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Two steps forward, no steps back

By Staff | Feb 9, 2023

Sometimes a single person can right a very big wrong.

And sometimes that person is a child with courage greater than their years and their time in history.

In 1963, a high school senior named Rosalind Blalock wanted to attend a Lee County high school that would better prepare her for the career she was planning.

Rosalind wanted to attend Fort Myers High School, which had the lab equipment and books she thought would help get her ready for medical technology coursework.

There were two problems:

Rosalind was Black.

And the only public school open to her was Lee County’s all-Black high school in Dunbar.

She was denied admission for Fort Myers High although it was nearly a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that “segregating children in the public schools by race was inherently unequal” and that districts across the nation must move with “all deliberate speed” to desegregate their public schools.

Rosalind sued.

She won.

Although, all told, it took 35 years for the School District of Lee County to reach “unitary status,” meaning the district had finally “eliminated its dual systems of education.”

The history synopsis above is from the United States District Court Middle District of Florida, which did not find compliance until 1999, when it ended the consent decree under which the School District of Lee County had been forced to operate until full desegregation was reached.

As the School District of Lee County prepares to end its cumbersome School Choice lottery system, which has its roots in Rosalind’s lawsuit, let us dip back into The Breeze story archives.

Rosalind Blalock vs. Lee County Schools was filed in 1964 with the help of the NAACP. The suit led to the desegregating of the school system in 1969-1970 with the school district implementing a new and, ultimately, troublesome boundary-based assignment system.

From 1970-1995 the district moved school boundaries as Lee County’s population grew, often resulting in long bus rides, particularly for minority students.

Unhappy with the transportation issues and shifting boundaries that changed assigned schools, students and parents protested.

In 1996, the school board approved a new policy for the 1998-1999 school year — the creation of three geographic zones that would allow parents to rank the schools within “their” zone with assignment to be determined by a School Choice lottery.

The plan worked, well enough to get the district into compliance with the court-issued consent decree but parents have long complained about the issue upon which Choice has come to fail — again, transportation.

Long bus rides for many.

Late drop-offs resulting in tardies and missed classes.

So School Choice, as originally formulated, is coming to an end.

In its wake will come a new elementary school proximity plan, approved by the School Board of Lee County this week to save on transportation wear-and-tear and the resultant cost on kids and buses alike.

Something similar at the middle and high school levels is coming next.

District staffers and School Board officials alike see some pain ahead as the transition takes place as some parents now face the choice of changing their child’s school or getting them there themselves as bus transportation out-of-zone will not be provided.

They also see positives — getting kids into seats more efficiently and having more money for classrooms to boot.

District officials assure us — parents, guardians and taxpayers all — that choice of school (small “c” as there will be fewer schools from which to choose) will remain, thus ensuring that schools offer the same learning opportunities and environment.

As well Lee County’s schools certainly should — and must — do.

Let us also recall another courageous woman of color who painted a picture a tad more Orwellian.

Former School Board member Gwynetta Gittens, whose advocacy for the School District of Lee County’s East Zone, never lacked passion, pointed out that when looking hard at investments in infrastructure that schools may be equal but some schools seem more equal than others when it comes to adding seats and determining where and when to build or rebuild.

For Proximity to be an improvement on Choice, not only the district staff, but the board itself, will need to follow the academic benchmarks and the money to make sure all schools are equal — as in fair and appropriate — among the new mini-zones.

That will be the continuing task at hand and we urge our school system to make it a priority.

May no school ever again be lesser-than.

May no student find lesser-than their only option.

— Breeze editorial