Buffalo schools at a Turning Point

By Jake Halpern
All photographs in this article © Jim Bush.

City Honors.
I was a bussing experiment. Every morning, at 7:25, I was picked up from the corner of my block, in a white middle-class neighborhood in Buffalo, and shuttled across town to a poor black district where I went to school. I first made this journey when I was eleven years old, and I remember peering timidly out the window as our bus crossed main street, the threshold divide between white and black Buffalo. I couldn’t believe how suddenly the landscape changed—a boarded-up storefront with a “We Take Food Stamps” sign, a crumbling brick stadium where the Bills used to play, and a rotting mint-green house, vandalized with the giant spray-painted message: “Welcome to the beat-down committee.”

I spent seven years bussing across town to City Honors, a magnet school on the east side of Buffalo that started off as an experiment and quickly became a national model for how well integration can work. Of course, the school had its problems: the cafeteria was often cliquey and the after-school clubs were also somewhat polarized, but general interaction was unavoidable, and day-in and day-out I grew up with kids from all over the city. In this age of diversity-hipness, where multi-racial Benetton ads are ubiquitous, any attempt to describe cross-cultural harmony is bound to sound hokey.

But in a city that has some of the most segregated neighborhoods in the country, City Honors went a long ways towards bringing people together.

I suppose I should have realized that at some point Buffalo’s desegregation effort would end—specifically, when its goal was accomplished and the schools were no longer segregated. What I didn’t expect was how abrupt it would be. Shortly after the court ended its legal mandate in 1987, declaring that the system was desegregated, the city’s integration effort began to unravel, as residents from around the city demanded an end to bussing and a return to neighborhood schools. For at least one board member, Marlies Wesolowski, this groundswell poses a concern: “For me, the potential to do serious harm, to backslide to segregation is so great, it’s scary.”

She’s absolutely right. The idea of abandoning more than a century-old battle against segregation is unnerving. So why isn’t anyone else scared?

Buffalo’s battle against segregated schools has a long history. Two years after the end of the Civil War, a group of several black parents led by a man named Henry Moxley appeared before the School Committee of the Buffalo Common Council and argued that blacks be allowed to send their children to the city’s better schools on the east side (then a white neighborhood). When his plea was ignored, he simply enrolled his children in the east side school. Ultimately, the school superintendent, who himself had once been a “conductor” on the underground railroad, expelled Moxley’s children, explaining that Moxley’s efforts were alienating liberal whites and misleading his own people.

Over the years similar efforts were launched, but it took more than a century before any success was had. Finally, in the spring of 1972, a group calling themselves “The Citizens Council on Human Rights” again challenged the city’s effectively segregated school system, alleging that the city officials had violated the civil rights of minority students by intentionally running a segregated school system. A federal judge named John Curtin agreed.

Throughout the late seventies and early eighties, the city worked diligently with the court to integrate the schools by using an innovative system of cross-city busing and magnet schools. The result was so successful that it drew visitors from around the country and the world, and in May of 1985 the New York Times ran a front page article with the headline: School Integration in Buffalo is Hailed as a Model for U.S. Superintendent Eugene Reville developed a national reputation, and just a few years later, then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton courted him to head up the desegregation effort in Little Rock.

I was at City Honors during the heyday of the magnet school in Buffalo, and perhaps that’s why I find it so shocking that everyone is giving up on integration so quickly. Since I left Buffalo seven years ago, the integration effort has literally disintegrated. Neighborhood schools are on the rebound, and even the magnet schools are becoming polarized, now that the Office of Civil Rights (of all places) has said that race can no longer be a “determining factor” in admissions.

Gay in Buffalo
City Honors.
No one wants to make an issue of integration anymore, including the School Board President, Paul Buchanan. “It isn’t up to the schools to integrate society, it’s up to the schools to educate kids,” says Buchanan. And maybe I would feel comfortable with this if I felt somehow we had achieved some lasting inter-connectedness, but I don’t. It feels too much like a knee-jerk reaction. I realize that bussing is a cumbersome and even untenable permanent solution, but who said living in harmony would come easily?

The big thing now in Buffalo is neighborhood schools. As Buchanan told me: “Hispanics, African Americans, Irish Americans, Italian Americans—across the board, people want neighborhood schools.”

Twenty years ago the idea was considered antiquated, backwards, even racist—now everyone can’t say enough good things about what they do for the community.
In the Black Rock neighborhood, which is predominantly white, parents fought to make a neighborhood school out of the newly built “Northwest Community School.” As of now, one-third of the school’s population will be bussed in from a black neighborhood across town. Black Rock parents lobbied against this, and their board member Tony Lapino, who himself feels committed to “the spirit of integration,” found himself in a quandary. “The entire nation is moving apart along racial and class lines,” he says with a sigh. “It’s sad.”

Across town in another white neighborhood called East Lovejoy, a group of residents who call themselves the “Elcs” (short for East Lovejoy Coalition) are also pushing for a neighborhood schools—only they have given up on the public schools and instead applied for a charter school. “This particular group has never really accepted desegregation,” their school board member told me. And now of course, they won’t have to.

The Elcs aren’t the only group to opt for charter schools. Since the state started accepting charter school applications this year, seven other groups have applied to start their own privately run neighborhood schools. Given Buffalo’s demographics, many of these schools are bound to be self-segregated enclaves. In fact, it may be the charter schools that most quickly unravel the progress of integration. The schools themselves can go up over night—taking over any useable space or even receiving cash advances from management companies to start building new structures. Their for-profit impetus is far removed from the broader societal goals of the city, and their neighborhood “clients” may quickly develop niche specific curricula. And by the time we realize their polarizing effect, it will be too late to deal with it.

Despite the turmoil that the city’s school system now finds itself in, many Buffalonians remain proud of the system’s enduring racial balance. Unlike public school systems in cities such as Detroit and Washington D.C., which have white populations of roughly five percent, Buffalo has a school population that’s thirty percent white. Prominent local historian Mark Goldman states, “You couldn’t bring a balanced school system to D.C. unless you brought the army in and forced people out of Maryland. We’re in a unique position.” Whether or not that thirty percent will remain within the Buffalo city limits remains to be seen. Certainly, the state of Buffalo’s public school system will be a major factor in their decision.

Jake Halpern is a reporter for the New Republic and currently lives in Washington D.C. He grew up in North Buffalo and was president of the city-wide student council for the Buffalo public school system. He is currently working on a travel book.


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