Legacy in Progress: Students see diversity, challenges 65 years after Brown v. Board

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - On the surface, Topeka High and Highland Park high schools may seem very different.

One is in a lower income area of town, with a minority student population around 72 percent. The other is in the center of the city, with a student body reflecting the district's overall makeup of an even split between minority and white students.

Yet, the students will tell you the schools are equally diverse. You just may need to rethink the definition.

"Diversity to me means different groups coming together to form one unified group," says Topeka High senior Conner Harris.

Fellow THS senior Philip Canady agrees.

"Diversity is being inclusive and accepting of what other people believe and do," he said.

"We all come from different backgrounds. We've all gone through different hardships," says Highland Park senior Brittany Campos.

"(It's) how you grew up, how you were raised. where you were raised," HPHS senior Chamiel Thompson said.

It all points to issues beyond race.

"Diversity means all different types of people," says Topeka High sophomore Cristina De La Isla, "from race to religion to gender to sexuality."

However, the students acknowledge, race often is the easiest aspect to see.

"You can look at a population and see their color, and say there's so many more of this student than there is of this color student," says HPHS senior Cayden Hearne. But, he adds, it doesn't tell the whole story.

For decades, the numbers were the focus for Topeka Public Schools. The Brown v. Board case, ending racial segregation of schools, did not end for the district until 1999.

In 1979, a group of parents noted many of the district's schools were heavily white or heavily minority, and questioned if the district was doing enough to integrate the schools.

The case is known as Brown III. It led to a plan that included closing schools, including Sumner Elementary, which was one of the all-white schools in the Brown case, and building Scott and Williams magnet schools.

The federal court released it jurisdiction when the district met a goal of having all schools within 15 percent of the district's total minority versus white makeup.

But the numbers quickly fell out of the range.

For the 2018-2019 school year, numbers show total enrollment at all levels around 50 percent minority. Randolph Elementary is only 32 percent, while Highland Park Central is nearly 70 percent, and Scott Magnet, home to a dual-language curriculum, is 88.5 percent.

Topeka High hits the mark, but Highland Park High is 72.1 percent minority.

Beyond the numbers
USD 501 Superintendent Dr. Tiffany Anderson said the legacy of Brown today goes beyond simple numbers, and points to issues beyond classrooms.

"We continue to have an issue with high poverty, high minority communities that then feed schools that become high poverty, high minority schools," she said. "Communities feed the schools that are closest to them, and so we have to make sure that when we see communities of color that have less opportunity, that we speak to that and we look at ways to make those changes."

Canady says he's noticed the issue.

"Houses with low income tend to be closer together compared to on the outer skirts where it's people with higher incomes - they are able to live, and it leads to their school becoming predominantly one race or predominantly one mindset," he said. "That problem is actually very difficult to find a solution to. If our neighborhoods became more integrated, then that would lead to our schools being more integrated."

Dr. Anderson says it's not that neighborhood schools, or neighborhoods of people with similar race or culture, are bad. She said the key is ensuring people have choice and access.

"This really is about mindsets. How do you change mindsets in people?" she said. "You change it by ensuring all communities can learn together, live together, and choose to attend schools they'd like to choose."

Changing mindsets
Highland Park students say they especially encounter the challenge of misconceptions.

"We're just obviously in a neighborhood that has a lot of violence and crime, and so people associate that with our students," Thompson said.

Fellow senior Vanessa Rias sees it, too.

"Sometimes when I go to speak at places, and I speak really well, they're like, 'Oh, where are you from?' 'I'm from Highland Park,' 'Ooooh..' like it's a surprise to them," she said. "It's a misconception that it's a minority school so we're catching up to everybody, when we are at the same pace or ahead. It's kinda fun for me to prove people wrong."

Topeka High students say their environment has helped them avoid those judgments.

"You learn so much more from different people," Harris said. "You get a really good sense of what life is like because life isn't all going to be the same and you're going to have multiple people from multiple backgrounds."

Opportunities missed
As equal as they feel their schools are, the students do see shortcomings.

For Topeka High senior Irene Caracioni, it's in her Advanced Placement courses at Topeka High. Most of the students are white.

"If we're going to claim that Topeka High is a diverse school, then that has to reflect itself not only within the demographics of the population, but also the educational opportunities that every student receives," she said. "If we're seeing that diversity fails at this higher level of course load, then that is something that is problematic."

Dr. Anderson says students are helped by no longer having to pay to take the college entrance exam tests. AP courses themselves do not carry fees, and they're finding ways to assist with fees required for testing to earn college credit.

Dr. Anderson says staff must also play a role in encouraging students.

"Sometimes the confidence level isn't there and sometimes it's because they don't see other students that look like them. We have to change that," she said. "We really, at the earliest of levels, have to challenge all of our students at the highest level and show them possibilities."

But students say the staff itself is a work in progress.

"There is more of one race of teachers - which is white," Harris observes.

The numbers back it up. This year, 87 percent of USD 501's administrators and certified staff, which includes teachers and counselors, are white.

"It has been easier for me because I have white teachers who I can relate to more, and some students miss out on that," Harris said.

While the students were all quick to point out their teachers are a tremendous help, and they feel they are all treated the same, a few do wonder what it would be like to have a more diverse teaching staff.

"It's important to me just to maybe have someone to look up to who kinda does look like me," Canady said.

"I think it's important that we have somebody who we can rely on who would understand our culture and our background, and understand how our family works," De La Isla added.

Dr. Anderson admits it's an issue. She said the district is recruiting from foreign countries, and among its own graduates by guaranteeing those studying education a job after college.

Plus, for the past three years, the district has partnered with a group called Midwest Equity to train teachers on cultural issues.

"We don't look for people to be color blind - we want you to be color conscious," Dr. Anderson said. "It's okay to have courageous conversations about race and experiences. Your experience is different than mine - and that's of value."

Students have noticed the effort. Thompson said teachers who come from rural areas or small towns may experience "culture shock" when they come into Highland Park, but administrators work to prepare them.

"I don't think the ethnicity of the teacher matters. I just think that they have to know what they're coming into, and know how to communicate with us," Thompson said. "They have to have a diverse mindset."

Legacy in progress
Students changing mindsets are giving them opportunities once thought impossible.

"I want to be able to go to college and continue pursuing a higher education. None of my family members have every been able to college," Campos said.

They see the future of Brown v. Board in themselves.

"I feel like that places more responsibility on us to continue improving the status quo," Hearne said.

"It's not perfect and we need to keep striving," Canady said.

"I am a part of this movement," Rias said. "This movement is what sparked by education. There's always more to do."

"There's still a barrier there and we need to knock that barrier down," De La Isla said.