After more than 40 years, the Peach County school system can see the finish line in its efforts to be declared a fully integrated district.
Five of six key factors were checked off in a recent consent order, and a strategic plan is in place to alleviate issues with the sixth.
“What it means, it’s like 42 years of unfinished business,” Superintendent Daryl Fineran said, referring to a federal desegregation order from 1974. “I think it’s something that needs to be done. ... I think it’s huge that we see an end point.”
He pointed to the paperwork that’s necessary to get declared “unitary” as a reason many school districts still haven’t gotten out from under the order. Taylor, Dooly and Wilcox counties and Vidalia city schools, among others, are still listed as open cases under the same legal action, and Crisp, Baldwin, Pulaski, Telfair and Dodge counties have separate, open desegregation cases, according to Department of Justice records.
“I think it is a significant step,” said Phil Hartley, the school district’s attorney. “It’s an acknowledgement of the work the school system has done and a recognition as those five areas, it has accomplished the purpose of the desegregation order.”
Since 1974, dozens of school districts across the state have dealt with the desegregation order, which required them to prove their integration in several areas. Bibb and Houston county schools have since come out from under the order as well.
The five areas in which Peach County was deemed unitary, or desegregated, were faculty, staff, transportation, extracurricular activities and facilities. To prove unitary status, the district submitted thousands of pages of documents to the Justice Department.
“We negotiated those issues and reached this point,” Hartley said.
Among the findings outlined in the consent order, the Justice Department noted that the district had hired a faculty and staff that was 50 percent white and 48 percent black. The racial makeup of the county’s administrators was 31 percent white and 69 percent black, according to numbers from the 2014-15 school year.
“The District appears to hire, employ, and assign faculty and staff to District schools in a non-discriminatory manner,” the order reads.
The order also states that “no evidence of discrimination” could be found in transportation, extracurricular activities or facilities within the district.
The findings were less positive with regard to student assignment, the sixth crucial “green” factor outlined in the desegregation order, which were named after a 1968 Supreme Court decision, Green vs. County School Board of New Kent County. Of particular note was the racial makeup of the county’s programs for gifted students.
“Ultimately, the United States concluded that the District’s student assignment practices -- including designating students as ‘gifted’ and otherwise grouping students by assigned ability levels -- together resulted in a significant number of racially identifiable and/or racially isolated classrooms throughout the District,” the consent order reads. “Specifically, the United States concluded that in the 2014-15 school year, black students were significantly underrepresented in the gifted program and in advanced content courses offered by the District.”
Central to the strategic plan outlined in the consent order is identifying more gifted students through broader screening at the second-grade level and a higher level of communication with parents. The district will also focus less on documents from home in its assessment process.
“I think their thinking is that in rural school districts, the parents might not know enough about gifted to push to get their kids tested,” Fineran said.
There will also be a specific focus on developing and identifying gifted students at Hunt Elementary, the district’s most predominantly black school at 78.8 percent. Fineran said that similar efforts will go on across the district, though, in hopes that the gifted program can grow as a whole.
“Encouraging and identifying kids that are close is key,” he said.
The order also requests that Peach County apply for a waiver from the “state-recommended strict cut-off points for gifted designation and funding weights” that would better serve lower-income students. If the district were to receive such a waiver on gifted assessment results, it would make a big difference in the way the gifted program could reach students, Fineran said.
“It could be landmark,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting.”
All in all, Fineran was pleased with the federal government’s findings in the district. Specifically, he said that growing the gifted program was something that would benefit the district as a whole, regardless of its impact on desegregation.
“Of all things that could come out of it, that’s OK,” he said. “I want more gifted, too.”
To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331 or find him on Twitter@MTJTimm.