As St. Louis' School Desegregation Program Winds Down, No One Can Say What Comes Next

Ariel Gibson, with father Leon Gibson and grandmother Cynthia Wren, is one of the 2,488 students who applied to VICC last year.
Ariel Gibson, with father Leon Gibson and grandmother Cynthia Wren, is one of the 2,488 students who applied to VICC last year. MONICA MILEUR

For the past five years, Cynthia Wren, 66, has applied to get her ten-year-old granddaughter, Ariel Gibson, into St. Louis' student desegregation program.

The Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation, or VICC, oversees the student transfer program. It is a race-based transfer that allows black city children to attend county schools, even as white students in the county can attend city magnet ones.

Ariel is black and lives in the Shaw neighborhood of St. Louis city. Part of her application includes ranking her interest in much more highly rated suburban districts. If she's chosen, it could be a ticket to a top-tier public school district: Brentwood, Kirkwood, Clayton.

But she hasn't gotten in. So the ten-year old attends Tower Grove Christian Academy. In lieu of sending her granddaughter to an elementary school run by the St. Louis Public Schools, or SLPS, Wren pays Ariel's private school tuition. A former teacher's assistant and current substitute for St. Louis County Special School District, Wren says that paying Ariel's tuition is a hardship for her family.

"It's not always easy," she says. "But we do what we have to do."

Wren plans to continue applying to VICC for her granddaughter in the years to come. But it's a lottery situation, and with a 17 percent acceptance rate, the odds are against her.

"I just don't understand the situation," Wren says. "[Ariel's] being skipped over and it breaks my heart to know she hasn't gotten in."

Ariel isn't alone. In 1999, VICC reached its peak enrollment of 14,626 students. Since then, though, the program has been on steady decline. Last school year, 4,392 students were enrolled.

It's not a case of lessening demand. A total of 2,488 black students living in the city applied to VICC for the 2017-2018 school year. Just 413 were accepted. (Of the 148 white students from the county who applied to attend St. Louis magnet schools through VICC, 85 were accepted.)

And the clock is ticking for Wren and her granddaughter. This month marks the official beginning of the end for the desegregation program, beginning the five-year extension that provides one final reprieve before the education leaders running VICC plan to shut it down entirely.

VICC oversees the longest-running race-based student transfer program in the nation, and even as it's brought a dose of color to many affluent county districts, it's also been a real boon to thousands of lucky city kids. State Representative Bruce Franks (D-St. Louis), who graduated from Lindbergh High School in 2002, is just one prominent alumnus.

Yet if you ask the people in charge of the program — the superintendents of the twelve schools that make up VICC's governing board — what comes next, and what they'll be doing to increase diversity in districts that would be largely monolithic absent the transfer students, they'll acknowledge they don't know just yet.

"We want to roll into this new five-year extension," says Eric Knost, Rockwood superintendent and VICC chairman for the 2017-2018 school year. "Once things start to settle a little bit, we will start talking about what's beyond the five-year extension."

He acknowledges, "We really haven't even scratched the surface yet on what's to come."

Since 1981, more than 70,000 black students from St. Louis city have attended schools in St. Louis County through the VICC program. Under its auspices, white students from the county have also been attending magnet schools in the city since 1982, albeit in much smaller numbers (9,000).

Those students have added much-needed diversity to some county districts. In 1999, the year of VICC's peak enrollment, participating county districts notched an average of 20 percent black students. Had VICC not existed, the projected black enrollment would have averaged a mere 4 percent.

Nearly two decades later, not much has changed, demographically. In 2017, black enrollment within participating districts averaged around 15 percent. Without VICC it would've been just under 7 percent.

But as the years have gone by, some of VICC's original participants have pulled out. Hazelwood, which was steadily growing more diverse even without transfer students, left in 1988. Ladue and Ritenour both exited in 1999, Pattonville in 2005 and Lindbergh in 2011. (Students in the program were allowed to graduate from the districts they'd been placed in, making the districts' withdrawal a gradual one.)

According to VICC, the districts left the program after finding other ways to enable diversity in their schools. Ladue, for example, consolidated its ten neighborhood elementary schools to four in the 1970s. At that same time, Ladue also redrew its school boundaries. In doing so, the district, which is made up of nine municipalities (Creve Coeur, Crystal Lake Park, Frontenac, Huntleigh Village, Ladue, Olivette, Richmond Heights, Town and Country and Westwood) plus some parts of unincorporated St. Louis County, created more racial diversity in its schools.

Lindbergh, though, hasn't quite done that. The district saw black enrollment as high as 20.56 percent in 1999 thanks to its participation in VICC. By the time it pulled out, that had dropped to 6.11 percent. Lindbergh's last VICC student graduated in 2017, and at that point, its black enrollment had sunk to just 2.69 percent — around ten times smaller than it was in 1999.

The percentage of black students at Lindbergh schools plummeted after it pulled out of VICC. - GRAPHIC BY CAMILLE RESPESS
The percentage of black students at Lindbergh schools plummeted after it pulled out of VICC.

In the coming years, absent some sort of replacement transfer program, what's happening at Lindbergh could happen to districts across the county.

VICC's board approved that final five-year extension in November 2016. It's set to run from the school year that just began through 2023-2024 and will accept around 1,000 students into the twelve participating school districts during these five years. Priority for acceptance into VICC during its final extension will be given to siblings of students already in the program.

It's a long goodbye, by any measure. If a kindergartner is chosen for the program during its last year, 2023, he or she wouldn't be on track to graduate until 2036 — walking an increasingly lonely road as other minority students graduate and move on.

From its inception, VICC's model was built on continual phase-out. The program was set up in 1999 to dwindle at a rate of 5 percent over a twenty-year period. And that's exactly the outline its remaining districts are following.

VICC leaders say that their long-held plan to phase out the program dovetails nicely with the growing ambitions of the St. Louis Public Schools. After all, VICC takes black students to county schools who would have otherwise been zoned to attend city schools.

"Clearly, county schools benefit [from VICC] by creating a more real and diverse student environment," Knost says. "At the same time, we have got to keep the interest of the SLPS."

In 2012, the St. Louis district regained provisional accreditation after five years of operating as non accredited. In 2017, the district became fully accredited.

"We are trying to be competitive as we can for families to look at us as a real option," SLPS superintendent Kelvin Adams says.

But while Adams says he believes the desegregation program has fulfilled its purpose, he agrees the ending of this iteration of VICC may not mean the end of transfer programs between the city and county school districts.

"I'm not saying it can't continue in some way, shape or form in the future," Adams says.

Maalik Shakoor, 22, graduated from Clayton High School in 2014. He was bussed from his neighborhood of Baden in north St. Louis for the twelve years he was in VICC: first to Bierbaum Elementary School in south county, then to Clayton for middle and high school.

Shakoor graduated from Webster University in May with a degree in film production. He's spent the summer as a teacher at the Freedom School in St. Louis.

Though Shakoor wishes he could have gotten a strong education in his own neighborhood, he sees the value in VICC.

"If [black children in the city] can't get a good, quality education where they're at, then the next best solution is to bus them out," he says. "Until the city schools can be up to par with the county schools, I see no other option."

Michael Liddell’s family launched the class-action suit that led to VICC’s creation. Today his kids attend magnet schools. - LEXIE MILLER
Michael Liddell’s family launched the class-action suit that led to VICC’s creation. Today his kids attend magnet schools.

While the VICC program was never meant to last forever, it's still lasted longer than its creators anticipated.

In 1972, a group of five black St. Louis families filed a class-action lawsuit, Liddell v. Board of Education of City of St. Louis. They argued that SLPS was intentionally making its schools more segregated and giving its minority students fewer resources than its predominantly white schools.

Three years later, U.S. District Judge James Meredith, who heard the case, was ready to approve a settlement crafted by the parties' attorneys. The plan aimed to increase the number of teachers of color at SLPS and redraw zoning maps to make schools more racially diverse. The settlement also included the addition of magnet schools in SLPS to attract white and black students.

But the settlement wasn't enough for the NAACP. The organization intervened in the case in 1976 and was eventually granted standing by the appeals court, along with the Missouri State Board of Education and the Missouri Commissioner of Education.

In 1980, the appellate justices suggested a transfer program between city and county schools. One year later, U.S. District Judge William Hungate, who'd taken over the case, oversaw the beginning of a pilot transfer program between six school districts. After Hungate threatened to order a merger of county and city school districts if county schools didn't step up to the plate, a much higher number of country districts signed on. By 1983, all 23 districts in St. Louis County and city had joined VICC — and by that September, city kids chosen by lottery began their education in county districts.

Fifteen years later, a remodel of the program included a ten-year phase-out, with a 5 percent decrease each year. In 2007, though, VICC voted to extend the program for another five years. The board made that same decision again in 2012.

In 2016, the board voted to extend the program for what it claims will be the final time.

One reason cited by VICC for its phase-out is a fiercely fought U.S. Supreme Court decision from 1991, Board of Education of Oklahoma Public Schools v. Robert L. Dowell. In a 5-3 ruling, the justices ruled that race-based education programs cannot run into perpetuity.

Another reason to wind down, according to VICC, was Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's opinion for a 2003 affirmative-action case. O'Connor wrote, "We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest [in student body diversity] approved today."

David Glaser, VICC's CEO, says such language, and precedents like the Oklahoma case, suggest a need to wind down the transfer program.

"We have concerns about continuing VICC beyond this five-year extension," he says.

But Veronica Johnson, a civil rights attorney in St. Louis and counsel for the NAACP for nearly two decades, doesn't agree.

"I think it is a terrible shame that it has to come to an end," she says. "I don't necessarily agree with VICC that it has to come to an end. I understand why they think that, but I don't agree with it."

Needless to say, Johnson wants to see efforts continue to diversify schools in St. Louis. But she won't be using the Liddell case to that end, suggesting she sees the same writing on the wall as VICC. "We, as attorneys for the NAACP and the Liddells, are not going to be able to go back to court and get this program continued or restarted," she says.

Instead, Johnson hopes that educators, parents and students involved with VICC can create a groundswell of support for the continuation of some sort of transfer program, even if it cannot continue as a race-based one.

She says that as the current program nears its end, its purpose has been undeniable.

"The value of it has always been the idea of equal educational opportunity," she says. "Any child should have any opportunities as any other child, regardless of where they were born, their zip code, the color of their skin."

What's more, she says, is that the diversity created through the program impacts all students, regardless of race.

"That is an integral part of the educational process," she says.

Veronica Johnson, right, and William Douthit, of Education Equity LLC, have fought on behalf of the NAACP and the Liddell family, respectively. - LEXIE MILLER
Veronica Johnson, right, and William Douthit, of Education Equity LLC, have fought on behalf of the NAACP and the Liddell family, respectively.

As the VICC program has been winding down, so has the number of black students in the participating county schools.

According to data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the eleven county school districts still in VICC today saw an average black student enrollment in 1991 of 20.17 percent. By 2017, it had dropped to 14.9 percent.

The county has grown more racially diverse during that time, but not nearly enough to make up for the reductions in the program.

In 1980, 45.6 percent of people living in the city were black. In the county, it was 11.3 percent. Fast-forward 38 years, and the city's percent of black residents remains similar, at 47.9 percent. Meanwhile, the county's black population has grown to just 24.7 percent.

It's a much smaller percentage in some individual districts. Clayton's black population in 1980 was just 2.7 percent. Today, it stands at 8.4 percent.

Johnson and other NAACP lawyers believed in the 1990s that the diversity created through the desegregation program would change decisions in housing for those students as they grew older.

"Well, that was the hope," she says. "We had hoped at one time that the program would result in less segregation. Apparently, it has not."

As the nation's longest and largest desegregation program, VICC has outlived lawyers, educators, legislators and even Minnie Liddell, the mother of five who led the lawsuit that kicked everything off. The lead plaintiff in the case was her son, Craton Liddell.

The Liddell family was living in north St. Louis in the 1970s. Ever-changing school zones left Minnie's children bouncing around from school to school, without receiving adequate resources and education along the way. Their lawsuit over those conditions led to the desegregation program that still continues today.

The youngest of Minnie's five children, Michael Liddell, 42, attended magnet schools in the city in the 1980s. The magnet program was expanded, improved and designed for diversity increases as a direct result of the family's lawsuit, and all five Liddells eventually attended them.

Today, Michael Liddell's two children, carrying on the family tradition, are both enrolled in SLPS magnet schools.

Though Michael believes his mother would be ecstatic about St. Louis' desegregation program running so long and educating so many students, he thinks she would understand that now, it's a different battle.

"I think the next step is to fight for whatever we have left in the city. No matter what the division of races are," he says. "We need to fight for better resources and better teachers. It's a struggle out here."

Even before VICC hit its expiration date, Daishanae Crittenden, nineteen, struggled to get her two youngest brothers, both ten, into the Clayton School District through the program.

Crittenden entered the VICC program as a third-grader in 2007. She was placed in Clayton.

Six years later, it was time for her twin brothers to begin kindergarten. High enrollment numbers in the district in 2013 made it challenging for the two to get spots in Clayton even though they had sibling seniority.

"I was scared," she says. "It was a mess."

What made Crittenden so fearful was what could become of her brothers had they not been accepted into VICC.

Crittenden grew up in west St. Louis. There, she perceived clear differences between her education and those of her neighbors who attended SLPS schools.

"I was living in the inner city," she says. "My neighbors, their English was so bad. I am so blessed that my mom did as much as she did to get us into Clayton because I would be illiterate just like the rest of these kids out here that are going to these neighborhood schools."

Crittenden is now in her second year studying elementary education at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. Her scholarship program at UMKC is designed to help students who want to teach at urban schools.

Unsurprisingly, Crittenden credits her Clayton education through VICC for her collegiate success. And her family's story is shaping up to have a happy ending: Her two older brothers, seventeen and fifteen, attend Clayton High School, while the twins, ten, are in the fifth grade in one of the district's elementary schools.

By applying for VICC, and the sheer luck of being chosen, all four siblings have a much better shot at a good education than their peers back in west St. Louis. But what happens to families like theirs in the future? Each year, the odds of a city kid being chosen for transfer become more and more of a longshot. In five years, it may not even be a possibility.

Knost, VICC's most recent board chairman, admits there aren't many certainties for St. Louis pupils in the years to come. But, he says, "What's definite is that the appreciation for and the interest in what VICC does remains very high."

It took nine years from the Liddells' first court date to the implementation of the original transfer program. With five years left, Knost says it's too early to make any concrete plans for its next iteration — but he says there will be one.

"Obviously, we are going to have some plan in place in 2023," he says. "Actually, well before that. This is not something we will be waiting up until the last minute for."

"I wish that the schools in the city had the same opportunities so that I could send him locally," says Kristina Darden of son Mansa Lyons, who attends Parkway schools through VICC. - MONICA MILEUR
"I wish that the schools in the city had the same opportunities so that I could send him locally," says Kristina Darden of son Mansa Lyons, who attends Parkway schools through VICC.

Despite that tenuous future, St. Louis families continue to rest their hope in the program.

Kristina Darden, 48, lives in south city. Her son, Mansa Lyons, ten, attends school in the Parkway School District through VICC. Before he got into the program just over two years ago, he attended a private school.

SLPS was never an option for Mansa, Darden says.

"I wish that the schools in the city had the same opportunities so that I could send him locally," she says. "Because they aren't there yet, I'm grateful for VICC."

In some ways, getting Mansa in was like winning the lottery. Darden's sister, Cynthia Wren, hasn't been so lucky. With help from Ariel's father, Wren continues to pay tuition at Tower Grove Christian Academy for her granddaughter, even though it means Wren is often behind on other bills.

She still holds out hope for a VICC placement, even in the program's final years.

"If she got in, I would know she is getting a quality education and it wouldn't come at a cost for me," Wren says. "But year after year, it's just not happening. There would be so many more opportunities for her if she was in VICC."

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