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Long After Civil Rights Movement, Whites Integrate Birmingham City School

Despite System's Stigma, Avondale Elementary Attracts Professional Families

First-grade teacher Euginia Miller reads to her class on the first day of school at Birmingham's Avondale Elementary.

90.3 WBHM Birmingham -- Birmingham was at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, a major front in the battles that ended legal segregation. When the schools were integrated, white people fled the city, taking resources and other advantages with them. That continues today, but about two dozen families are bucking the trend and trying to reverse the process. WBHM's Southern Education Desk reporter Dan Carsen has the story:

Birmingham's public schools are 95 percent black and 90 percent on free or reduced lunch. The system has been under state control since June and has been hemorrhaging students for decades. And at this point, it's certainly not just white flight: many poor black families do what they can to enroll their kids elsewhere. To put it mildly, Birmingham schools have a stigma.

So it was unusual when Laura Kate Whitney enrolled her four-year-old, Grey, in pre-K at Birmingham's Avondale Elementary.

"Our neighborhood school hosted an open house, and we were completely shocked, in a good way, as to what we saw," says Whitney.

She and her husband are white middle-class professionals and part of a group of two dozen similar families who are not buying the conventional tradeoff -- that if you live within city limits and have means, you send your kids to private school, period.

Whitney's friend Elizabeth Brantley also enrolled her four-year-old at Avondale, which last year was four percent white. But Brantley grew up in nearby Mountain Brook, one of the whitest and wealthiest communities in America. Her impressions of Avondale might come as a surprise:

"The minute we walked in, we were like, 'this is just a normal school. This feels like the kind of school that I went to when I was little.'"

These parents want convenience and higher property values, but they also really believe in diversity. Whitney says she's not concerned with her child being in a place where he looks different from the other kids.

"I feel like at this age, they don't really see color," she says. "They go straight to playing together, and learning about each other and talking and sharing snacks. I want him to have those types of experiences. I mean, we live in a city that is extremely diverse."

A typical first-grade class at Birmingham's Avondale Elementary.

Researchers say in most cases of school gentrification, which is relatively rare, wealthier people move into a newly desirable neighborhood, and the school's demographics follow suit. But the area around Avondale is already white and middle class. Unrelated to that, it's actually one of the better schools in the system. Even so, Avondale parent Katrisa Larry welcomes the new families.

"I love it," she says emphatically. "We need them, most definitely."

White students bring more fiscal resources, parental involvement, and subconsciously, higher expectations, say researchers. And according to Tondra Loder-Jackson, Associate Director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, integrated schools confer many other benefits.

Summarizing a body of research, she says, "White graduates from those schools believe that they're more open-minded about race and less likely to stereotype. The black graduates, they're more confident about competing with whites, and they're also not as likely to see whites as being categorically racist."

But the white parents coming to Avondale aren't counting on a love-fest. One possible stumbling block is that inner-city schools tend to be more authoritarian, more "old-school," relying on teacher-centered models of instruction as opposed to more progressive methods favored by many middle-class parents, methods that involve kids initiating more of their learning.

Jennifer Stillman, a research analyst for the New York City Department of Education, just published a book on school gentrification. She offers a warning:

"In America, we often try to sort of talk about how much we value diversity. But when we talk about it, we sort of speak of it as in, 'We're all the same, and we just have to get over our superficial differences.' But people actually can be very different. And it can be very uncomfortable to have this clash of parenting values."

She and Loder-Jackson point out that it's the middle-class "integrators" who have a choice -- the families who've already been in the community for a while usually don't have the means to leave. If the new parents are unhappy, Stillman says, the gentrifying group almost always falls apart and the kids go elsewhere.

But Stillman, who lives New York's Harlem, respects the parents who do stick it out.

"Being an urban educator, I was extremely conflicted, and yet I couldn't bring myself to do it," she admits. "I definitely have admiration for people who are out there trying to make integration a reality."

But parent Laura Kate Whitney is optimistic:

"It's so funny that our kids can be the bridges that bring us together, and maybe spread this throughout the city."

Despite her good intentions, she acknowledges the next few months will be critical in shaping the future at Avondale, and possibly at other even-more-challenging schools in this civil-rights crucible.

September 24, 2012

Photos by Dan Carsen

Dan's education reporting can be found here.