RICHMOND, Va. — Everybody knew about it, said Dean and Mary Simpson. It was openly discussed.
The Richmond public schools wanted to keep white parents happy. Whites had been fleeing in droves since a federal court ordered the schools to desegregate in 1970. To lure them back, school officials offered special treatment.
Mary Simpson describes how they did it.
Before their oldest child started kindergarten in 1989, she recalled, she attended a neighborhood meeting where the black principal of Bellevue Model Elementary School spoke.
"Somebody asked her how she managed the white children," Simpson recalled of the meeting, which was mostly attended by white parents. The principal said she liked to keep white children together in the same classroom for their social and emotional well-being.
This practice, called "clustering," is said to have gone on for two decades. And even though it is now ending, amid a storm of controversy, it spotlights the difficulty many urban school districts across the country face in enticing white students to stay.
After a black parent's complaint sparked almost three months of acrimony, name calling and expressions of shock and outrage in this highly segregated former capital of the Confederacy, the school board voted unanimously Tuesday night to end the grouping. By Friday, officials hope to have dispersed white students throughout the student bodies of the two predominantly black schools where racial clustering still is practiced.
The Richmond School District, which at the start of court-ordered busing in 1970 was 35.8% white, now has a less than 10% white student population. Clustering failed to stem the tide of white flight, but Dean Simpson and other white parents say that in some schools, at least, it was working. White parents across the city were willingly--even eagerly--sending their children to predominantly black schools.
Whites were clustered at both Bellevue and Ginter Park Model Elementary School. Both offer special curricula--performing and visual arts and international studies, respectively--and accept pupils from all over the city.
Yet School Board President Clarence L. Townes said he was "shocked" to learn that clustering existed.
"The school board, I would almost say to a person, did not know of it," he said.
The first he heard of clustering, he said, was when the Rev. Hylan Q. Carter Jr. brought his complaint to the school board Dec. 1 after having spent more than two years trying to get his son accepted into Bellevue. Carter, who is black, said he learned that every white who applied had been accepted, leaving black pupils to fight over the limited number of available seats.
Despite the clustering, the schools had no classrooms that were all white. At Bellevue, for example, in kindergarten, white children were put in two different classes. From first grade onward, however, the whites were kept together in the same class.
Explaining how the practice came into existence, a former administrator who did not want to be named said: "We did everything you could possibly do to get white people to stay in the city. We promised the white people anything."
The current controversy has left white parents like Simpson with a range of emotions.
"I thought we were on the cutting edge," said Simpson, a professor of classics at the University of Richmond with two children at Bellevue. "I thought we were doing something that should be tried all over the country."
At the same time, he rejects the perception that white parents who are resisting the end of clustering are racists who do not want their children to sit in an overwhelmingly black classroom.
"One of the things that bother parents like me is that we are the ones who are labeled racist when we are not opting (to leave public schools)," said Simpson.
Referring to studies that he said showed that victims of segregation suffered from eroded self-esteem, Assistant Supt. Willis McLeod said the district intends to broaden its investigation of clustering to see if other socioeconomic factors besides race have been used to make student assignments in Richmond schools.
"I feel a sense of compulsion to investigate this whole issue of grouping," he said, noting that he's received complaints about students being clustered based on family income and perceptions of ability.
In addition to being an embarrassment to a district with a leadership that is largely black, the issue has caused the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights to launch an investigation into whether the way students were assigned to classes violated federal law. At stake is more than $14 million in federal funds.
To many black Richmond residents and some whites, clustering was a form of segregation, a way of accommodating white parents who wanted the best of everything and who wanted their children kept apart as much as possible from black children.