Diversity

Mississippi school district moves forward with desegregation plan

East Side and Cleveland High Schools in the Cleveland School District.

East Side and Cleveland High Schools in the Cleveland School District.

A Mississippi school district is moving forward with a plan to desegregate its schools, 62 years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

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The Cleveland School District must come up with a plan to merge the schools, federal district court judge Debra Brown ruled last May, stating in her opinion that “the delay in desegregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally-guaranteed right of an integrated education.” The school system has been under a separate desegregation court order for decades.

The district has two high schools. All students except two at East Side High School are African-American. The other two are Hispanic. At Cleveland High School, 48 percent of students are black, 45 percent are white, 1 percent are Asian and 5 percent Hispanic.

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Since 2013, students have been allowed to choose which school they want to attend but East Side High has remained mostly black, even after attempts to attract a more diverse group of students.

Advanced academic programs have been assigned exclusively to East Side High since the 1990s. The programs are open to students from Cleveland High and those who chose to enroll are bussed.

For the 2014-2015 academic school year, 48 Cleveland High students took one or more International Baccalaureate courses at East Side High. Among those 48 students, 62.5 percent were white, 29.2 percent were black and 8.3 percent were other races.  

The school district conceded that the Dept. of Justice’s plan to merge the schools is constitutional, but had concerns over school capacity, the continuation of the International Baccalaureate program and loss of extracurricular activities.

Jamie Jacks, the attorney for the Cleveland School District, said a drop in white student enrollment was another concern. According to Jacks, the district noted a 3 percent drop in the enrollment of white children after the court’s decision last year but she admitted that not every student went through an exit interview to determine the reasons for withdrawal. She added that the district has always followed the direction of each court order throughout the years. 

However, on Monday the district announced it unanimously agreed to withdraw its appeal and move forward with the merger.

The district is also moving all 7th and 8th grade students to one junior high school located on the campus of what is now East Side High. The high school would be located on the campus of Cleveland High and Margaret Green Jr. High.

According to Jacks, the board decided to settle the case after a meeting with school leaders and hearing concerns from parents. “Diversity is a goal of the Cleveland School District and to have diversity within the district you need students of all races,” Jacks said in a phone interview with Fox News.

East Side High School principal Randy Grierson said his students were ready for the change. Grierson would take over as the principal of the newly merged Central Cleveland High School later this year. 

“I’m really proud of how our kids responded because this is one of those things that, it’s going to happen,” Grierson said. “Instead of being against it, they’re just going with what’s accepted and they’re making the most of it and they’re positive about it.”

As for the response from parents, Bolivar County Sheriff Kelvin Williams -- whose son was a 10th grader at East Side High School -- said the community should move forward and support the students.

Williams was part of a multi-racial advisory panel created last fall. The group consisted of parents, community members and plaintiffs from the case.

“I’m just happy that my child and all the rest of the [children] will be able to benefit,” Williams said. He noted the increased opportunity for students under the wing of a much larger school. “The opportunity is far greater by being together than it was being separate.”

East Side High School has been the pride and joy for many members of the African-American community in Cleveland. Edward Duvall graduated from East Side High in 1977 and his son, Edward Duvall Jr., is an 11th grader at the school.

Duvall was one of the private plaintiffs on the case and a member of the multi-racial advisory group. He said some in the black community were unsure about giving up the heritage and culture of East Side High, but now people are getting behind the merger.

“It’s not going to be easy trying to merge the two bands. Those are two different types of cultures,” Duvall said.

The Cleveland High School Wildcats and the East Side High School Trojans will now be known as the Central Cleveland High School Wolves starting August 2017. 

Willie James Inman is a Fox News multimedia reporter based in Jackson, Mississippi. Follow him on twitter: @WillieJames