Residents of one neighborhood in the traditionally black Northeast Side are part of this new spirit. Carved out of an urban renewal district nearly a decade ago, the neighborhood became an attractive location for families of modest means. With the help of government-subsidized mortgages, they were able to buy property and finance construction of comfortable, ranch-style homes with spacious lawns.
But when the oil bust devastated Oklahoma City's economy, the neighborhood was hit hard. Many homeowners lost their jobs and were driven into foreclosure. With a dearth of buyers for the vacant properties, the houses were boarded up and left unceremoniously to the ravages of time and crime.
Residents Pitch In
Two years ago, that began to change. A neighborhood association was formed with an aggressive, self-help agenda. Residents cleared debris, cut grass and removed graffiti at the unoccupied homes. An "eyes-on-the-street" campaign was initiated to promote security. Plans were drawn up for constructing a neighborhood playground and a minipark with a gazebo on two separate vacant parcels of land.
"We wanted to live here and have a safe, nurturing environment where neighbor knows neighbor and everyone has pride in their community," said Dianne Ross McDaniel, a social worker and single parent who heads the neighborhood association. "But we realized that if we wanted to improve things, we would have to take full charge and full responsibility ourselves."
To the overwhelming majority of blacks on the battered Northeast Side, retaining neighborhood schools is essential to any community-rebuilding effort.
"Most of my parents are very supportive of the neighborhood-school concept," said Linda Toure, principal of Creston Hills Elementary School, a handsome, Spanish-style building set in a struggling neighborhood of modest, single-family homes. "They like having the school as a focal point for the neighborhood."
Creston Hills is one of nine elementary schools on the Northeast Side that returned to virtually all-black enrollment after the school board discontinued mandatory busing for desegregation for youngsters in grades 1 through 4.
Leola and Don Pittman, a married couple with five children who have lived in the Creston Hills neighborhood for the last two decades, supported the board's action.
Under desegregation, their three oldest children, who now range in ages from 19 to 25, were bused during their elementary school years to a school 10 miles away.
"I don't feel my kids got anything from being in a racially mixed environment," said Leola Pittman, 41, an aerospace employee at Tinker Air Force Base in southeast Oklahoma City. "They got an OK education, but . . . the only time they learned anything about their racial heritage . . . was during Black Heritage Month."
But the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League oppose the neighborhood school plan, contending that it has shortchanged the Northeast Side and is an unconscionable throwback to the Jim Crow era.
"The most glaring shortcoming of the plan has been its failure to allocate resources--physical, financial and human--to effect educational equalization and effectiveness in the 'Dowell' schools," the Urban League contended in a position paper, referring to the nine Northeast Side schools with virtually all-black enrollments.
School Supt. Arthur Steller maintains that the civil rights groups are unfairly comparing the all-black schools with predominantly white schools in the city's more affluent neighborhoods. When they are compared with schools in predominantly white, low-income areas, he contends, their problems do not seem as pronounced.
He maintains that the district is making a concerted effort to overcome academic deficiencies at the Dowell schools, so named after the Dowell vs. Oklahoma City Board of Education desegregation case that went to the Supreme Court.
Per-pupil expenditures at the Dowell schools exceed spending at schools with the highest ratio of whites by an average of almost 25%, he said, and the gap in test scores between the all-black schools and the district as a whole has been narrowed over the last six years from 13 points to 8, nearly a 40% reduction.
But civil rights activists and even some parents who otherwise support neighborhood schools maintain that black students at the Dowell schools would perform better academically if they were in integrated classrooms.
"I liked it better when my daughter was being bused," said Karen Bruner, 34, referring to her daughter, Kara, 16, who was bused during her grade-school years. ' "She had a mixture of teachers and a mixture of children. The children were being better educated."