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Ride the Bus With Us: Marivel Araiza remembers the first year of busing back in 1986, after San Jose Unified School District was ordered to desegregate. 'I had never been around so many Caucasian people,' she says.

Flight Club

Is 'white flight' threatening to bring segregation back to Silicon Valley schools?

By Vrinda Normand

WILLOW GLEN, San Jose's quaint suburban pocket just south of downtown, boasts manicured lawns and modest homes. It also has a population that is 66 percent non-Latino white. But walking through the spacious campus of Willow Glen High School, you'd never know.

It's not the abundance of trees that sets this school apart from its provincial surroundings. It's the students. They are 57 percent Latino and only 28 percent white.

In 1981, the student body at Willow Glen High more closely reflected the current population: 75 percent white. But that number gradually diminished, and by 1993, only 38 percent of the teenagers on campus were Caucasian.

Christopher Arriola, Santa Clara County deputy district attorney, lives in the area and hears some longtime residents lament about the change 25 years have brought. They remember when Willow Glen High used to be "such a good school."

It's still a good school, Arriola points out. It offers 10 Advanced Placement classes and the passage rate on the college-level exams is 44 percent higher than the national average. The main difference now, he says, is the ethnicity of the students.

So how did a predominantly white city district end up with a predominantly Latino public high school? Arriola's answer is "white flight," a term used when middle-class Anglo-Americans flee urban school districts for the suburbs or send their kids to private schools.

If you're wondering where most of the white kids of Willow Glen get their education, it's not hard to figure out: within six miles of Lincoln Avenue's trendy shopping strip, there are 10 private high schools.

In a recent Harper's Magazine article, author Jonathan Kozol argued this national phenomenon is creating an educational apartheid, deepening the gap between white students and students of color. Many public and private schools remain segregated even in racially diverse areas, Kozol writes, which suggests a "conscious effort on the part of parents or school officials ... to avoid the integration option that is often right at their front door."

Santa Clara County seems to be following this trend. In 1981, 61 percent of students in the county's school districts were white. Since then, 70,000 Caucasian kids have left the public school system, even though their racial group still accounts for a plurality of the county population (44 percent). Now public school enrollment is only 29 percent white, down 5 percent from just four years ago.

During the two decades that Willow Glen High lost 68 percent of its white students, a groundbreaking federal case shook up San Jose Unified School District, ordering it to desegregate. White flight, Arriola says, is a newer, subtler form of segregation that defeats those historic integration efforts.

Get On the Bus

Marivel Araiza remembers the day in 1986, the first year of busing in the San Jose Unified School District, when she rode from her home in downtown San Jose to Castillero Middle School in the Almaden Valley. "I had never been around so many Caucasian people," she says.

In 1985, the district was placed under a federal court order to integrate its student population, the long-awaited result of a discrimination case filed in 1971 by Latino parents and activists.

The early weeks of the desegregation process were plagued with difficulties. Court documents say bus drivers did not know their routes and they would often leave children at the wrong stops. Overcrowding stretched some commutes to 90 minutes, causing kids to be late for school.

Some of these kinks were ironed out over time, but the general sentiment among parents and students about busing didn't improve much. Looking back, Araiza is happy she had the opportunity to go to a middle school that had such great resources, but being the minority was hard.

"At first it felt like I didn't fully belong," she says. "They treated us like we were less than they were."

Araiza eventually made new friends and settled in. But in 1988, she decided to stay closer to home and attend San Jose High. "I guess I just wanted to be able to walk to school," she says, "and not have to leave an hour earlier to catch the bus at 7:15am."

Many students felt the same way, and parents were reluctant to send their kids far from home. Beatriz Arias, the court monitor appointed to oversee the process, wrote in 1990 that Latino children were bearing an unequal burden of desegregating the district. In addition, school assignment appeals from white parents were approved more often than appeals from Latino parents.

So in 1994, the district and the Latino plaintiffs agreed to modify the court order. Busing would become strictly voluntary and elementary school kids would have the first choice of going to their attendance boundary school. High school kids were free to make integrative transfers if their enrollment boosted diversity.

The $32 million a year the district was receiving in federal funds to carry out the court order would be spent to enhance educational programs. "Parents were saying, 'Make my school good. Don't say I have to go elsewhere," explains Sharon Andres of the San Jose Unified Desegregation Department.

The district's goal now, Andres says, is to close the achievement gap.

In the 2003, San Jose Unified was declared unitary, and the court order was lifted. Even though the district's schools are no longer considered segregated, white kids still cluster in the south and Latino kids in the north. After 18 years of integration efforts, the result is a compromise that sounds strangely like "separate but equal."

Color Shift

While all of these kids were being moved around, local demographics were changing. The Latino population continued to grow and the Asian population boomed—it now makes up 25 percent of Santa Clara County. Andres of San Jose Unified points to this development when accounting for shifting percentages of Caucasian students. She laughs at the mention of white flight.

"We have not seen any massive movement out of our system," she says.

Still, an influx of minority students doesn't fully explain the discrepancy between Willow Glen's residents and the students at its high school. Interestingly, another high school, also located close to the center of the district, has undergone a similar transformation.

In 1981, Gunderson High School was 81 percent white. In 2004, it is only 18 percent white and 52 percent Latino. The surrounding zip code, 95136, is an opposite reflection of the school: 49 percent white and 18 percent Latino.

"White flight happens because people fear Latinos are going to bring gangs, crime, lower test scores," says Arriola. "There's also a fear of the unknown."

Andres suggests a more simple reason why parents may send their children to private schools: maybe they just have the money to do so and there happens to be one nearby.

Whatever the cause, white flight has created an ironic situation in the center of San Jose. It may also explain why more Caucasian students are found in the Palo Alto Unified, Los Gatos/Saratoga Joint and Campbell Union High School districts.

The numbers, while not as stark as they used to be, continue to show racial divisions across districts in the county. Nearly half of all Latino high school students can be found on the east side of San Jose. Two-thirds of all Asian high school students cluster in east San Jose and in the Sunnyvale/Cupertino area.

Countywide, 68 percent of white high school students attend schools where their racial group is the majority, compared with 55 percent of Latino and Asian students who do the same.

Out of the Past

Is segregation a thing of the past? "No," says Tony Estremera, directing attorney for Legal Aid. "Not a question."

But, he adds, it's also not a black and white issue. Modern segregation is less likely to be overt or intentional. It's harder to put a finger on the cause.

It's also harder to fix. When asked if the Latino plaintiffs in the San Jose Unified case achieved their goal, attorney Francisco Garcia-Rodriguez sighed. "Well ... ," he hesitated, "These problems are systematic."

"Institutional discrimination," explains Arriola, "is the most insidious type because it comes from a system, not a person. That can be daunting and overwhelming."

The forces that come into play are often subtle and seemingly benign: like when real estate agents influence housing patterns by guiding home buyers to certain areas based on their race. Or when teachers and guidance counselors steer kids toward certain classes/careers based on racial assumptions of their abilities. Or when white families trickle out of areas that have become more diverse, in favor of more familiar, mono-racial settings.

When families and students complained about integrative busing in San Jose, both sides were sympathetic. Change can be very inconvenient. "Parents are not devoted to the big picture, "Estremera says, "they're devoted to their kids. And that's fine, but what kind of world are they leaving their kids in?"

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From the September 14-20, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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