DeVonte Kirkland is in his second to last year of school at Center Point High in Jefferson County, just outside of Birmingham, Ala. When he graduates next year he wants to head to Alabama State University.
DeVonte also wants a car, so he’s taking some serious time to learn how to work on them. Every day, he rides a school bus 25 minutes, each direction, for an auto tech class at Gardendale High, another school on the south side of the district.
Unlike the Jefferson County schools on whole, the student body inside Gardendale’s schools is mostly white. At Gardendale, DeVonte says, he’s making friends, many of whom don’t look like him. “Sometimes we see each other out of school, and we talk in school too. I’m learning something new from them every day,” he says.
Next year, though, Gardendale’s programs might not be an option for DeVonte and hundreds of other students from around Jefferson County.
Several years ago, voters in the city of Gardendale raised property taxes on themselves to try to start their own school district. The mayor of the city, Stan Hogeland, says the proposal to leave the county school system doesn’t have anything to do with race, but calls it a move to do what’s best for the kids in the city. “If we had our school system, with a local superintendent, and a local board that lives in town that you see when you go shopping or at church,” there would be more accountability, he says.
The final decision, though, is up to a federal judge who could decide, any day now, whether Gardendale is violating civil rights if it pulls out of the Jefferson County school district.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that separate is not equal, some 60 years ago, federal courts have kept an eye on specific school districts across the country that showed a tendency toward segregation. One of those districts is Jefferson County.
The oversight dates back to 1971 when several African-American residents sued the district for segregating black and white children, and won. Since then, the federal courts have had the final say on any movement in or out of the district.
“Nobody has ever said anything to me about the real reason why they want to form their own system,” says Craig Pouncey, superintendent of the schools in Jefferson County.
If Gardendale splinters off, he says, it’ll disrupt the larger district’s efforts to desegregate. “Diversity actually builds strength, in my opinion. Because it opens people’s minds. Now, I’ve seen where our schools, particularly in the last two years, have really thrived on that diversity.”
If Gardendale leaves, it won’t just hurt diversity. It could also take with it money, some staff, and special programs like the auto tech class DeVonte Kirkland buses to.
“I don’t fault a city for wanting to do this, but they have to be mindful of the overall impact,” says Pouncey.
But leaders in Gardendale have tried to make the case that what they’re doing is best for their kids. They claim they aren’t violating civil rights, and aren’t segregating. Part of the plan allows about 700 African-American students from one specific area to remain in the new majority-white system, even though they live outside city limits.
The federal judge will soon decide whether that makes the system truly desegregated.