Photo | Shane Rice
Editor’s Note: This is one of two final installments in this issue in a Lagniappe series examining the effects of the Birdie Mae Davis case on the Mobile County Public School System and its racial makeup, 50 years after the landmark case was argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. The first two parts of the series were featured in the October 14 issue.
Years before he was superintendent of the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS), Paul Sousa remembers a tumultuous time as assistant principal at Murphy High School in Midtown. After the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the school was forced to integrate in 1964 and in the years that followed, Sousa said tensions were high between Black and White students.
“The year before I came, [Murphy] would only stay open about half a day because of all the fights and rioting,” he recalled last week. “And when you think about it, if you were a Black student at Central High School or Vigor, and you were in the [student government association], or were a cheerleader, or were an athlete, then all the sudden the courts said you have to go to another school and you lost all that, or you displaced someone that had it at Murphy, they were upset.
“Eventually, we decided to stay open and resolve what we could, and it got better every year, but we got hit hard in Mobile. We were told to come up with a plan to integrate, but I imagine back then, if you were a member of the school board, you wouldn’t have been too popular around town. We would have been better off if we did it sooner but we got through it eventually.”
Murphy was desegregated through a separate lawsuit, but by the time Sousa became superintendent in 1992, a desegregation lawsuit for elementary and middle schools had been languishing in the courts for nearly 30 years. Since the Birdie Mae Davis case was filed in 1963, the school system had attempted myriad solutions to appease both sides. But whether it was redistricting, busing, student choice, school closures and openings, or any combination of those, no plan the school system implemented seemed to please the court.
Then Sousa flew to Miami.
“I’m the one who ended it,” he said. “Judge [Brevard] Hand had been on the case for years, and when I became superintendent, they wanted to extend it by busing another 35,000 or 40,000 students to Grand Bay or West Mobile. I heard about the Miami Desegregation Center in Florida, and I asked to meet their team, which was led by Dr. Gordon Foster. I told Foster, ‘You receive funding to settle desegregation cases and we have a long-standing one in Mobile I think you’ll be interested in.’ Hand told us to come back with a plan, and I remember walking into the courtroom with [Foster] and the whole attitude changed.”
The new plan was to open six magnet schools — two for college prep, two for fine arts and two for math and science — and admit students based on a lottery. Curriculum would be rigorous and students would have to maintain a “C” average to remain enrolled. To help ensure students’ commitment to success, parents would have to sign a contract acknowledging the higher academic and disciplinary standards.
“We submitted the plan to Judge Hand then we then set out to establish those schools,” Sousa said. “They’re [equitable] because you have a controlled population, but the only problem I had was the kids who would otherwise go to that school if they live across the street, they may not be accepted. But the good thing about them is they work.”
Hand ruled to accept the plan in 1997, settling the Birdie Mae Davis case with the stipulation magnet schools remain an option in perpetuity.
Today, MCPSS carries an overall score of 82 — a “B” average — on the Alabama State Department of Education’s (ASDOE) annual report card, but the magnet schools all score higher. Council Traditional School scored a perfect 100 on the 2018-19 assessment, along with Eichold-Mertz and Old Shell Road. Clark-Shaw and Phillips scored 99, Dubar scored 88 and Denton scored 85.
But other schools are left behind. In contrast to the seven magnet schools that are excelling, seven traditional schools are failing. The same school year, ASDOE reported Chastang-Fournier K-8, Calloway-Smith Middle, Williamson Preparatory, Pillans Middle, B.C. Rain High, Blount High and LeFlore High scored in the bottom 6 percent on statewide standardized tests. Notably, all of the failing schools have Black enrollment of higher than 90 percent.
But according to written statements provided to Lagniappe, current Superintendent Chresal Threadgill does not see it as a problem with diversity.
“We have made great strides in establishing diverse student bodies throughout Mobile County Public Schools, but we still have a long way to go,” he wrote. “Mobile County Public Schools has been and remains one of the most diverse school systems in Alabama, and likely in the country, and that is something for which we can all be proud.
“One area that I have focused on, and will continue to focus on, is making sure that we are providing not only equality in opportunities but also equity across the board. That includes in our school facilities and with the personnel working at each individual school. We have been able to make academic progress in some of our traditionally struggling schools through our Transformational Improvement Program (TIP). We are doing that by being prescriptive and addressing the specific needs of individual schools. As a result, we have improved the district to a ‘B’ on the state’s report card.”
He acknowledged the success of the magnet school program in elementary and middle schools, but added the system continues to seek additional opportunities for greater advancement at all grade levels.
“We offer our students school choice so they can enroll in the academic programs that suit their learning styles best,” Threadgill wrote. “We have seven magnet schools and are opening an eighth magnet school, the Barton Academy for Advanced World Studies, in August. We also allow any student the chance to attend any high school he or she wishes to attend through our Signature Academy program, which has received state and national recognition. Each high school has a Signature, ranging from aerospace and aviation to health care, and from coastal studies to engineering, that prepares its graduates for college and for careers. We have over the last several years been able to increase the number of students earning career credentials, getting accepted to college, and earning college scholarships.”
MCPSS also emphasizes achievement before kindergarten, he said.
“Another opportunity and choice we are offering our families is an increasing number of pre-K classrooms through Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program, which is one of the top-ranked programs in the nation,” he said. “Through this program, we are able to serve 4-year-olds in the city and throughout the county and give them a jump start on reading and other skills that are essential to being successful in kindergarten and beyond.”
Council Traditional School Principal Hattie Alexander is retiring at the end of the quarter, but she feels the magnet school is well positioned for the future and has maintained its mission during her tenure.
“I was going to retire at the end of last year, but after COVID I felt like it was important to stay at the helm for a while to make the transition easier,” she said. “I’ve been at Council for 12 years and affiliated with magnet schools since they started. I served on the first [Parent Teacher Association (PTA)] at the school and had two children that attended Council. This has always been a place I dreamed of being.”
Even though she was a public school employee at the time, Alexander enrolled her own children in parochial schools during the early years of their education, but she moved them into the magnet program the first year it was open.
“My children were attending [St. Mary’s] when this school opened right across the street from where I lived and suddenly I didn’t have to worry about paying tuition and my kids would get a rigorous education, and rigorous it was,” she said. “I tell anybody the way the program is set up is second to none. When my kids left Phillips they could have gone straight on to college.”
But Alexander also worries about students who live in the neighborhood who don’t get accepted.
“At that time, they promised with a magnet school in this community, they would keep 10 percent of the surrounding population enrolled,” she said. “I think that drops by the wayside some years, but we bring in about 250 to 300 new students every year.”
Alexander said the PTA at Council enjoys “100 percent parent buy-in,” and in contrast to other elementary schools in the system, she has been able to add teacher units for reading and math intervention, technology, a science lab and art. The school also has Spanish immersion beginning in pre-K and pays for a music program through the Mobile Symphony Orchestra.
“All kids have talent, and our job is to pull that talent out, but we also have a system where we try to close the gap if there is a gap,” she said. Upon her retirement, she aims to publish a book she’s been writing entitled, “Platinum Principal — Making Your School a Number-One Hit.”
“It has been the honor of my life to be a principal as long as I had been,” she said.
Harold Dodge, superintendent from 1998 to 2008, said in his experience, student underachievement had less to do with race than it does with poverty.
“Poverty is the first issue,” he said. “We always tend to associate race with poor-performing schools, but the majority of people on Alabama on food stamps are White. [Underachievement among Blacks] shows in the cities because of the population, and there are also some huge issues about how we do public housing, but statistics show kids fall behind about 8 to 10 percent per year because of poverty.
“As a superintendent, there was always a bit of an internal battle when I wanted to spend a disproportionate amount of money on underperforming schools. Some board members agreed, but others argued the rapid growth in West Mobile deserved equal funding. I believe a rising tide lifts all boats.”
Dodge said he was occasionally advised of legal parameters the school system had to respect because of the Birdie Mae Davis settlement, “but I never ran into a wall over it.” Persistent segregation in public schools is not inherently unjust, he added, “but the bigger issue is we expect our schools to do our social change for us.”
“If the community was totally [integrated], so would be our schools,” he said.
Sousa said the solution is not a financial one either.
“There’s plenty of money. Schools have had more money than they’ve ever had before,” he said. “The problem with Mobile has always been that they never put the money where it is needed. You spend it on the teachers and the curriculum. The greatest asset we have are the teachers and the students. If you leave your priorities with them it would be great.”
School assessments this year have been delayed because of the pandemic, according to a statement from State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey late last month, but it is expected to resume in 2021 or 2022. Meanwhile, Threadgill says Mobile County continues to make strides.
“I am proud of the work we are doing in Mobile County Public Schools,” he said. “We have students and teachers who are receiving statewide and national recognition for the hard work and innovation they are putting into our classrooms every day. Even through a pandemic, or shall I say, especially through a pandemic, I have been impressed by the quality of teaching and learning that takes place in our schools every day.”
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