The local unit of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) passed a resolution on June 15 that is the first step in bringing a lawsuit against the South Orange-Maplewood School District to end what it calls "racial segregation" in the district.
"The goal is immediate deleveling from grades eight to 12, as quickly as possible," said Thomas Puryear, Unit President of the NAACP's Oranges and Maplewood Division. Puryear confirmed for Patch that the "Resolution in Support of Ending Racial Segregation Within the South Orange/Maplewood School District" passed a vote by the general membership unanimously.
The local unit's resolution was then sent to the national NAACP offices for review. (The full text of the resolution is below.) Should it pass–and Puryear expects "a favorable resolution"–the organization would file suit against the district for violating Title VI of the Civil Rights' Act of 1964 which "prevents discrimination by government agencies that receive federal funding. If an agency is found in violation of Title VI, that agency can lose its federal funding."
In a phone interview on July 12, Puryear described the current system of levels—known in many districts as "tracking"—as "damaging." Noting that the district voted in June to de-level seventh grades in both middle schools, Puryear described that effort as "modest," and "not pro-active." The media release that Puryear gave out Monday explained further, stating "the Board's most recent attempt to provide equity for all students in the school district, is at best a very modest placement adjustment, while allowing past negative practices to continue. Such placement practices promote segregated classes which are illegal . . . ."
Leveling can be described as the separation of students into academic tracks by achievement. Students in the South Orange-Maplewood School District are placed in levels based on their scores on the state standardized test (NJ ASK), teacher recommendations and grades. The leveling begins in middle school, though the district removed leveling in Grade 6 in 2003, and, just this past June, the Board of Education voted to collapse levels 3 and 4 into one level in the 7th grade. At South Orange Middle School, in language arts, 63 percent of the students in Level 4 classes (the highest academic level) are white. In Level 3, 68 percent of the students are black. Level 2 classes are overwhelming comprised of black students—90 percent, according to district data.
The issue of the achievement gap in the district between black and white students received national attention with a radio documentary "Mind the Gap: Why Good Schools Are Failing Black Students." The report was produced for National Public Radio by journalist and local resident Nancy Solomon and explored the disparity at Columbia High School.
A 60-person task force was brought together last fall to propose remedies for closing the gap. Their recommendations—which also include changes at the elementary schools and high schools—were presented to the Board of Education last month which adopted the recommendations in June.
Puryear noted that other districts may also face legal action from the local NAACP. "There are 10 in our domain," he noted. South Orange-Maplewood is the current focus because a great deal of information about the district was easily obtained. "There is a vast amount of information," said Puryear. Besides statistical reports, Puryear cites anecdotal evidence, including visual cues. He has been told, though he said he has not seen for himself, that classrooms at Columbia High School don't appear to be fully integrated.
Puryear, when asked about damages that might accrue from a potential lawsuit, replied, "The damage is already being done. Students are victims of a segregated school district." He added that "only some are rising," and "some criteria [for placing students] is arbitrary."
Instead, Puryear, speaking for the local unit of the NAACP, is pursuing an unleveled district, with particular focus on grades eight through 12.
The next step in the pending lawsuit belongs to the NAACP's legal team at the national level. Puryear supported his request with "30 to 40 documents" about the South Orange-Maplewood School District. Those documents include the Task Force report issued earlier this year, as well as the May 2008 Leveling Criteria, the 2008-09 State of the District Report, and Brian Osborne's "Welcome Back to Staff," dated September 2008. In addition, Puryear sent numerous articles to the national staff.
The national staff of the NAACP has not yet responded. This week is the organization's national convention, so no action is expected immediately. In the meantime, the local unit's media release includes a request for parents, guardians and students "who are willing to share their specific negative impacts as it relates to the lack of equity within the South Orange/Maplewood school district."
Patch has contacted the Community Coalition on Race and school district Superintendent Brian Osborne for comment, and will add their remarks when they become available.
The text of the NAACP Resolution:
RESOLUTION IN SUPPORT OF ENDING RACIAL SEGREGATION WITHIN THE SOUTH ORANGE/MAPLEWOOD SCHOOL DISTRICT
Whereas, the South Orange/Maplewood school district has declared that its current educational enterprise lacks equity for all of its students; and
Whereas, a segregated school district does not promote equal opportunities for all students; and
Whereas the most recent proposed changes to "leveling", provides only modest modification to the existing school enterprise; and
Whereas, the proposed changes do not generate an immediate solution to the lack of equity, which exists within the South Orange/Maplewood school district; and
Whereas, the Oranges and Maplewood, NAACP believes that the existing segregated school district's policies are in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights' Act 1964 which " . . prevents discrimination by government agencies that receive federal funding. If an agency is found in violation of Title VI, that agency can lose its federal funding . . ." ; and
Therefore, Be It Resolved on this 15th day of June, 2010 that the General Membership of the Oranges & Maplewood NAACP seeks the assistance of the National Office of the NAACP in order to determine the appropriate legal remedies to address the segregated school environment, which exists within the South Orange/Maplewood school district.