Earlier this month, the U.S. Census Bureau released data from the 2009 American Community Survey, a smaller-scale version of the U.S. Census that gives Americans a preview of what the full Census will likely reveal in coming months.
Hidden –- and not so hidden –- in the numbers is a picture of how Americans live on a day-to-day basis. And what the numbers say about race, income and education in Anniston is chilling. A few facts:
* Where race is concerned, Anniston’s east and west sides are almost mirror images of each other. Golden Springs, for instance, is more than 70 percent white, while the neighborhoods just west of downtown are more than 70 percent black.
* On the east side –- for instance, in Golden Springs and the area around the Anniston Country Club, at least half of all elementary-age schoolchildren attend private schools.
* In most of the majority-black Census tracts west of Noble Street, fewer than 1 percent of kids go to private schools.
* In east Anniston Census tracts, median incomes range from $36,000 to $56,000. In the western tracts, median incomes range from $11,000 to $26,000.
* The relatively high density of private school use makes Anniston a rarity among the state’s smaller cities. While Florence has a census tract with similar levels of private-school participation, you have to go to Birmingham, Mobile or Montgomery to find higher numbers.
The data paints a picture most Anniston residents have probably already seen: a city geographically divided by race and income, where kids in more affluent, white neighborhoods attend have a high rate of attendance in private schools.
What does that mean? Education professor Erica Frankenberg –- who grew up in Mobile and went on to study school segregation –- said that instead of drawing conclusions about the numbers, it’s better to have a frank conversation about them.
“You might want to present these to the community and just ask what they mean,” said Frankenberg, who teaches and does research at Pennsylvania State University.
While Frankenberg has never studied Anniston’s schools specifically, she has studied school dynamics in school systems across the country in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation order. And she says it’s not hard to imagine how a system like Anniston’s could come about.
Frankenberg points out two trends that led to de facto resegregation of schools in cities across the Deep South. One was the rise of “segregation academies” -– private schools marketed toward white parents -– in the decade after school desegregation. The other is the post-integration proliferation of new school districts, which enabled some white and affluent communities to opt out of integrated public schools in the 1960s and 1970s.
It’s hard to say how much either model applies to the Anniston area. Calhoun County had multiple school districts long before the integration of schools. And most 21st century parents of school-age children were born after the backlash that produced “segregation academies.” It’s hard to know their real motives for opting out of public schools, she said.
“To the extent that race is a factor in that decision, people are not going to come out and say it,” she said. Invoking the title of a popular book, she noted that many cities have divided schools because of “racism without racists” –- parents who don’t think of themselves as prejudiced, but who participate in a segregated school system because it’s what’s already in place.
Underlying the conversation, of course, is the test performance of Anniston’s city schools, which have not met state improvement standards for multiple years in a row.
Laura Phillips, principal of the lower school at the Donoho School –- a private school in Anniston -- says she doesn’t recall a parent citing race as a reason for choosing a private school.
Instead, she said, parents say they want their kids to be challenged –- and to experience activities and classes that have been pared out of public school budgets. She said her school’s focus on preparing kids for college, even at the early grades, is a big draw.
A former teacher in Anniston schools, Phillips says the federal No Child Left Behind program appears to be another driver for enrollment at Donoho.
“There’s a focus on the students who are on the cusp of failing,” she said. “While that’s certainly not a bad thing for those students, I’ve heard more than one person say their child wasn’t challenged enough in public schools.”
It’s not an easy subject to talk about.
But The Star is taking Frankenberg’s advice. Rather than proposing solutions to the east-west division, we’d like to open up a conversation about the public-private divide, and see what you, the readers, think it means.
Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave your comments below. Let us know what you think of the public/private divide.
You can look at the Census Bureau’s data directly at: http://www.census.gov/acs/www. The New York Times has also offered easier-to-read maps of the same information at: http://projects.nytimes.com/census/2010/explorer. Take a look at how Anniston compares to other communities and let us know what you think.
To keep it civil, please tell us about your own experience in the school system -– where your kids go to school and why –- and tell us what your ideal school system would look like.
And tell us what you think is at stake.
For Frankenberg, the disadvantages of divided school systems are clear.
“It’s important to think about the role public schools have played in the socialization of our children,” she said. “If you’re learning alongside people who are different from you, it creates a sense of community.”
A Teachable Moment is assistant metro editor Tim Lockette’s weekly look at schools. Contact Lockette at 256-235-3560.