issues that can be the underlying cause of problems in student performance, teacher perception, and the quality of education.
Of the 29 students transferring to Edgewater from other schools this year, nine are African-American or Hispanic and 24 are eligible for the free or reduced-lunch program. About 260 students attend Edgewater.
Since the 1970s, the district has had a policy allowing students to transfer from their neighborhood school to another building in the district if their attendance would create a better racial balance, Mr. Sanders said. In elementary schools this year, 281 minority students transferred to mostly white schools. Of those, 204, or 73 percent, were eligible for free or reduced-lunch programs, according to district records. Of the 31 white students who transferred to a minority-majority school, 20, or 65 percent, were eligible for the meal program.
According to Mr. McConnaha, the disparities in income between students, schools, and districts have become greater issues since the 1954 Brown decision when segregation was by race.
"People tend to become segregated by where they live because of what they can afford, and they just naturally feel more comfortable in a neighborhood where people look like them," he said. "The economic disparity has forced the color line."
At Westfield Elementary School in Toledo's South End, Principal Sue Koester said the socioeconomics serve to unify students. The South End school is one of only four elementary schools in Toledo without a majority racial group among students. With 28 percent African-American, 25 percent Hispanic, 45 percent white, and 2 percent recorded as "other" last year, Westfield students could easily segregate themselves socially along racial lines.
Mrs. Koester said socioeconomic similarities trump other issues. About 90 percent of students are in free-lunch programs