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DORCHESTER

At charter schools, the issue is diversity

Quality? At many. The lack, say critics, is in the racial mix

Codman Academy Charter School in Dorchester makes no bones about whom it's trying to serve: students from the inner city who come from challenging backgrounds.

When the school opened in 2001, it concentrated marketing efforts in Dorchester and surrounding neighborhoods, which meant it drew a large number of African-Americans, according to Meg Campbell, founder and head of the school. This year, Codman's student profile is 83 percent African-American, and the school's curriculum is heavily imbued with African-American history. Campbell said every sophomore at the school passed the MCAS English exam last fall.

There's just one thing missing at Codman and many other charter schools in the city, according to Gary Orfield of Harvard's Civil Rights Project: diversity. Though tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the US Supreme Court decision that ended legal segregation in public schools, Orfield and critics contend that segregation in Boston has only become more extreme -- especially in charter schools.

''If you look at the fact that charter schools have only made segregation worse, it's depressing," said Orfield. A study that the Harvard project released in June of last year reported that 70 percent of black charter school students in Massachusetts attend ''intensely segregated" schools (composed of more than 90 percent minority students), compared with 34 percent of black public school students.

Meanwhile, Robert Johnson, who chairs the Africana Studies department at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and also teaches a class on the African diaspora at Codman Academy, shakes his head when the Harvard study is mentioned.

''I don't think the whole idea of integrated education is as important as people thought it was back in 1954," Johnson said. ''I think that people can come from an environment that is segregated and still chart their path toward success."

Johnson and Orfield help frame a debate that questions both the merits and feasibility of diversity in Boston's charter schools.

Giving blacks their dueAt 5 o'clock on a Thursday afternoon, 27-year-old humanities teacher Thabeti Brown sat on a bench in the lobby of Codman School. As students milled around talking, Brown talked about his experience teaching them history.

''Traditionally, African-Americans are not taught to value and appreciate their own culture," said Brown. To give students a new perspective, Brown's primary text is Howard Zinn's ''People's History of the United States," which explores US history through the eyes of the oppressed.

Brown mimicked one of his students, who after learning something new about African-American history, often exclaims, ''Man, the black man didn't get what they was due!"

Codman Academy was founded three years ago, in partnership with the Codman Square Health Center, in part to help rectify that situation. The school's initial report to the state's Department of Education read: ''The group saw the need to provide local parents with a small school to prepare their children to pursue higher education." Most of those local families, the school's founders recognized, happened to be black.

Though the school's enrollment -- determined by a lottery open to any student in the Boston school district -- cannot discriminate on the basis of race, Codman's Campbell said she aimed most of her initial marketing efforts on nearby neighborhoods, which are predominately black. This year, 61 percent of Codman's students reside in Dorchester, while 35 percent hail from Mattapan, Hyde Park, Roxbury, or Roslindale.

According to Heidi Perlman, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, the department does not dictate the marketing methods charter schools can use, as long as they do not discriminate, and market themselves in a way that is ''consistent with the terms of their charter."

For Codman, that meant focusing on the neighborhood.

One of Codman's methods of helping students achieve academic success is to emphasize African-American history in its curriculum.

''As an educated person, it's important to know where you come from," said Campbell, who added that last fall, the school took a trip to New York City's Museum of Natural History to see an exhibit on Vietnam, largely because Codman has one Vietnamese student.

But reflecting the demographics of the student body, Campbell said, connections to African-American history are much more prevalent.

''When you have that kind of a 'base' of strength -- whether it's [from similar] generation[s] or culture[s] -- for many students, that helps to launch them," she said.

For many of Boston's charter school students, that base is black. According to DOE statistics for the 2003-'04 school year, 64 percent of charter school students in Boston are African-American, compared with 47 percent of the students in Boston's regular public schools.

Charter school critics say that's a problem. Anne Wheelock, a senior research associate at the Progress for Education Pipeline Project at Boston College, said that segregated charter schools are ''a problem from the perspective of anyone who believes that school is a place where kids can learn to live well in a pluralistic society."

Chungmei Lee, a research associate who works with Orfield at Harvard's Civil Rights Project, agrees. She said that in 1968, 80 percent of students in the United States were white. Today, that number is at 60 percent -- a sign that America is getting more racially diverse.

''Schools should reflect society," she said.

There's a critical link, she said, among race, poverty, and performance, which means that high minority/high poverty schools often face serious obstacles. In a study about school segregation in Massachusetts that was released by the Harvard project last month, Lee wrote that '' . . . segregated schools tend to have high concentrations of poverty, low parental involvement, and high dropout rates."

Though Codman Academy meets the first condition of Lee's trio of challenges (79 percent of Codman's students eat free or reduced-price lunches), she acknowledged that the school's performance may make it an exception to this rule.

But her colleague Gary Orfield said that it is precisely because schools like Codman are successful that they should cultivate more diversity.

Orfield, who was once Campbell's colleague when she was a lecturer at Harvard's School of Education, said she is doing a ''great job" at Codman. But he believes that simple moves, such as area-wide advertisements paid for by the district informing students about school choices, could help cultivate more diversity in charter schools.

Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, said allegations of segregation could lead to a lawsuit accusing charter schools of discrimination, though the ACLU has yet to file.

Still, African diaspora teacher Johnson believes that most of his black students at Codman will go to colleges that are more integrated. Empowering them now, he said, is the key.

''You've got to give people opportunities. Let's face it -- rich people [in rich towns] send their kids to public school, and they get the best education in the States. And so poor kids should have options as well," Johnson said, referring to Codman.

''I think people get too politically hung up on these things."

Debate close to homeLiving inside the diversity debate are Mitzi Parkins and her daughter, Ashley, an African-American ninth-grader at Codman Academy. Last year, Ashley went to Mission Hill School in Roxbury, which she said felt ''pretty diverse." She agreed with her mother, who said that Codman obviously lacks that kind of diversity.

''When [Ashley] transferred over to Codman, I was a little surprised to see that it wasn't as diverse as the other schools that she's attended," said Parkins, standing next to her daughter in a hallway at UMass-Boston after a recent session of Johnson's class.

But for Parkins, who used to live with her two daughters -- Ashley's younger sister, Mckenzie, goes to middle school -- in Bedford before moving to Dorchester, putting Ashley in an inner-city school was part of her plan.

''I wanted her to see what the inner city is all about," said Parkins, whose own education took place in a predominantly white private Catholic school. That experience made it more difficult for her to connect with people of her own race, she said.

Does diversity in school matter?

''It does to an extent," said Parkins, ''so that you can learn from other individuals. But as long as a child is getting a good education . . . I feel like Codman educates my child well."

Ashley said ''it would be nice" if Codman were more diverse, but she nodded when her classmate, Simone Wilson, offered, ''People just go where they're comfortable."

One thing that both critics and defenders of the racial landscape of Boston's charter schools can agree on is that the underlying cause of school segregation -- for both charter and public schools -- lies in Boston's racially fragmented housing districts.

''The problem is that we still have segregated housing," said Campbell. Harvard's Lee agreed, saying, ''It will lead to more and more segregation."

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