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On Boston, busing and walking to school

Bill Delaney

By Bill Delaney
CNN Boston Bureau Chief

March 18, 1999
Web posted at: 1:04 p.m. EST (1804 GMT)

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

In this story:

Follow the numbers

The economics of quality

Trying to get off the bus

BOSTON (CNN) -- Among the enduring images of the Civil Rights Movement are pictures of Boston, at war with itself, in the mid-1970s.

The city erupted after a federal judge ordered school integration in 1974, mandating percentages of white and African-American school children attend schools in each other's neighborhoods.

Court-ordered busing began in the mid-1970s in Boston
Court-ordered busing began in the mid-1970s in Boston   

The modus operandi -- simple, blunt, and to many minds brutal -- was court-ordered busing. When those buses began rolling in 1975, and for years after, the method ignited long-simmering racial furies. School children, white and black, were harassed.

Newspapers and television showed images of middle-aged white mothers with faces contorted in rage, screaming at frightened black school children with timid faces framed in school bus windows.

"We used to get stoned from up above, where people would stay and rain down rocks on us," recalled Leslie Greene, who was bused as a student. "So we'd have to, you know, duck in the seats and hide."

Also shown then were white school children, walking up the steps to mostly deteriorating schools, amid staring blacks who sometimes taunted them.

CNN's Bill Delaney talks with Boston residents about the legacy of court-ordered busing
Windows Media 28K 80K

"You get on a school bus, travel half way across the city for 40 minutes, sitting in traffic, to go to a school where it's all black, because not many white kids got on that school bus," recalled Lisa McGoff Collins, also bused as a student. "And you sit there all day, being harassed, because you do get harassed."

But now Boston is reconsidering this drastic experiment in social engineering that was mirrored across the country. The city is moving to return to where it started: neighborhood schools.

Follow the numbers

Some of the numbers, in part, may suggest why.

In 1975, Boston's public schools, with nearly 85,000 students, were 49 percent white, 39 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian, according to city figures.

Now, in the wake of a generation of white flight to private schools and the suburbs, the city school system is 15 percent white, 49 percent black, 26 percent Hispanic and 9 percent Asian. At present, of the some 83,000 school-age children in Boston, 63,000 are enrolled in public schools.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino recently promised to build five new schools in the next five to six years, to provide children with a quality education where they live.

The idea is that parents could feel good about sending their children to quality schools down the street, within walking distance.

Lisa McGoff Collins   
Leslie Greene   
Wyatt Moge Jackson   
Peter Loony   

To many people, black and white, this seems little more than the triumph of common sense.

"We wanted our children to go, our grandchildren and the people there to go in the neighborhoods," recalled parent Peter Loony.

"And society's telling us, the federal government's telling us, the court system's telling us that 'No, no, your kid's got to go where we say they've got to go.' And it was very intimidating, you know, it was very depressing, because it's like nobody's listening to you."

The economics of quality

With Menino's announcement, my crew and I set out to do a series of interviews on busing. We thought old divisions might surface along racial lines. That's not what happened.

It turned out that, in Boston at least, there's not much of a color line dividing what people think their children need in urban public schools.

People "want the best for their families. They want to provide their children, you know, with certain things, one of which is a good education. And I think people on both sides were looking for that," Greene said.

Many Bostonians we spoke with -- white, black, Hispanic, Asian -- agreed that if busing failed to integrate as some people once hoped, its even greater failure lay in shifting the spotlight off the issue of quality schools and onto the more mechanical issue of sitting white and black children next to each other.

Some doubted that the government could deliver consistently excellent urban public schools.

"There is a role for government, but we have to be very, very careful that we don't lean on them," said Wyatt Moge Jackson, bused as a student. "You know, it has to start in our communities."

"A parent has to run the school also, has to be a real big part of the school. You make your school, not government," Collins said.

Many worried that urban, mostly minority schools too often lag behind the quality of suburban, mostly white schools. While children in suburban school districts are largely being educated for high-tech jobs, many parents and education experts say, urban schools are often graduating students with a more rudimentary education.

More numbers suggest the situation is a time bomb. It's expected that in the year 2020, the majority of students in the country's schools will be minorities. If their parents -- those who are in school now -- aren't educated for good jobs, that's a problem for everyone.

So, 25 years after busing tore Boston apart across racial lines, many Bostonians suggest that what divides the culture now is class.

Trying to get off the bus

Court-ordered busing ended in Boston in 1987. Thousands of students, though, still ride buses to attend schools outside their neighborhoods. Many do so in pursuit of better school programs and a better education.


What Boston wants now is enough high-quality schools within walking distance to get children off the cross-town bus.

So the cycle is coming back to neighborhood schools, a more direct focus on the quality of education, and the encouragement of community and parental involvement that all agree is critical.

A byproduct of that may be increasing integration, this time from the grass-roots level, by luring those with more choices back to a better system.

A quarter-century later, blacks and whites in Boston seem to have arrived, after years of busing, at the same place: seeking quality schools.

More CNN correspondent analysis -- find by name

Boston Public Schools

City of Boston -- Mayor's Office

Boston Plan for Excellence

U.S. Department of Education

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