CHAMPAIGN – When Carol Ashley first came to Champaign in 1996 to look at schools, top district administrators were all white. Black students rode buses every day to schools far from home.
"If someone today called a Barkstall parent and said, 'Your student's going to another school next year,' that parent would be up in arms," said Ashley, a Chicago attorney who represented plaintiffs – all mothers of black children – in legal actions resulting in a consent decree.
"That was happening to 550 black kids every year back in 1996," she said. "It goes back to the 1970s, when the district started closing schools on the north side."
That consent decree, signed in 2001, is at the heart of most important decisions made by Champaign school officials, including current plans to pass a $66 million building bond issue. Voters will decide on that question in the March 21 primary.
The decree requires the district to add more classrooms on the city's north side –which the referendum would fund along with renovating all elementary schools, replacing Dr. Howard School and building a new elementary in Savoy, something residents there have lobbied for aggressively.
When Ashley arrived in Champaign, officials also had plans to build new schools, one on the southwest side of the city – the school that became Barkstall – and one to replace Columbia School on the city's north side (now Stratton). They also planned to introduce a school choice plan linked to school themes. Ashley and the plaintiffs had a problem with those plans.
"The immediate question was why rebuild on the north side and have a new school on the south side," she said. "They were busing African-American students, putting the burden on them, and not adding to the capacity on the north."
The theme idea also wasn't working for her clients.
"Washington for years was a magnet school," Ashley said of the school in the heart of the mostly black north neighborhood. "The idea was neighborhood students would be allowed in but other students could pick the school. The result was, they were turning down neighborhood kids including those of two plaintiffs. The system was arbitrary."
Ashley, who was hired by local activists Herb Stevens and John Lee Johnson, worked with district attorneys on an out-of-court settlement addressing plaintiffs' concerns. The controlled choice plan signed in 1997 requires parents of kindergarten students to select three possible schools. Assignments are made by computer to balance race at each elementary school.
In 1998, the district signed additional out-of-court agreements to increase black enrollment in gifted classes and reduce the number of black disciplinary referrals.
"When you see only 2 percent of African-American kids are in gifted classes, you just can't believe it," Ashley said.
But Ashley said Mr. Stevens, who died in 2003, thought the district wasn't moving quickly enough to address the black community's concerns so he filed another lawsuit in federal court; that one ended up in Judge Joe Billy McDade's Peoria courtroom.
"What they were saying is black children are being bused and white children aren't being bused involuntarily to black neighborhoods," said Thom Moore, a school board member at the time and a longtime member of the district's planning and implementation committee, which was formed to monitor the progress of the changes.
"And when the black kids went south, the services didn't follow; they were being put in special education, and they weren't integrated into the student body," he said. "I suspect when this first started, people didn't think of that. They thought putting children together would result in quality education. It didn't work."
To protect the agreements already made with the district, Ashley filed a complaint and another legal document, the consent decree. McDade ruled the plan already in action coupled with that consent decree was valid and dismissed Stevens' Racial Justice Now complaint.
The result: a plan mapping out future action that includes controlled choice; establishing magnet schools to encourage mixed-race attendance; enlarging capacity and programs at Stratton; and adding new capacity north of University Avenue – something that was to be done by this school year.
The district also agreed to provide tools and services to eliminate disparities in student discipline, in special and gifted education and upper-level class assignments and to seek racial diversity in teaching and support staff hiring. The decree is supposed to end with the 2008-09 school year, but that could change because district compliance is behind schedule.
The decree also added a new layer of administration. Champaign now employs a director of equity and achievement and a director of information and instructional technology to produce benchmark data. It also staffs the Family Information Center, where one primary job is to run the school choice program.
It's been costly. Officials estimate legal fees related to the consent decree alone add up to about $2 million a year, money they hope to channel into education programs when it expires.
Ashley said adding seats north of University is a key element because she wants to make sure there's structure in place for the future.
"In Rockford, the structure collapsed," she said of one of the state's biggest desegregation cases, which she worked on before Champaign. "They went back to neighborhood schools, to one-way busing. That's one reason I fought so hard for extra seats north in Champaign."
Ashley acknowledged some of the provisions of the decree – like the magnet school requirement – "haven't been paid as much attention to," but she thinks seating capacity is more important.
The district also failed to comply with some requirements for enlarging Stratton on schedule, but McDade gave the district more time for that. Officials also asked for an extension of the deadline for building the extra north side classroom space, two strands of classes from kindergarten through fifth grade, but McDade has not yet replied.
School board member Nathaniel Banks said the decree has been good for the district.
"It has given us a systematic way to work on addressing the needs of all children in the district, especially African-American children," Banks said. "It's a necessary tool to bring the district in line with its overall goals and objectives. People in Champaign have very short memories. We forget that for so many years, black children were inadequately served."
Moore said the planning and implementation committee has opened up new opportunities for communications and mutual understanding.
"I think the PIC has participated with the district, helped it come up with ideas about how to improve the quality of education. We looked at introductory classes, and many members thought they were remedial. We worked with the district to make sure kids in advanced classes were getting the attention they need."
Signs of progress
Ashley said she sees signs of progress that are encouraging because of her negative experience at Rockford.
"Here in Champaign, because of the University of Illinois and because of the people here, most don't want discrimination," she said. "It's just that some people don't see how it plays out. So I'm more hopeful about success. You have the potential for change. The teachers' union has been engaged in helpful discussions. The PIC has been constructive.
"People who were here before I came here are committed to this process. I'm impressed by them, I've learned from them. It works both ways. I'm applying what I learned in Elgin."
Ashley's firm has filed a similar legal action involving Hispanic students against Elgin, and it's now making its way through the system.
She cited infrastructure changes, community involvement, improvements at Stratton, diversity in the administration and in the teaching staff as other signs of progress. Ashley said the Family Information Center has turned into a community resource.
"Achievement scores for African-American students are up, although they're not where we want them to be," Ashley said. "Gifted enrollment numbers also aren't where we want them to be, but they're 11 percent, not 2 percent.
"Before, we had people not trying to get to this place, and now they are," Ashley said. "We have people meeting once a month to talk about race issues, and that's tough. We have people trying to make community-based decisions."
Tracy Parsons, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Champaign County, said the district had made "good progress" in hiring minority teachers and administrators. Principals are held accountable in evaluations for their hiring records. And the central office retains final control of hiring decisions, something black leaders had pushed for years to ensure good candidates weren't "lost in buildings that weren't ready to do the right thing," he said.
"Principals still have a say, but the central office makes the decision," said Parsons, a PIC member from the start.
Deputy Superintendent Dorland Norris said when the consent decree ends, she wants to see all the goals reached and the gaps closed.
"We embrace diversity in Unit 4, and I hope to see a board in place that will enforce the same diversity," Norris said. "As a whole, this community cares about kids and all the initiatives we've put in place for African-American kids are good for all kids."
'Not a given'
But black community members say they worry about the future.
"The decree has the potential to change the culture of the district," Banks said. "Once we embrace the idea that every child can learn, we won't need a court-ordered decree; it will be part of the culture. But to be honest, I think we always have to be diligent to make sure the district keeps reminding itself about meeting the needs of all children. It's doable – but not a given."
Moore said the board has brought in leaders who have taken bold steps, but future progress isn't guaranteed.
"I think the district could revert back," he said. "All it would take is five people on the school board saying, 'We've gone through that, so let's go back to neighborhood schools.'
"There's an undercurrent of that with Savoy. People are saying, 'WE need a school for OUR kids.' Under the current policy, their kids aren't guaranteed to go to that school."
Imani Bazzell, also an original member of the PIC, echoed those concerns.
"We've got so far to go, and I am so anxious because I know the clock is ticking and there's nothing guaranteed after '08-09," Bazzell said. "So I want it done, and I want it done now."
Bazzell would like to see the judge extend the consent decree.
"It took so long to get going. We've been at this 10 years, but to be honest the first few years was just a bunch of floundering," she said. "If everybody's acknowledging that it got off to an incredibly rocky start. Why can't we have more time?"
Bazzell said the choice program has flaws.
"But I think it's the fairest thing that's come across our desk for all parties," she said. "It's a model, and you work out the bugs."
Parsons said one of the biggest gains was "acknowledging we had some deficiencies in our educational system that need repairing."
"We started with the district being in so much denial," he said. "We've moved beyond that. We're talking about remedies now. It took us a number of years to get to that point."
Ashley said her firm continues to keep an eye on what's happening in Rockford, even though the consent decree has ended there, and she intends to do the same with Champaign.
"If the district closed Garden Hills without building another school, that would be the basis for another lawsuit," she said. "We monitor. We pay attention."
Ashley said she believes school choice is good for everyone – not just black children – because it gives students access to schools they otherwise might not be able to attend.
"A lot of people think choice is a good system," she said. "If I'm a taxpayer and I paid to build great new schools, I'd want a shot for my kid to go there."
Bazzell said a fundamental concern has been about putting the public back in public schools.
"For me, this is an exercise in democracy," she said. "I counted on this equity process to create doors and windows to walk though and climb through to increase community involvement in the schools ... especially people who have been traditionally locked out and disenfranchised. Now they can shape what schools look like, not feel so much like leaves in the wind."
"This isn't as easy as everyone thought it would be, but I'm very hopeful," Moore said. "It's been going on in this country for 200 years, so surely we know more. And this is a university city, not Jackson, Mississippi."