News Local/State

Champaign ACLU, NAACP Call Out Lack Of Progress On Racial Equity In Unit 4 Schools

Champaign Central High School

Champaign Central High School Travis Stansel/Illinois Public Media

Jennifer Enoch said she chose to send her daughter to Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Champaign in large part because of the school’s racially diverse student population. But, beginning in daughter’s second grade year, Enoch said she witnessed segregation between classrooms. 

“The within-school segregation was extreme,” she said. “Almost all of the white children were in the gifted program, and almost none of the black children were in the gifted program.”

The Champaign County chapters of both the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) jointly sent a letter to the Champaign Community Unit School District 4 Board of Education and superintendent Susan Zola last week, highlighting a lack of access to gifted and advanced placement classes in the district for black students, as well as disparities in discipline and academic proficiency for black pupils, as compared to their white peers. Less than 10% of black students in Unit 4 schools are proficient in math and reading, compared to nearly 50% of white students, the letter states. White Unit 4 students are also more than seven times more likely to take AP classes than their black peers, according to federal data

In their letter to the district, the groups urged school district officials to meet with them to specify how the district intends to address the disparities. 

Consent decree

A court-ordered consent decree mandated the district improve racial equity measures in the early 2000s. A settlement was reached in 2009, and district officials at the time promised to make racial equity a priority moving forward. But ACLU of Champaign County president Carol Spindel said equity in the district has, by at least one measure, gotten worse in the last decade. 

“When Champaign County ACLU saw the numbers, we were really shocked and disheartened,” Spindel said.

In 2009, black students were more than five times more likely to be suspended than white pupils, the letter from the ACLU and NAACP states. District data indicates that black students were nearly nine times more likely to be suspended than whites in 2018.

“It’s been ten years since the consent decree ended… you would expect to see a lot of improvement, but unfortunately the situation has gotten worse," Spindel said. "The racial disparity gap has widened, so there has got to be something done. There’s got to be a better plan put in place.” 

The consent decree was lifted some time ago... it may exist on paper but in action it hasn't done any good."Minnie Pearson, president of the Champaign County NAACP

Minnie Pearson, president of the Champaign County NAACP, said she hasn't seen any indication that the district is committed to improving the educational outcomes for its black students.

"There is no movement, there is no indication they are trying as hard as they can to meet the children where they culturally are to enhance them," she said.  Pearson said children of color in the district are neglected.

"And they've been neglected for a long time. It needs to stop. Those children matter." she said. "The consent decree was lifted some time ago... it may exist on paper but in action it hasn't done any good."

A spokesperson for Unit 4 schools, John Lyday, wrote in an email that district officials plan to meet with the NAACP and ACLU members soon. “This was a very thoughtful letter. The District takes it seriously and looks forward to having a discussion,” he wrote.

EEE Committee

Enoch, whose daughter is black, has served on the district’s EEE Committee for about two years. The committee was established as a result of the consent decree settlement reached in 2009. The purpose of the committee, according to the consent decree, is to review and discuss equity issues in the district, and develop task forces as necessary.

“Since I’ve been on the committee anyway, it’s just been data presentations by the school district. So it’s nice to be informed, but there doesn’t seem to be any sense they want to really put any effort into working on solutions or really truly engaging with us in a genuine way and thinking about changing things,” Enoch said. 

Enoch said the segregation inside Booker T. Washington was so bad that her daughter and one her friends were concerned that segregation inside classrooms would lead to separate water fountains for black and white children.

“They really thought they were going to go into school one day and see the water fountains had also been designated for separate races."Jennifer Enoch, Unit 4 parent and EEE Committee member

“They really thought they were going to go into school one day and see the water fountains had also been designated for separate races,” she said. Enoch said witnessing all-black or all-white classrooms in schools sends “a huge message to the kids, and it’s doing damage everyday.”

She said she’s encouraged that the local chapters of the NAACP and ACLU have gotten involved in the issue. 

“It’s something a lot of parents talk about, and it does seem like we’re powerless to do anything about it,” Enoch said.

She said an improvement would be for district officials to engage with parents and community members and demonstrate a willingness to change.

Spindel, with the ACLU, said the goal of the letter is to hold the district accountable for fixing the problem.

“We want to see a process that is transparent, has genuine community input and has some sort of accountability built in so that there’s regular reporting that comes back to the community about the progress that’s being made,” she said.

Follow Lee Gaines on Twitter: @LeeVGaines