Impending anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling inspired fresh examination of Kansas public schools at a time when minority student enrollment continues to blossom in the state.
In one Shawnee County district, white students make up a disproportionate percentage of enrollment in gifted courses. Newton's district employs a nearly all-white faculty, while more than one-third of students are racial minorities. The Hays district enrolls an unusually high number of special-education students. And, former students of the last all-black school in Topeka recall a bygone era.
"We wanted to look how public education has changed in the 65 years since that decision. We also wanted to take a statewide view," said Katie Moore, who coordinated a special reporting project for GateHouse Kansas published Sunday.
"Promise Unfulfilled" looked at disparities in access to elite academic opportunities, differences in disciplinary suspension of students, a teacher cadre that doesn't mirror the student body and financial challenges of delivering an equitable education at a moment when 36 percent of public school students are of color. Twenty years ago, Kansas enrollment was 19 percent minority.
The package draws upon experiences of students in Pittsburg, Garden City, Newton, Hays and Topeka. It explored discrimination in the Hispanic community, President Dwight Eisenhower's role in desegregation, race and diversity bias among educators and the human-rights debate involving LGBTQ students.
Look no further than scheduled oral argument May 9 before the Kansas Supreme Court for evidence of how central questions about public education remain unsettled. In the current case, the justices must assess actions of the Kansas Legislature and Govs. Laura Kelly, Jeff Colyer and Sam Brownback to comply with provisions in the Kansas Constitution mandating suitable funding of public K-12 education.
Sherman Smith, a reporter at The Topeka Capital-Journal, joined Moore for an installment of the Capitol Insider podcast to discuss the story project in advance of the May anniversary of the Supreme Court's declaration that "separate but equal" was, in fact, unconstitutionally unequal.
Smith interviewed Topekans who attended during the 1930s and 1940s all-black Pierce Addition, a school on outskirts of the city and not part of the Brown v. Board litigation. The two-room grade school had leaky exterior walls, while nearby white schools were solid. Pierce had no running water, but white schools did.
"It was an interesting trip back in time," Smith said. "They would walk the dirt roads to and from school. They would start with the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord's Prayer."
Former Pierce student Judy Jackson recalled her sister's sterling performance among students in Shawnee County who took an annual aptitude test prior to entering high school.
"She got the highest grade, but they wouldn't let it last," said Jackson, who recalled officials gave a white student bonus points to emerge with the top grade. "So, it wouldn't be announced that a little black girl got the highest score."
Smith said Pierce teachers were all-around educators who taught all subjects, including music, with zeal. Former teacher Jennie Robinson would invite prominent black people to speak to the students, and there were stories about visits from Langston Hughes and George Washington Carver.
"A lot of them would say, 'We didn't know any different, but when we got to high school, we were very confident that we had received a good education. Their teachers were very motivated.'"