Tracy Enskip is black.She is a freshman at Castlemont High School, a
struggling school located on a busy East Oakland street within a mile
of seven murders last year.
Sarah Shwedel is white.
She is a junior at Monte Vista High School, a top-tier school set in
the rolling hills of Danville on a street dotted with deer-crossing
signs and gated estates.
The first time Enskip, 14, had a class with a white student was in
middle school. There was one white girl in her classes.
The first time Shwedel, 17, had a class with a black student was
also in middle school. There was one black girl in her classes.
The two Bay Area girls have lived parallel public school lives in
polar-opposite worlds - separated by a simple trip through the
San Ramon Valley suburban classrooms are predominantly white -
staffed with veteran teachers, stocked with computers, financially
supported by parents.
Oakland urban schools are predominantly black and Hispanic - staffed
too often with substitute teachers, supplied with too few textbooks
and not enough computers.
Segregation isn't legal. It hasn't been since the U.S. Supreme Court
unanimously declared on May 17, 1954: "We conclude that in the
field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no
place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal."
The 50-year-old Brown v. Board of Education decision blew the doors
off public schools that prohibited black student enrollment, but it
didn't stop a different kind of segregation - one that persists today
in virtually every corner of the country.
Even in the Bay Area - which is about as diverse as it gets in this
country - a pattern of residential segregation based on wealth
separates students across color lines. And that means that five
decades after Brown, public schools are still separate and inherently
"All schools are not equal," Enskip said during her lunch
break. "Education is education. Everybody should get the same
White students are rare in Oakland classrooms.
Well over half of the city's public schools - 63 out of 118 - have
five or fewer white students enrolled this year and 17 schools have
none at all, according to state records. About 6 percent of the
district's 50,000 students are white and most are generally clustered
in a handful of schools.
About 20 miles away in the San Ramon Valley, the situation is
There, six of the district's 28 schools have five or fewer black
students. Less than 2 percent of the district's 22,000 students are
While many schools across the Bay Area are ethnically and
socio-economically diverse, this regional pattern of de facto
segregation persists here and in many states, and experts say it's
Just as the courts were backing away from mandatory desegregation in
1990, 32 percent of a typical black student's classmates were white,
according to the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and
Regional Research at the University at Albany. By 2000, that number
dropped to 28 percent.
Nationally, the typical white student goes to a school that is 79
percent white, said Gary Orfield, a national expert on segregation
and a researcher at the Harvard Civil Rights Project.
In fact, across the county, whites are the most segregated
population, Orfield added.
San Ramon Valley and Oakland kids don't need to hear any those
statistics. They see them everyday at school.
"I may have one or two (blacks) in all six of my classes put
together," Monte Vista's Shwedel said.
"It's crazy because I think that we should all learn to come
together," Enskip said, after describing the absence of white
students at her school.
Parent Sheila Hammitt said she had a choice. It was either diverse
schools or quality schools.
She chose Alamo Elementary School.
"I don't like the fact I'm raising my kids in this lily-white
surrounding, but I don't feel like I have a choice," Hammitt
said of the decision to move to the Contra Costa suburb from Vallejo.
"If (a quality education) is your primary goal, everything else
has to go out the window."
Hammitt instinctively knew what study after study shows to be true:
Schools with high minority and high poverty enrollments do not
perform as well as rich, white and Asian schools.
In Oakland, the test scores are lower. Dropout rates are higher.
In San Ramon Valley, the exact opposite is true.
Those facts have little to do with ethnicity and much more to do
with money and parent education levels.
Grass Valley Elementary School in Oakland, for example, is a small
school with about 200 students. More than 40 percent of parents have
attended college. About a third of the students are considered poor,
well below the statewide average of 49 percent.
The school scores high on state standardized tests, ranking a 7 out
of 10 on the Academic Performance Index.
Grass Valley is 96 percent black.
In short, wealthier areas generally have the best schools. Poor
areas typically don't.
But poverty and ethnicity are intrinsically intertwined.
According to a 2004 report by the Lewis Mumford Center:
- White students are in schools where 30 percent of students are
- Asian students are in schools where 42 percent are poor.
- Black students are in schools where 65 percent are poor.
- Hispanic students are in schools where 66 percent are poor.
In short, family income generally determines where people live and
ultimately where their children go to school.
If you can't afford a house in Alamo, Orinda or Pleasanton, your
children typically can't go to school there.
And with wealth comes power. The power to change schools. The power
to buy resources, support teachers and pass parcel taxes or
"We're not fortunate. We pay for it," Hammitt said of the
top-notch Alamo schools. "It's a sad statement about society.
Everything is based on money now. It's a little repulsive."
Garrett Smith is only 14 years old, but he has already seen separate
and unequal schools.
Smith MDULwent to a nearly all-white public school in Louisiana
before coming to Oakland in the fifth grade and attending
predominantly black schools.
"I feel more comfortable with a minority school," said
Smith, who is black. "I don't have to worry about racist
The soft-spoken freshman paused before finishing his thought.
"The thing about a white school is you learn more," he
At Castlemont, seven substitute teachers have taught classes since
Nearly 64 percent of the school's 1,652 students - or 1,098 - are
poor, by state poverty standards.
There are seven white students, according to official state
statistics, although administrators and students say they aren't
aware of non-Hispanic whites on campus.
Not surprisingly, the school ranks in the bottom 10 percent
statewide on the Academic Performance Index, which incorporates a
variety of standardized assessments.
About 20 miles away, Brenton Jones is a junior at Monte Vista High
in Danville, but he sees both sides of the hills too.
"We have a lot more opportunity (at Monte Vista) to
succeed," said Jones, who attends Allen Temple Baptist Church in
Oakland, located about a mile from Castlemont, where some of his
friends go to school.
Jones' classrooms at Monte Vista are full of veteran teachers.
There is an aerobics room and a golf team.
Out of 2,124 students, 9 - or .4 percent - are poor and 25 are black.
Not surprisingly, the school ranks well in the top 10 percent
statewide on the API. "I'm not any different than any kid that
goes to Castlemont and Skyline," said Jones, who is black.
"My realities are different."
Besides the vast disparity, students from San Ramon Valley to
Oakland all agreed they're all losing out on something else when
schools are segregated.
They aren't getting the skills they need to live and work in what is
a truly diverse world outside their neighborhoods.
Children increasingly need to know how to function across racial and
ethnic lines, said Harvard's Orfield.
"Basically the schools are not preparing people for that and
neither are the neighborhoods," he added.
At Castlemont, Smith said the school is diverse - a mix of
Hispanics, blacks, Asians - but the lack of white students leaves a
hole in their learning experience.
"I think you won't learn how to work with a white person,"
he said. "The person that's probably going to be hiring you is a
In San Ramon Valley, students say the lack of diversity is
detrimental to their educational experience too.
Katya Balan, a junior at California High School in San Ramon, said
it took a trip to Washington, D.C., for a leadership conference to
have an "eye-opening" experience interacting with black
students from across the country. She made friends, exchanged ideas
about how to be student leaders and learned about different cultures.
"Everyone is exactly the same," she said of the students
she met, noting they all had similar college goals and teenage
"I had to travel in order to make that happen. That just
doesn't happen in San Ramon."
It's a learning curve she wishes her classmates could have too.
"The only way they'll ever experience that is getting out of
And as much as teachers and school administrators work to promote
racial, ethnic and cultural understanding, it's a hard skill to teach
if certain groups or underrepresented or virtually absent.
"It's trying to make diversity real, when from some kids'
experience, it's not a real issue," said Terry Koehne, spokesman
for the San Ramon Valley Unified District.
Five decades ago, facing a system of "Southern apartheid,"
the U.S. Supreme Court said we can't deny opportunity based on race,
said Harvard's Orfield. "But it's perfectly fine to deny them
opportunity on the basis of where they live," he added.
Orfield, a nationally recognized expert on segregation, said the
disparity and division among public schools by wealth and race is
But the problem is, few are doing much by way of solutions.
"The truth is in most places people aren't trying
anything," Orfield said.
"It's a very grim period for civil rights," Orfield said.
"Eventually there needs to be social movement about it. It's
about finding ways to make this evident to people so they can't
Paul McGehee doesn't understand why more adults aren't doing
something about the situation too.
A senior at Monte Vista, the 17-year-old is among the two dozen
black students at the school. He is the only black student in the
school's leadership class.
He's getting a good education, he admits, but in a relatively
isolated environment. He said his parents opted for a quality
education in a largely white suburban setting, a choice he said his
father sometimes regrets.
"You want to be able to be with your community to help it out,
but you don't want to exclude yourself," the teen said of the
Solutions, however, are hard to come by.
California's Proposition 209 doesn't allow programs based on racial
preference - be that in colleges, government contracts or elementary
The Berkeley Unified District (see separate story) has so far
skirted legal challenges against its program to integrate schools
using a formula that takes into account ethnicity, family income and
parents' education levels.
But integrating large metropolitan areas is another matter.
Busing kids from Oakland to Orinda or from San Ramon to Richmond
doesn't make sense, and isn't legal unless all the districts involved
Some say revamped housing policies that encourage increased
low-income housing in suburban environments would help integrate
communities and subsequently schools.
Others call for more magnet schools - creating art, technology or
other academic programs attractive to families from all ethnic and
Still others propose vouchers to give urban parents a ticket out of
The reality is that, right now, little effort is being spent on
integrating schools. The vast majority of school reform is about
closing the achievement gap, rather than closing the racial divide.
"If we close the achievement gap, we can decrease the urban
flight away from our public school system," said state
Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell.
The focus is on creating more equitable schools regardless of race -
the seemingly never-ending pursuit of separate but equal schools.
"There may not be anything wrong with not breaking bread with
people of other races," said Debbra Lindo, Castlemont principal,
adding she believes students can be brought together in social
settings instead of schools. "The issue is equity and access to
a free public education."
In California, civil rights advocates filed the Williams v. State of
California lawsuit on the 46th anniversary of Brown v. Board of
Education in 2000.
The pending suit addresses the lack of equity in public schools and
specifically the lack of educational opportunities denied to more
than a million California students. It doesn't address integration.
But the hope is that by improving urban schools, the system could
stem white flight and encourage more ethnic diversity in neighborhood
schools, said John Rogers, professor of education at the University
of California, Los Angeles and associate director of the Institute
for Democracy Education and Access.
"If all neighborhood schools are decent, it opens up renewed
possibilities for integration," he added.
Rogers noted that the battle for equal access to a quality public
education is not just a 50-year-old fight. He quoted an African
American parent from Oakland commenting on the city schools opening
their doors to blacks for the first time: "It was the happiest
day of my life to see our children received with the same equality
with the Anglo Saxon."
The year was 1872.
Contact Jill Tucker at firstname.lastname@example.org