In 1993 the Rockford Public School District was found guilty of
widespread, intentional discrimination against minority students.
Its punishment was a litany of court orders and years of oversight.
24 years and $252 million later we’re
By Corina Curry | Staff writer
ROCKFORD — Xica Davis-Flannigan never thought her daughters would attend schools that are less integrated than the ones she attended 20 years ago.
As a black girl growing up in Rockford during the People Who Care desegregation lawsuit, Davis-Flannigan attended schools that she and her parents chose for her, schools she describes as racially mixed.
Today, choosing schools is a thing of the past, and the schools Davis-Flannigan’s daughters can attend — based on geographic boundaries called “zones” — tend to test poorly and are filled with black and Hispanic children.
“You have your zone, and you can’t go outside of your zone,” said the 33-year-old mom. “Zoning took away our choices. Schools are full of African-American and Mexican kids, and I don’t think they’re getting what they need.”
Davis-Flannigan is talking about the resegregation of Rockford schools.
After decades of costly legal battles, court orders and fiery public debate surrounding the desegregation of Rockford Public Schools, today’s schools look strikingly similar to their pre-desegregation counterparts, where white children attended better-performing east side schools and black children attended failing west side schools.
A Rockford Register Star analysis of student race and achievement at Rockford Public Schools shows the district’s top-performing schools are predominantly white — some have as few as 15 black children — and the district’s worst-performing schools are predominantly minority — some with as few as 20 white children.
Students at the predominantly white schools fare far better on state tests measuring academic achievement. Students at the predominantly black and Hispanic schools have the lowest scores in the district, and in some cases, some of the lowest scores in the entire state.
Racial isolation and the poor performance of Rockford schools were cornerstone arguments of two racial discrimination lawsuits against the Rockford School District. The first, in the 1970s, got the district cited for failing to comply with state desegregation requirements. The second, in the 1980s, resulted in a finding of guilt, $252 million in court-ordered remedies and years of turmoil that forever changed the way people think about Rockford schools.
Davis-Flannigan worked for years as a medical assistant with elderly patients. She now works with developmentally disabled adults, helping them live independently. Her other job is making sure her daughters, ages 8 and 13, graduate from high school and go on to college.
That means worrying about things like getting them into the best schools she can without having to pay tuition or pay more in rent.
“You think about it all the time. … You wonder if things could be different, could be better for your children if they could be in better schools,” Davis-Flannigan said. “But you can’t afford the rent in those places. … The less you make, the less you can afford, the worse the schools your kids go to. That’s it.”
“We are still segregated. … We’re segregated but in a new millennial way.”
Data from the 2015-2016 school year show Rockford Public Schools' least successful schools serve large numbers of minority students, a much larger proportion than the overall percentage of minority students in the district.
Of the 28,459 students who attend Rockford Public Schools, 8,708 are black. Seven percent of them — or 601 students — attend schools that scored among the top 10 highest on the state’s Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers annual exam.
For white students, it’s reversed. There are 8,993 in the district. Seven percent of them — or 637 students — attend schools that scored among the 10 lowest on the PARCC exam.
Of the 7,655 Hispanic students, 8 percent are at top schools.
These percentages vary greatly from the district’s overall enrollment of 31.6 percent white, 30.6 percent black and 26.9 percent Hispanic.
School districts across the country use overall demographic breakdown to determine how well individual schools are integrated.
Districts — Rockford included — that were under court orders resulting from desegregation lawsuits over the past half century often were sued in part because schools were virtually all black or all white. Courts typically would impose a “racial variation standard,” or acceptable level at which schools would not be deemed overly white, black or Hispanic depending on a district’s overall demographics. Rockford’s was plus or minus 15 percentage points.
According to a report filed with federal judges in 1998 as part of the remedial efforts after People Who Care, the number of schools that did not meet the 15 percentage-point standard dropped from 15 in October 1996 to 12 in September 1997, the report states. The following year, it was 10.
Using this standard today, 16 of the district's best and worst schools would fall outside the 15-point range deemed acceptable by the court.
The landmark U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education ruling turned 63 this year.
When Brown was decided in 1954, segregation typically meant legally designated separate schools for white and black students or school boundaries drawn to isolate the races without the need to designate schools black or white.
The Supreme Court ruled this system unconstitutional, saying that separate schools — in of themselves — were “inherently unequal.”
The implementation of Brown was marked by resistance. Success, more often than not, was found in court.
Black families across the country would sue their school districts claiming that districts created and maintained racially segregated systems, provided unequal resources and opportunities, and discriminated against minority children despite the Brown ruling.
Most communities that fell under court orders because of those lawsuits fought the prescribed remedies until they were able to get rid of them. Rockford was no different. Rockford Public Schools operated under court orders for most of the 1990s through 2001, when a federal appeals court gave local control back to the district.
A major component of the court’s order was controlled choice, a student assignment system in which parents got to choose the schools their children attended regardless of where they lived. Choices were ranked and then, using a race-based algorithm, students were assigned to schools. Although the court could not turn a failing school into a thriving school overnight, it could open the door to better schools.
In 2010, Rockford Public Schools did away with the last vestiges of a districtwide choice model and adopted the zone system.
Today, choice in Rockford Public Schools is limited to enrollment in special programs — such as the Gifted Academy, which students must test into, Creative and Performing Arts, which requires auditions, charter schools and schools to which students must apply: Maria Montessori, Haskell Year-Round Academy and Barbour Two-Way Language Immersion School.
Of the special program schools, only three test above the state average — the two gifted schools and Montessori. The others have some of the worst student achievement scores in the district.
Lisa Jackson was one of two Rockford School Board members to vote against the move to zoned schools in 2010.
The board was under tremendous pressure from the city’s business and real estate communities to get rid of school choice, Jackson said. Surveys were done showing people supported the switch to zones, but Jackson said she heard nothing of the sort when she spoke to her west side constituents.
"Most of the people I spoke with wanted choice," she said. "They wanted to make educational decisions for their children. They wanted more options, not less."
Jackson — the sole black person on the seven-person board and the daughter of People Who Care litigant Flossie Hoarde — and fellow board member Jeanne Westholder fought the change, warning their colleagues about potential resegregation of schools under the new plan. It could land the district back in court, they said.
“Separate but equal is a thing of the past,” Jackson said the night of the vote. “It’s time to embrace diversity and equality.”
Zones will make all schools better, the argument went. Families will connect better with a school that's closer to their home. The district will save millions of dollars on transportation costs, and people will know what schools their child will attend based on where they live.
Jackson, who no longer serves on the board, saw the vote that night as an end — an end to hope for families trapped in zones with failing schools and the end to the opportunities her mother fought so hard to bring to Rockford children.
"It’s disheartening when I think about the state of our schools," Jackson said. "When you look at education in our district — what I call miseducation — it’s not getting better. It’s getting worse.”
The problem is choice wasn't working either, Rockford Superintendent Ehren Jarrett said.
Choice programs do a few things, Jarrett said: They make some families happy. They make some families leave the district, either by moving out of Rockford or by sending their children to private schools. And they make some families unhappy. The biggest problem is some students always end up at the worst schools.
"If you look at schools under choice you’d see the same data patterns because there were always schools that people didn’t choose," Jarrett said. "The math doesn't change. Play out the implications of that system. If you don't make all schools high quality, there's a ceiling of what you can accomplish."
"Choice doesn't deconcentrate poverty," Jarrett said. "The true complexity of this issue gets into housing patterns, gets into generational poverty, gets into the lack of coordination of social supports."
Jarrett said he and the Rockford School Board are committed to zoned schools with some choice through special programs such as Montessori, Creative and Performing Arts, dual language and year-round school.
They're also committed to improving academic achievement at the district's chronically low-performing schools, a challenge that has proven itself to be most formidable. He points to efforts at the school that's struggled the most — Kennedy Middle School — as an example of a school where student achievement is improving. Kennedy, for example, scored in the 99th percentile in the country last year for reading growth.
"We know we have to get better results at our schools," Jarrett said. "How do we address issues of teacher quality, innovation, differential resources, community support? How do we create an environment where all of our schools have high growth rates and families feel good no matter what neighborhood they live in? Those are the conversations we need to be having."
Losing segregation gains
The resegregation of public schools is the subject of heated national debate.
In recent years, it’s been the topic of several media investigations and academic studies and a federal report requested by members of Congress on the 60th anniversary of the Brown decision.
The report, by the Government Accountability Office, showed that the number of high-poverty schools in America filled with mostly black and Hispanic students more than doubled from 2001 to 2014.
Erica Frankenberg, an associate professor of education and demography at Penn State University and a specialist in K-12 school desegregation, has watched the country’s schools quietly slip back into their old ways.
"Being released from court orders has caused districts across the country to lose desegregation gains,” Frankenberg said. “We certainly see that today.”
Frankenberg studies how and why districts have lost those gains, and those studies have included Rockford.
Back in 2009, the district sought federal funds to help it evaluate its existing student assignment plan and adopt a new one. Throughout the application, the district references its commitment to not resegregate schools.
“That showed to me that at least at some point in time the district realized that there are harms in having racially isolated minority schools," Frankenberg said. "The district administrators are right in that there are segregated neighborhoods in Rockford, but Rockford also made a deliberate decision to go back to neighborhood schools from the choice policy."
They got rid of a system that integrated their schools and replaced it with a system that did the opposite, she said, just as many other districts across the country were doing.
Fits and starts
The state of Rockford's schools should come as a surprise to no one.
"The result is predictable," said Mike Williams, executive director of Rock River Training Corp. and a former School Board member of 17 years. "Moving to zoned schools — they should have known. There was a combination of issues. Economic status was one. Resources to work with students who have virtually no supports at home was two. Many of the students who were being thrown back into the neighborhood school concept were low performing to begin with. All of those factors combine to say, 'You're going to have an issue.'"
Williams served on the School Board before, during and after the People Who Care lawsuit.
"We’ve had fits and starts of excellence that were in the heart of the low-income areas of our city," Williams said, "but because of a lack of vision or bias or racism, those schools have regressed."
He points to Lewis Lemon school as an example. It was among the district's top schools in 2002. It's near the bottom today.
It's incumbent on the Rockford community and its leaders to face the realities and challenges of Rockford Public Schools head-on, he said.
"I do think the administration is working very hard to bring in resources," he said. "I do think they realize what the challenges are."
"The courts warned us. After the district successfully convinced them that they did everything they possibly could do to implement remedies and couldn't do any more. They won that hearing, but the appellate court gave the district an admonishment. Do not repeat what led them into the lawsuit to begin with."
Makes us smarter
Frankenberg and her colleagues at the UCLA Civil Rights Project work to raise awareness of school segregation and advocate for integrated schools.
Children in segregated schools are exposed to less diversity, Frankenberg said, which makes them less prepared to live and work in multiracial society.
"Diversity makes us smarter," wrote Amy Stuart Wells, Lauren Fox, and Diana Cordova-Cobo of Teachers College, Columbia University, in a 2016 report for the Century Foundation.
“Researchers have documented that students’ exposure to other students who are different from themselves and the novel ideas and challenges that such exposure brings leads to improved cognitive skills, including critical thinking and problem solving,” the report states. "The advocates of racially integrated schools understand that much of the recent racial tension and unrest in this nation—from Ferguson to Baltimore to Staten Island — may well have been avoided if more children had attended schools that taught them to address implicit biases related to racial, ethnic, and cultural differences."
In the October 2014 article "How Diversity Makes Us Smarter" in Scientific American, Katherine W. Phillips writes: "It seems obvious that a group of people with diverse individual expertise would be better than a homogeneous group at solving complex, nonroutine problems. It is less obvious that social diversity should work in the same way—yet the science shows that it does."
Pray on it
Xica Davis-Flannigan graduated from Roosevelt Community Education Center, home of the district's alternative high school program. Before that, she went to East, Jefferson and Auburn — all schools she chose at different times for different reasons.
She went to Rock Valley College but dropped out after getting pregnant. After her second daughter was born, she went back to school, graduating with an associate's degree in 2013. She has been working ever since.
Still, she doesn't make enough money to move to a part of town where schools get high marks.
In a few weeks, her daughters, Ta'Jei, 13, and Chaundra, 8, will head back to school. Ta'Jei will stay at Chicago International Charter School Jackson, which she's attended since 2016, while Chaundra will leave Jackson and start anew at Washington Elementary, her new zoned school.
Washington replaced King Elementary, which closed this year. Both King and Jackson were among the district's worst-performing schools in 2015-2016. King also was one of the most segregated. Of its 317 students, 20 were white.
Ta'Jei plans to audition for the district's Creative And Performing Arts program for high school. If she gets in, she'll attend Auburn in 2018. If she doesn't get in, Davis-Flannigan isn't sure what she'll do.
"I just have to pray on it," she said. "What choice do I have?"
Our report on the resegregration of Rockford Public Schools started as most investigations do: with the filing of Freedom of Information Act requests.
FOIAs seeking the racial makeup of Rockford Public Schools going back every five years from 2015 to 1970, along with the total number of students at each school and state test scores for each school, were sent to Rockford Public Schools and the Illinois State Board of Education. Both FOIAs were denied.
Both Rockford Public Schools and the state board directed us to the online Illinois Report Card, where we could find information going back five years, and a link on the ISBE website where we could access historic information about race and test scores going back to 2002.
To test the theory that Rockford Public Schools were resegregated, we mined the available information and built several databases.
We took the top 10 schools and the bottom 10 schools in the district based on state test results, measured the student diversity at each school and compared it with the district's overall student diversity.
What we discovered is very few black students attend the district's top schools and very few white students attend the district's worst schools.
We then examined the racial makeup of the district's best and worst schools using a 15 percentage-point guideline adopted during the People Who Care lawsuit.
We also did a similar assessment of state test scores and student diversity using 2002 data to get an idea of what school looked like closer to the time of the lawsuit.