50th Anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education:
Don't Give Up on Brown and Mendez


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  "Segregation of limited English speakers from native English speakers in our schools is an educational travesty of humongous proportions."


n Monday, Brown vs. the Board of Education turns 50. We celebrate with proclamations and resolutions. As we celebrate, we cringe knowing the effort to achieve integration in schools has been backsliding for years. Researchers call it "re-segregation." And it is our Latino student population that is most egregiously affected.

Our situation in California calls for integrated schools even more strongly than in the South prior to the Supreme Court decision. Southern schools prior to the Brown decision separated children by race, however everyone was speaking English in those segregated schools.

Let me point out that when you are considering "separate but equal" for children who speak a language other than English, separate education condemns limited English speaking children to a life without full English language proficiency.

Speakers of other languages learn to speak English best when they connect socially with native English speakers. This is a truism. These English language learners have the opportunity to hear correct English being spoken often and have significant, urgent motivation to improve their skills. Integrated schools give students the desire and the means to acquire high level English skills.

But you can't just throw kids in together and expect a successful integration and language learning experience. You have to lay the groundwork. Think of the phenomenon of a high school exchange student who, placed in an English-only environment, learns English quickly and well. The exchange student already has achieved academic success in his own language and has already developed self-esteem. He also has good status at the school, being a special representative from another culture. This situation breeds language learning and success! In the case of an exchange student, the groundwork has been laid very well.

Segregation of African-American from white students was a national travesty shrouded in attitudes that grew out of slavery. Segregation of limited English speakers from native English speakers in our schools is an educational travesty of humongous proportions.

Now schools are segregated not because anyone believes that children learn best in segregated schools, but because of expediency and where people live. Yes, it is most expeditious to get kids walking to the closest school instead of providing school buses to integrated schools across town. And yes, people often segregate themselves by living in neighborhoods that are racially homogeneous. Here one must keep in mind that minorities, especially recent immigrants, frequently live in racially isolated neighborhoods not because of choice but because of the economic reality of where they can afford to live.

The concept of neighborhood schools has become extremely popular. This is understandable because people like to have easy access and a feeling of community associated with their child's school. Besides, in these times of budget crisis, who can afford to provide school buses, a non-mandated service?

The downside of neighborhood schools is they do not broaden your pool of friends. Rather, they reinforce the cohesiveness and exclusiveness of a neighborhood and support the mentality that some belong and some do not belong.

I would imagine that folks old enough to remember will be talking about their consciousness of the Civil Rights Movement back in the '50s and early '60s, as they celebrate the Brown decision. Most of us are too young and too Californian to have any memory of the 1954 Supreme Court decision.

California has the special, racially significant history of a landmark court case that paved the way for Brown vs. the Board of Education. Ten years earlier, Mendez vs. Westminster involved an 8-year-old Orange County Latina by the name of Sylvia Mendez. Sylvia was sent to what was known as the "Mexican School" though neighborhood Latinos who were light-skinned were attending the "white school."

Interestingly enough, the farm on which Sylvia lived was owned by a Japanese family who was interned in a Japanese-American relocation camp in Arizona. That story had a very happy ending, with the Japanese family returning to the farm which had been well cared for by the Mendez family. The Mendezes won their lawsuit, and then Governor of California, Earl Warren, and the State legislature passed a law that ended school segregation in California. Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP attorney who argued and won the Brown case, also worked on the Mendez case. Governor Warren became a Supreme Court Justice and wrote the Brown decision. Marshall, himself, was later appointed to the Supreme Court. Small world!

While de jure segregation in California ended years ago, de facto segregation will be more evident in our schools next year. Local school districts are making financial decisions to reduce bus transportation and change school attendance boundaries. These decisions will increase racial isolationism at schools.

There is no quick fix. Creating a peaceful, diverse and well-educated society is a long-term project.

Sandra Nichols is past president of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District Governing Board serving 19,000 students in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties. She is a Speech and Language Specialist with Santa Cruz City Schools, and was recently appointed by the Board of Supervisors to the Santa Cruz County Children and Youth Commission. The opinions expressed are those of Sandra Nichols and do not necessarily represent those of any school district, print publication or web site.

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© Sandra Nichols 2004