A detailed look at the Huntsville City Schools desegregation case

Over fifty-one years ago, Huntsville City Schools (HCS) became the first school system in Alabama to begin the process of integration. On September 9, 1963, Sonnie Hereford IV walked into his first grade class at the previously all-white Fifth Avenue Elementary, which used to stand on Governors. Half a century later, Mr. Hereford’s lawsuit – the lawsuit that allowed him to go to school – is still working its way through the courts. To this day, HCS has not achieved unitary status (unitary status means that a school system is has removed segregation to the greatest possible extent, and can operate with less federal scrutiny).

In a strongly-worded 107-page opinion, US District Court Judge Madeline Haikala accused HCS of keeping improper records in violation of past court orders, “frequently offer[ing] incomplete answers” to questions asked by the court, giving testimony inconsistent with official data and the law, and claiming to have achieved partial unitary status without legal permission. She rejected several plans for redistricting Huntsville City Schools, instead appointing a mediator, Judge John Ott, to help Huntsville to move towards unitary status.

Wardinski’s Plan for Integration

Before Casey Wardynski became the Superintendent, there were clear differences between predominantly black and white schools in Huntsville. In 2011, the year Dr. Wardynski was hired, only three AP classes were offered at Butler High School, where seventy percent of students are black. These advanced classes were taken by a total of twenty-seven students, and no one passed the end-of-year AP exams. According to statistics provided by Huntsville City Schools, only twenty percent of students at Butler were reading at grade level; the school had a dismal thirty-one percent graduation rate. In an official court transcript from the end of the 2014 school year, Wardynski* was recorded as saying “my feeling about Butler was it was barely a school.” Johnson High School, another predominantly black school, had similar issues, with only a slightly more than twenty percent of students reading at or above grade level.

In an attempt to remedy this situation, Wardynski and Edith Pickens, the director of Secondary Programs for Huntsville City Schools, developed a comprehensive Student Assignment Plan, which was designed in part, according Ms. Pickens’ testimony recorded in an official court document, to ensure “equitable access for all students to high school Honors, AP, and IB courses.” This program has enjoyed modest success, with Butler’s AP enrollment rising to 125 students in the six classes offered as of the 2013-2014 school year.

However, Butler still appears to have problems. Several parent complaints filed with the court revealed that some students did not receive a permanent math teacher or a grade for the first nine weeks of classes in 2013.

In contrast to Butler, in the 2013-2014 school year Grissom High School offered twenty-two AP classes and Huntsville High offered fourteen. Grissom and Huntsville students took over 2,200 AP exams in 2013 alone. Eighty-four percent and eighty-eight percent of students at Huntsville and Grissom, respectively, read at or above grade level. Both schools are predominantly white.

However, changing curriculum is not enough for a school system to achieve unitary status. To do so, Huntsville needs to not only make sure that each of its schools reasonably reflect the forty percent black student population enrolled throughout the city, but that every student in every school has similar opportunities: for instance, similar AP opportunities at schools with similar population size. The Student Assignment Plan was designed not only to help provide equitable access to curriculum, but also to rezone schools in a more ethnically diverse pattern.

In early 2012, shortly after his hiring, Wardynski and the school board decided to retain the educational advisement firm DeJong-Richter to begin the process of rezoning. Part of this process, according to Wardynski, was “a fairly rigorous construction campaign” to build new schools. The school board paid $154,000 to the firm (a fraction of Huntsville City School’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget of $202 million), partially to ensure that there would be as much racial diversity as possible zoned into each school. However, no records were kept of these meetings.

The Lawsuit

In 2013 the school board filed its new rezoning plans. Under these plans, Butler, McDonnell Elementary, Ed White Middle, and Davis Hills Middle would close, all of which are predominantly black. Huntsville City Schools held six town hall meetings to discuss the enormous impact of the Student Assignment Plan. After these meetings, no edits were made to the plan. The plan would later be called “unusual” because it affects seventy-five percent of the current school zones, which, according to Judge Haikala’s memorandum opinion, had “the potential to be disruptive.”

Still, this wasn’t enough. The Department of Justice (DOJ) claimed that Huntsville’s zoning plan violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution, which means that the zoning plan did not give the almost 24,000 students in Huntsville City equal access to a quality education. The DOJ proposed an alternate plan on December 31, 2013, which turned several elementary schools, including Jones Valley and Blossomwood, into Pre-K to sixth grade schools, and would feed more schools into Huntsville High. This plan met fierce resistance from the Superintendent, and was never proposed to parents or students enrolled in Huntsville City Schools.

The case was argued at the end of the 2013-2014 school year before Haikala. HCS argued that since they couldn’t control where people live, they could not be responsible for the way the district reflected the racial differences between neighborhoods. The DOJ claimed that the school district did not act in good faith to try to achieve unitary status, including separating adjacent majority-black and majority-white neighborhoods into different schools. In her official memorandum opinion, Haikala rejected both the United States’ and Huntsville City Schools’ redistricting plans, saying that neither of them adequately addressed the problems in our schools. Instead, she appointed a mediator to help reach an agreement between the DOJ and HCS that is in the best interests of all students in the entire city of Huntsville.

Although the Court ruling initially condemned many of Huntsville’s actions, it ended on a hopeful note. Haikala praises Huntsville’s teachers, saying that they “have demonstrated unbounded enthusiasm for their work and sincere dedication to their students, their schools, and the district,” and even states that Huntsville has the potential to be the best school district in the United States. Huntsville can do great things, but we still have a long way to go.

*Superintendent Wardysnki could not be reached for comment for this article.

Interview with Dale Jackson on social media surveillance

After publishing an AL.com editorial criticizing Huntsville City Schools’ surveillance of students’ social media, Dale Jackson of WVNN asked me to come in and debate my points on air. You can read my original editorial here.

I edited this recording to show only my interview. The audio of more of Mr. Jackson’s show is available at www.theattackmachine.com.

Huntsville City Schools’ monitoring of social media

(This article was originally published on AL.com)

What should the role of a school system be in the digital age? Dr. Wardynski said in another article on AL.com that “the first duty of the Superintendent” is to “ensure student safety” both from threats of violence and from online intimidation, like cyberbullying. After the tragedy at Columbine and the all-too-common suicides of teenagers bullied online, schools can and should work to protect students from these threats.

However, spying on students’ social media and private lives is not the best way to do this: after all, the persona that anyone presents online is different from the person they are inside. Schools should take a stronger approach in looking after the psychological well-being of students to catch depression and other problems before they burst into tragedy. By reducing class sizes and increasing actual contact with caring teachers who are trained and paid to look for problems in students, more people will voluntarily come forward and ask for help before they do something they cannot undo.

Monitoring social media addresses all the right problems in all the wrong ways. By the time a student is bringing a gun to school or considering suicide, there will have been dozens of points where an adult could have given that student a kind word, referred them to receive extra help, and taken action to stop harassment or put the student in a better home.

Expelling the students that need help the most only helps perpetuate the cycle of poverty that likely put students in a toxic environment in the first place. In the landmark 1954 case Brown v Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that it “is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.”

The same minority students that are protected by that ruling are the ones that may be disproportionately targeted by this surveillance. The stain of expulsion on a student’s permanent record can throw that student off the difficult and delicate track towards success, already weighted against minority students.

Teenagers are not hard to understand. They are under heavy pressures to succeed in an uncertain and changing world, and this can be stressful, even when students don’t admit it. No matter how many benchmarks students pass or metrics they measure well in, nothing changes the fact that they are human and often fail and get sad or lonely.

We don’t need more one-off assemblies where random presenters come in from out of town to preach to us about the dangers of drugs and drinking and depression. We need better relationships between students and faculty, and a better support network for our teachers. One of my teachers told me that “it’s physically and mentally and emotionally exhausting…loving and caring about your futures.” Administrators should be focusing on supporting and training teachers, not obsessing over numbers. We as a nation need to be willing to pay teachers a wage that not only compensates them for the stress they go through, but also a wage that incentivizes talented young people to go into education.

To believe that the answer to the problems facing our schools will be as easy as monitoring social media belittles teenage students and treats the symptoms of our problems rather than the cause. We as Americans need to get the guts to fix our problems, not expel them or throw them in jail.