Forty years after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected consolidation of public school districts to achieve racial integration in the Richmond metropolitan area, one in every three black students in the Richmond-Petersburg region attends a school with a population that is at least 90 percent black and 75 percent poor.

Nearly 10 percent of black students in the region attend a public school that is 99 percent or more black — and at least 85 percent of them come from low-income households.

That’s why Gary Orfield believes the fight to end racial segregation isn’t over in the region or other parts of Virginia, even as public schools become more racially and ethnically diverse.

“Segregation is almost never just by race — it’s almost always by race and poverty,” said Orfield, a former University of Virginia professor who is co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA and a tireless opponent of segregation for more than 50 years.

“Desegregation was never about sitting next to whites. … It was about getting better opportunities for children,” Orfield told a rapt audience of more than 250 people on Wednesday night at Virginia Commonwealth University.

His address kicked off “Looking Back, Moving Forward: A Conference on Race, Class, Opportunity and School Boundaries in the Richmond Region,” which continues today at the University of Richmond with examination of potential solutions to the long quest to end segregation in public schools.

The conference began hours after the release of a report that documented the high correlation between racial segregation and poverty in the Richmond-Petersburg region.

“Miles to Go: A Report on School Segregation in Virginia, 1989-2010” cited Chesterfield County and Colonial Heights among a growing number of school districts in the Richmond-Petersburg region that moved from predominantly white to racially diverse in the past 20 years.

But the report also finds that while more school districts in the state and region have become racially diverse instead of predominantly black or white, segregation by race and income is worsening within school districts.

“Virginia is far from the worse state on these issues, but it has fallen far short of its potential and it will pay heavily for that failure if it continues to slip into more serious segregation and inequality,” Orfield said in the foreword to the study, produced by VCU Professor Genevieve Siegel-Hawley and the Civil Rights Project.

Both the report and conference attempt to document the costs of isolating students by race, class and, increasingly, language — whether between local school districts or within them.

“Separate learning environments are ineffective learning environments,” said Christine S. Walther-Thomas, dean of the VCU School of Education, in opening the nearly two-hour speech and public discussion.

In contrast, the new report states, “Studies have shown that desegregated settings are associated with heightened academic achievement for minority students, with no corresponding detrimental impact for white students.”

One of the effects of segregation within school districts is unequal disciplinary outcomes for black students, as the Civil Rights Project asserted in a 2012 report, “Opportunities Suspended: The Disparate Impact of Disciplinary Exclusion from School,” which focused in part on disproportionately high rates of out-of-school suspensions for black students in Henrico County Public Schools.

“We think that segregation is really a dangerous threat to students’ future,” Orfield said in a conference call Wednesday about the findings of the report, which calls for state and local policies to address segregation in schools and housing, as well as community advocacy for desegregation.

More than 350 people already are registered for today’s daylong series of panel discussions at the University of Richmond’s Jepson Center.

“We realized that the community is really ready to have a conversation about race and class and school boundaries here,” said Siegel-Hawley, a Richmond native and graduate of what is now Maggie S. Walker Regional Governor’s School who studied under Orfield at UCLA.

But one member of Wednesday’s audience chided conference organizers for not including the region’s historically black universities, Virginia Union and Virginia State.

“I would say, ‘Amen,’ “ Orfield responded. “If you’re going to solve the problem, you need to expand the circle.”

The report is the first of 12 planned on school segregation and enrollment patterns in states from Maine to North Carolina.

“Virginia is not as bad off on some of these issues as some of our states in the north,” said Orfield, who added, however, that the evidence of segregation and resegregation of schools in the state is undeniable.

Some of the changes found in Virginia school enrollment patterns are driven by factors other than racial discrimination:

• A huge growth in Latino and, in some areas, Asian populations that have helped diminish the proportion of white students along with a drop in white birth rates;

• Increased black student enrollment in suburban school districts, including Chesterfield and Colonial Heights.

• The state’s political structure, in which the separation of cities and counties “continues to structure patterns of school segregation.”

Generally, the proportion of white students in Virginia schools “declined sharply” from 1989 to 2010, in large part because of a threefold increase in Latino students.

The number of multiracial schools, in which three racial or cultural groups each represent at least 10 percent of enrollment, has more than quadrupled to 26 percent statewide. In the Richmond-Petersburg area, the proportion of multiracial schools rose from 1.4 percent in 1989 to 14.3 percent in 2010.

“Many students in the state of Virginia are now going to school in areas that are decidedly multiracial, a dramatic shift from the black-white paradigm that characterized school for past generations,” the report states.

Black students have become a larger part of the student population in suburban school districts, increasing from less than 24 percent of enrollment in 1989 to nearly 34 percent in 2010 in the Richmond-Petersburg area, while the proportion of white students in the region’s suburban schools fell from about 73 to 50 percent.

Chesterfield and Colonial Heights moved from being predominantly white in 1989 to diverse 20 years later, meaning non-white students accounted for 20 to 60 percent of the school population.

Henrico has been considered diverse since 1989, but white students now are a minority in the school district at less than 46 percent of the school population in 2010. Student enrollment in Hanover and Powhatan counties remains predominantly white. It is considered diverse in New Kent and Goochland counties, where white enrollment still exceeds 70 percent.

Dinwiddie and Prince George counties also remained diverse, with white students accounting for just over half of enrollment.

But the region’s urban schools remain overwhelmingly black — 83 percent in the 2010-11 school year, which was down from more than 89 percent a decade earlier. White students accounted for less than 9 percent of student enrollment in Richmond in 2010 and less than 2 percent in Petersburg.

Student enrollment in rural Charles City County also remains predominantly non-white at nearly 70 percent. Hopewell schools moved from nearly 60 percent white in 1989 to 34 percent in 2010, a trend the report identifies as “resegregating.”

In Hampton Roads, the report found that three districts — Hampton, Newport News and Suffolk — have moved from diverse to predominantly non-white since 1989. It also found three such districts in Northern Virginia — Manassas, Manassas Park and Prince William County.

“Once a district begins the process of resegregation, it can be very difficult to reverse the trend,” the report states.

The report’s most disturbing findings relate to segregation by race and poverty within school districts, and a corresponding disparity in the exposure of white and black students to one another, especially those from poor households.

Nearly 18 percent of schools in the Richmond-Petersburg region were considered “intensely segregated” in 2010, with enrollment that was at least 90 percent black. That proportion was down from 24 percent in 1999 but up from 16 percent in 1989.

The proportion of schools with at least 99 percent black student enrollment — the report calls them “apartheid” schools — was about 4 percent, the same as 20 years earlier, but a percentage point higher than in 1999-2000.

Those proportions were much higher than in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, although Northern Virginia is the only metro region in which more Latino than black students were concentrated in schools considered “intensely segregated.”

The biggest difference documented by the report is exposure of students to those of other races and income levels.

“The typical white student in the Richmond-Petersburg metro (area) attended a school with more than twice the share of white students than the typical black student in the metro,” the report states. “In the other direction, the average black student enrolled in a Richmond-Petersburg school with nearly three times the share of black peers than the average white student.”

The exposure to low-income students also is disparate between black and white students. Low-income students accounted for about 35 percent of enrollment in the region in 2010, but black students typically attended a school in which low-income students accounted for 52 percent of the enrollment. White students went to schools where low-income students made up about 24 percent of enrollment.

Students from low-income households accounted for 59 percent of enrollment in predominantly minority schools in the region in 2010, or nearly double the share of low-income students in the area.

The consequences of segregated schools are harmful to white students as well blacks and Latinos, Orfield said.

“There is no way you can go to segregated schools and learn to work effectively in a multiracial society,” he said.

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