CINCINNATI — Cincinnati's magnet schools are getting whiter.
The trend started after the U.S. Supreme Court banned school districts from setting racial quotas for enrollment in 2007 and continued through 2015, according to state records.
The ruling undermines one of the main reasons Cincinnati Public Schools opened its magnet schools in the first place — giving African-American students more options for a quality education. Like other urban districts throughout the country, CPS is struggling to bring the average test scores and graduation rates of black and Hispanic students up to the average scores of white students.
"We need to play the hands that we're dealt. That's why we're using multitudes of strategies no matter where students live, their family income, what additional resources they have or don't have," CPS spokeswoman Janet Walsh said. "We're trying to ensure that every child succeeds."
The issue of equal access to top schools came to the forefront last August when CPS announced it would replace the first-come, first-served method of enrolling children in its popular Fairview-Clifton German Language School with an expanded lottery.
The old system led to two-week camp outs that critics said disproportionately favored white, wealthier families who had the means to take off work or hire people to keep their place in line.
CPS school board members and top administrators said eliminating that kind of bias was one of the main factors behind suspending the camp-out process.
Beginning in October, WCPO has investigated how much the racial makeup of CPS magnet schools has changed since the Supreme Court ruling, why it matters and what different stakeholders want to do to ensure equal access to a quality education regardless of race.
For example, Fairview-Clifton grew significantly less diverse since CPS stopped reserving seats by race. In 2007, the K-6 school's enrollment was 54 percent white and 32.5 percent black. By 2015, white students made up 64.7 percent of enrollment and the black percentage dwindled to 22.3 percent.
Marian Spencer, the 95-year-old civil rights legend who fought successfully to integrate Coney Island amusement park and pool, said the backsliding is a big problem.
"If you have a segregated school system, you have segregated workplaces and segregated neighborhoods in your society," Spencer said. "Nobody seems to understand that if you grow up together, you live together. And if you don't, you don't."
Tina Cromwell, who is white, and her husband, who is black, moved their children out of the CPS district into the Northwest Local School District in Colerain. They didn't want to send their 5-year-old daughter to Pleasant Hill Academy, a less popular magnet school than Fairview-Clifton or the Montessori magnets, and the parents couldn't camp out.
"My husband worked, I had other kids at home, and it wasn't an option. Had we been independently wealthy we could have camped out. I mean, I would have loved for them to go to Fairview Clifton," Cromwell said.
Cromwell said she and her husband considered the racial makeup of schools when they started shopping around outside of CPS — looking for schools that had higher percentages of white students.
"When we were planning to move, we looked at the Ohio Report Card at school districts and buildings. In my opinion and my husband's, the schools with more white kids had better teachers," she said.
Magnet School Instead of Busing
Federal officials allowed CPS to create its popular magnet school network as an alternative to forced busing that federal officials mandated in Indianapolis, Dayton and other cities across the country. The intent was to fix the separate and unequal schools attended by white and black students that were identified in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling.
The Justice Department did not require any other Tri-State schools to implement a desegregation plan.
Cincinnati's magnet system successfully drew children from diverse backgrounds to high-performing schools such as Fairview-Clifton and multiple Montessori schools.
But without the ability to reserve magnet school seats by race, the percentage of black students in Cincinnati's magnets fell from 66.3 percent in 2007 to 58.5 percent in 2015.
That has left more black students in neighborhood schools, which generally perform more poorly on state tests and have lower graduation rates than magnet schools. Neighborhood schools also have less racial and economic diversity.
The Brown v. Board of Education decision that barred segregated schools, which passed 9-0 in 1954, lays out the pitfalls of segregated schools:
• Segregation of white and colored children in public schools has a detrimental effect upon the colored children.
• Where a State has undertaken to provide an opportunity for an education in its public schools, such an opportunity is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.
• Segregation of children in public schools solely on the basis of race deprives children of the minority group of equal educational opportunities, even though the physical facilities and other "tangible" factors may be equal.
And schools with heavy concentrations of black students have increased.
In 2007, for example, just five neighborhood schools were so racially homogenous that it would have taken moving 30 percent of black students out of or into the school to make the school’s percent of black enrollment match the district's.
By 2015, there were 18 neighborhood schools in that category.
Overall enrollment in the district declined by, 2,314 students to 33,116 during the same period. The percentage of white students ticked up from 24 percent to 25 percent, while the percentage of black students dropped from 68 percent in 2007 to 63 percent in 2015
Bring Back Quotas?
Spencer said she thinks the Supreme Court made a mistake by stripping schools of the ability to apply racial quotas.
"I would like to see our public school systems all over the country have quotas to make sure that people of all groups grow up together because I think that's the only way you can maintain democracy," she said. "Any time they go over or under (the ratios) there should be action on the part of the public education system to help people get into quality schools."
City Councilman Christopher Smitherman, who has three sons attending Walnut Hills High School and a fourth who graduated from the school, disagrees with the call for quotas as a way to address racial disparities.
"Trying to mandate that a certain number of students have to be in a certain school is problematic in the world we live in," Smitherman said. "I don't think that works, and I think it creates an animosity."
He supports the goal of diverse schools and thinks the campout system is unfair, but he would prefer for CPS to aggressively market its magnet schools to families throughout the district so they're more aware of their options.
"I think the schools are going to have to get into that business and let parents know about the best schools and what the district has to offer," Smitherman said.
Cromwell's experience reflected his criticism.
"We couldn't find a good application process to get into any of the other magnet schools," she said.
The Rev. Troy Jackson, executive director of the AMOS project, a group of faith leaders active in poverty, criminal justice and quality of life improvement issues, said Greater Cincinnati can't shy away from identifying race as a factor in the city's childhood poverty rates and lack of quality seats in classrooms.
"Begin with black and (Hispanic) children. We know when we don't name race and recognize the racial historic gaps, we're never going to turn around our childhood poverty rate," Jackson said.
AMOS, church and political leaders need to name race as a factor that has led to children being stuck in low-performing schools and in poverty even if public schools can't base enrollment on race, he said.
"We need to get our best minds together, including (Mayor John Cranley's) new childhood poverty task force members. What's a way forward that does not violate the law," he asked.
Jackson said he doesn't like the idea that any students should have to enroll in a magnet school to get a good education.
"Every seat should be a quality seat," he said.
Jackson said the debate about racial quotas would become irrelevant if the community rallied to ensure all neighborhood schools performed well for students.
Barbara Mattei-Smith, CPS director of performance and accountability, said many other factors can affect the racial makeup of magnet schools, including the growth of charter schools and vouchers that allow families to enroll their children in parochial schools.
Regardless, she said CPS is working toward the same goal as the AMOS Project.
"It's not just about all the magnets. It's about raising those expectations everywhere. It doesn’t matter what school you're in. We have to find the ways to do that," Mattei-Smith said.
She cited CPS's My Tomorrow initiative that is providing each junior high and high school student a laptop computer as part of a larger drive to prepare students "to actively pursue their chosen career paths by the time they graduate," according to the My Tomorrow website.
"We're taking on equity as a focus," Walsh said. "While we are a majority minority district and, safe to say, a majority high-poverty district, we still have economic diversity in our district. We try to be all things to all families so that all kids are successful."
The AMOS Project is pushing hard for Preschool Promise, which would use new tax money for universal preschool within the school district, city of Cincinnati or Hamilton County, depending on the final form of the proposal.
Jackson said universal preschool would be a critical step to address education gaps and, ultimately, poverty, by preparing children for kindergarten and setting them on a path to effective learning. That sets students up to get into Walnut Hills High School or the School for Creative and Performing Arts.
Jackson said targeting black and Hispanic racial gaps does not mean neglecting impoverished white children.
"I am very committed to at-risk white children in the community. It's not as if lifting up one race negates the other. It lifts up every child who is growing up in poverty when we pay attention to race," he said.
Jackson praised CPS for doing a good job with the resources it has and consistently ranking first on Ohio's report card among the state's eight large urban school districts.
But he wants faith communities, parents, educators and politicians to work harder to better educate low-income children in the district.
Spencer, who with her late husband Donald Spencer led many successful civil rights battles in the Tri-State, said ensuring that schools are integrated and high-performing is critical.
"At 95 and a half years old, I keep wondering if we're ever going to change sufficiently," she said. "If our democracy is so wonderful, why don't we share it at each step of the way? That means starting in grade school and going onto high school and on from there."