Federal expert: Merger would improve education in Cleveland

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GREENVILLE, Miss. (AP) — A Vanderbilt University professor testified Wednesday that having a single high school in the Cleveland school district would not only improve racial integration in the Mississippi Delta town, where some schools remain almost all-black, but would improve academic offerings enough that it could draw whites back who are enrolled in private schools.

"If you can develop a strong academic program, if you develop some choices within that strong academic program, parents will be all over that," Claire Smrekar said.

The U.S. Justice Department wants U.S. District Judge Debra Brown to order Cleveland to consolidate its two middle and two high schools. A previous court ruling found Cleveland hasn't done enough to integrate D.M. Smith Middle School and East Side High School. Those schools were once all-black by law and have had few white students since integration was ordered decades ago.

Smrekar said having just one high school could improve desegregation and academic quality while enhancing equity and opportunity. She said it had "the promise to achieve desegregation realistically and achieve desegregation now."

Witnesses for the Cleveland school district have predicted mandatory consolidation will cause the white minority in the 3,800-student district to flee. They have told Brown she should rely on voluntary measures to encourage white enrollment.

The district has proposed three desegregation plans, all of which would retain Cleveland High School and East Side. The district has proposed plans that would both maintain D.M. Smith and Margaret Green Junior High and merge them. Cleveland High and Margaret Green have a mix of black and white students, with a greater proportion of white students than the 30 percent district-wide.

Smrekar testified that advanced programs proposed by the district for East Side are unlikely to attract enough white students to truly desegregate the school.

"White students, historically, because of the identity of East Side, have not selected East Side as their school of choice," Smrekar said.

She also testified that she found some of the district's proposals to create high school magnet programs poorly fleshed out.

Lawyers for the district emphasized that Smrekar had done no statistical calculations about how many students would stay or leave if schools are combined. Boston University Professor Christine Rossell, working for the district, estimated that as many as half the 500 white middle school and high school students will leave if schools are consolidated.

Smrekar said she thought such a large loss was unlikely because there are no majority-white public school districts within easy commuting distance of Cleveland and because not all white parents could afford private school tuition. John Hooks, a lawyer for the district, argued Smrekar hadn't looked closely enough at private schools.

Hooks also questioned why whites would stick around in Cleveland when they have left many other Mississippi school districts. The professor said white parents seemed very loyal to the local public schools.

"It is my conclusion that white departure will not occur in any kind of significant or damaging magnitude here," Smrekar said. "The allegiance to Cleveland school district is deep, strong and nearly unwavering."


Online: Justice Department documents on Cleveland desegregation: http://1.usa.gov/1bUTqEz


Follow Jeff Amy at http://twitter.com/jeffamy

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