Our Segregated Schools

August 6, 2020 | Posted in Education Policy | By

This summer, based on my reading of White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, I began to research our local history with desegregation. I am a white Teacher Librarian. Why am I teaching my students that desegregation is something that happened in the past, somewhere else, when some of my students arrive at school on a bus each day? How have I lived with that cognitive dissonance for five years? 

Many of my own students arrive at my school on a bus each morning. Well, they did prior to Covid-19. I realized, too recently I’m afraid, that I cannot teach about desegregation as something that happened in the past to my students. They experience it every day. We like to call it something else, however. In our District we refer to the program as VTP. In the online comments section of our local paper I see commenters say “Tinsley kids.” These are my students, like any of my other students. They simply have a much longer morning and afternoon. I’ve taken their bus ride.  I know. The bus ride can be over an hour each direction, even though they are just crossing the freeway.

I set about researching the Tinsley Settlement that provides the lottery that allows some of them to attend school in the District in which I teach. I began to form a website to collect my research to share with others. My reading focused on race – my race – and education in my immediate geographic area: the Mid-Peninsula: from San Carlos through Palo Alto. At first I was just keeping an annotated bibliography, like any good librarian. The more I read, the more I realized that there was a story to be told. Pursuing primary sources became the focus of the remainder of my summer.  

I hope to use this dusted-off WordPress site to share the research I have found, and as an avenue for listening. Here I hope to use all three aspects of my professional identity: Teacher, Librarian & Writer in service of educational equity.  We don’t have it. That is not a bold statement. It’s a fact. In this blog post, I will briefly review the history of school segregation in Palo Alto and Menlo Park. 

There is no law creating segregation by race in our public schools from San Carlos through Palo Alto. Yet, there is a Settlement requiring desegregation of those schools that has been in effect since 1986. In this blog post I will attempt to summarize what I found. More detailed descriptions and primary sources, links to data, along with a bibliography, can be found at this website https://sites.google.com/view/oursegregatedschools/home .

Let me first describe the Tinsley Settlement. It is a Voluntary Transfer Program set up between Ravenswood City School District and 9 (now 8) of the defendants. Only Redwood City Schools have met the criteria set forth to exit the Tinsley Desegregation Settlement requirements in the last forty years. That requirement is 60 percent students of color within school district boundaries. Each year a lottery is held for Ravenswood City School District Kindergarten, First or Second grade students of color who wish to transfer to a neighboring District.  Sixty students are chosen to attend PAUSD, 31 for Belmont Redwood Shores, 26 for San Carlos, 24 for Menlo Park City School District, 12 for Las Lomitas, 8 for Portola Valley and 5 for Woodside. Letters are sent from Ravenswood City School District notifying non-minority parents in those school Districts that they may apply for transfers into Ravenswood School District. 

To understand how school segregation came about I had to understand how residential segregation had come about in Menlo Park, Palo Alto and East Palo Alto, since our schools are largely, still, neighborhood schools. 

The Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce had tried to segregate “the Oriental and colored people of the city” in the 1920s. Despite support from the Palo Alto Times, the American Legion and others, the measure did not pass. However in 1954, when a black man, William A Bailey, actually purchased a home in all-white Palo Alto Gardens, 125 people suddenly showed up to an evening Palo Alto Gardens Improvement Association Meeting concerned that their property values would decline.

Larry Bailey, William’s son, recalled the Gentleman’s Agreement that formed that evening this way, “not against the law at the time, but that there was a Gentlemen’s Agreement between the White residents to let this so-called Board review whoever was purchasing a home to see if they were acceptable candidates to join the community, if they were acceptable as far as race, I presume. That’s typically what those unwritten agreements are.” (KPLY radio, 2017) The neighbors pooled $3,750 to offer him an incentive to leave. 

Racial covenants like this cropped up all over the Mid-Peninsula. At the same time, East Palo Alto had been red-lined, which means that buyers could not get mortgages there – banks would not loan since they would not be federally insured –  even if they could afford a home. Black families who could afford homes, were directed away from Palo Alto to East Palo Alto, where there were mostly rentals, therefore denying their families the ability to accrue equity at the same rate white families were able to in Palo Alto and Menlo Park. The Office of Civil Rights has extensive documentation from it’s 1960 report on Palo Alto and the inability of Black families to purchase homes in Palo Alto even when they had the money. 

In Belle Haven, part of Ravenswood City School District, a practice called block-busting was commonplace. A realtor would go to a white homeowner, tell him that a black family was about to move in, therefore, ostensibly, property values were about to tank. The Realtor would buy the house at a deep discount. He would then turn around and sell it to a Black family at an inflated price – earning commission on both transactions.

It was in this residential setting that the schools in East Palo had become nearly all Black and the schools in Palo Alto and Menlo Park had become nearly all white in the course of a few years. Given that fewer homes on the east side of 101 had mortgages guaranteed by the Federal government, the property tax base – where there were more white owners, and students – was larger on the West side of the freeway. 

The Office of Civil Rights and the NAACP had taken notice of our segregated high schools. The NAACP was asked to review the boundaries. 3,700 neighbors of all races signed a petition asking that the boundaries be re-drawn along Willow Road, as that would create a more diverse student body both racially and economically. However, the School Board, and some vocal neighbors to the West, voted to keep the boundaries as they were. The NAACP named 101 between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto “The Concrete Curtain” in 1957.

By 1970, Ravenswood High School had become 94% African-American. Reports were that up to 200 elementary students were involved in a Sneak-Out Program, an only partially concealed method whereby families would enroll children in nearby districts by listing them in other households. Again, inequity – and racial segregation – between our schools was under the spotlight.

The Sequoia Union High School District embarked upon a radical plan to integrate Ravenswood High School as a model magnet school. Classes were designed to appeal to white students: scuba diving, Hebrew, Russian, organic gardening, and rock climbing. A record 400 white students signed up to be bussed to Ravenswood High for the first year of the program. The school performed West Side Story and Coretta Scott King visited. But, within four years, enrollment had declined, like elsewhere in the Bay Area, and the School Board had to close a high school.

Ravenswood High School closed in 1974. All the EPA students were divided up and bussed to the Districts remaining high schools. East Palo Alto still does not have a public high school.

The next year, 1975, the Midpeninsula Task Force for Integrated Education formed with 33 parents from Ravenswood City School District. This group eventually became the plaintiffs for the Tinsley Class Action lawsuit, which claimed unequal access to educational resources for their students. The three lawyers representing the case knew one another through Rotary and two were trustees of Ravenswood. There were nine named defendants: San Mateo County Office of Education, Santa Clara County Office of Education, Redwood City School District, Palo Alto City School District, Menlo Park City School District, Belmont Redwood Shores, Portola Valley SD, Woodside Elementary SD, and Las Lomitas Elementary SD. Margaret Tinsley was chosen as the named plaintiff. Judge Lanham of the California Superior Court got the case and spent the next nine years in negotiations with all parties.

As recorded, the final settlement has three main goals: to increase the number of minority students in the 8 mostly all-white districts, to improve educational standards of the Ravenswood City School District and to improve inter-District cooperation.

Thirty-four years after the settlement, it is clear to me that, other than Redwood City School District, the other defendants remain mostly all-white districts. Looking at the School Accountability Report data I have collected here, it is also clear to me that schools with more white students have better paid teachers and, for the most part, higher per-pupil spending in our geographic area.

Given the fact that we have been here so many times historically on the mid-Peninsula – and yet have failed to achieve equity in our schools, I want to ask this question: What would equity look like? And, how can we get there? I will ask those who will be kind enough to answer and let me share their answers.

In my next blog post, Dr. Julian Crocker, the PAUSD Superintendent (1985-1989) at the time of the Tinsley Settlement answers that question, and helps me understand school funding. You might be surprised by his answer to What Would Equity Look Like? I was.

Read More →


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