In 1971, when the U.S. District Court first ruled that Jefferson County Schools were segregated and required the court’s supervision to integrate, most of the people who would be directly affected had not yet been born — in numerous cases, their parents hadn’t born yet, either.
But that era might be coming to an end at long last, though that end may still be three or four years away.
JefCoEd is scheduled to file a motion with District Judge Madeline Haikala that seeks to amend an order handed down in Stout v. Jefferson County Board of Education, the landmark case that found the county system operated separate schools for white and African American students. The motion to amend comes after lengthy negotiations with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, which originally filed the lawsuit in 1965, and the U.S. Department of Justice.
According to Dr. Craig Pouncey, who recently stepped down as JefCoEd superintendent to become president of Coastal Alabama Community College, the motion would ask Haikala to make certain changes to the original order that would allow the system to adjust zoning patterns for individual schools and “feeder patterns” — the groups of elementary and middle schools that feed the 13 county high schools. JefCoEd also wants to consolidate some smaller schools into larger ones, with a goal of having elementary schools with about 650 students. Pouncey said that number is a “sweet spot” that provides enough teachers allocated by state funding for a diversity of educational opportunities, such as art and music classes.
JefCoEd officials would like to group elementary schools that would have certain specialties and would allow parents of students within each group to select which school they would like their children to attend. “This will allow a limited choice so that children in a particular part of the county will be able to pick between three schools, with one school focusing on leadership, another on arts and another on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math),” Pouncey said.
The first implementation of this new plan is slated to take place in the Minor High feeder pattern, with the current Adamsville Elementary School, Minor Community School and a new school to be named for retired U.S. District Judge U.W. Clemon. Another group of three schools — Chalkville, Clay and the to-be-built Bryant Park elementary schools — will follow close behind.
Similarly, JefCoEd high schools will be grouped into clusters that allow choices of specialization. For instance, Pinson Valley, Clay-Chalkville and Shades Valley may fall into one such cluster, Pouncey said.
“Students won’t be confined to the zone in which they reside, and they’ll be able to pick and choose which specialization they want,” Pouncey said.
Many details for this specialization plan are yet to be worked out. Pouncey added that moving between schools within the district will not cause eligibility issues for student-athletes, as the Alabama High School Athletic Association already allows for similar transfers in other systems, such as Montgomery.
The proposed changes are primarily based on methods used by the Jefferson County (Kentucky) Public Schools. That system came about from a court-ordered merger between the county schools, Louisville City Schools and a small system in suburban Anchorage, Kentucky.
Federal courts there put in place a controversial busing plan that resulted in African American students being bused to schools away from their home neighborhoods for 10 of their 12 years. The order resulted in rioting and racial strife in Louisville in the mid-1970s and prompted many white families to remove their children from the public system and place them in private schools, where enrollment suddenly tripled or quadrupled.
At the time, Louisville’s desegregation efforts brought criticism from throughout the nation, including from then-Sen. Joe Biden, D-Delaware, who then called school integration “a liberal train wreck.”
Busing is still used in Louisville, which is now under a consolidated city-county government, but the school system now uses specialized programs and magnet schools to attract minorities into schools in mostly white areas. Inner-city schools no longer must battle for basic needs that suburban schools took for granted. And one of those city schools — duPont Manual Magnet School — has transformed from an industrial-arts training school to one of the most sought-after schools in the system. Flight to private schools has decreased, and the system is now one of the most diverse big-city systems in the country.
The goal of achieving equal educational opportunities for minority students has been somewhat of a moving target for JefCoEd officials, largely because some areas of the district have gone through substantial demographic changes over the years. For instance, the Center Point High School (formerly E.B. Erwin High) feeder pattern was still made up mostly of white students as recently as 2000, but now it is predominantly African American. Similar situations have occurred in Fultondale, which has had an influx of Hispanic students in the past decade, and in the Minor High pattern, which is now mostly African American. More rural patterns such as Oak Grove, Corner and Mortimer Jordan are still predominantly white.
The new JefCoEd legal filing was delayed by the city of Gardendale’s efforts to break away from the county schools system and form its own. That effort was fought by the NAACP, the Department of Justice and JefCoEd, and eventually the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals turned it down because the three-judge panel believed Gardendale’s move was racially motivated. The Court of Appeals finding overturned Haikala’s original ruling to allow a limited breakaway. “That set us back about three years,” Pouncey said.
The outgoing superintendent said that his interim successor, Dr. Walter Gonsoulin, is fully up to speed on the legal process ahead. Before being elevated to the interim post, Gonsoulin was a deputy superintendent at JefCoEd for about two years.
The Stout case has been going on for so long, the original plaintiffs have died, and new plaintiffs have been substituted. When the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund first filed the lawsuit, one of the lawyers working on the case was a very young Clemon, who later became the first African American federal judge in Alabama and then the chief judge in the very federal court district where the case still resides. Because of his previous work, Clemon had not part in rulings on the case. He retired in 2009 and went back into private practice and argued on behalf of the NAACP before the 11th Circuit in the Gardendale case.
Once the new motion is filed, it’s still a long way before the federal courts might declare JefCoEd to have finally achieved “unitary status” — the legal finding that the system no longer puts minority students into a different, inferior education process than whites. The court, along with the Department of Justice, must be convinced that the changes put in place by the new motion meet desegregation guidelines, making tweaks in the process as needed. “That will probably take three or four years,” Pouncey said.