November 4th, 2009 BETH SLOVIC | Special Section Stories
 

Class Pictures

Decades after desegregation, race remains a sensitive issue in Portland Public Schools.

     
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THE ’74 STRUTTERS: Lots of soul, hair.
IMAGE: 1974 Grant High School Yearbook

Racial segregation in public schools was supposed to have ended in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education. But not even the U.S. Supreme Court could change how students interacted with each other.

That was true in 1974, and Grant High School in Northeast Portland was but one example. How much has changed since then depends on where you look.

The demographics at the powerhouse school, known as much for its strong athletic teams as its academics, are similar today compared with what they were 35 years ago. This is unusual in a school district that, taken as a whole, has experienced major population shifts.

In the past four decades, Portland Public Schools enrollment has dropped dramatically, falling from 64,000 in 1974 to 47,000 in 2009. And as gentrification has pushed African-American families from inner Northeast toward Gresham and the David Douglas School District in outer Southeast, an increasing number of Latino families have moved to Portland. Today only about 55 percent of Portland Public Schools’ students are white, compared with 84 percent in 1974. Meanwhile, Portland Public Schools’ policy of letting students transfer out of their neighborhood schools has actually increased racial segregation in Portland schools.


THE ’09 GENDRILLS: Still pretty white. IMAGE: 2009 Grant High School Yearbook

Today, about 23 percent of Grant’s 1,500 students are African-American (in a city where the population is only 7 percent black), 62 percent of its students are white, 7 percent are Asian and 4 percent are Latino.

In 1974, 22 percent of Grant’s students were black. (Back then, Portland Public Schools recorded no other data on Grant students’ racial identities—another telling sign of America’s narrow focus on black-white politics at the time.)

Students who attended Grant in the 1970s recall racial tension at the school, where many freshmen arrived from largely segregated middle and elementary schools never having attended classes with black students before. John Mears, a teacher at Grant since the ’80s who attended Grant in the ’70s, remembers students were under so much pressure to remain in their separate groups that those who had elementary school friends of different races wouldn’t say hello to them in the halls. “We would make eye contact,” Mears says. But they would wait until after school to hang out.

That could explain why in 1974 Grant boasted two dance teams—the all-black Ebony Soul Strutters and the nearly all white Gendrills.

Today teachers say students from diverse backgrounds are far less isolated from each other: Grant’s gospel choir welcomes white singers, the a cappella group has black members, and an advanced English class on African-American literature is popular with a broad cross section of the school. Unlike 35 years ago, sports teams better represent the racial make-up of the school as a whole.

Still self-selection remains a palpable influence on students. Today’s Gendrills remain a competitive force at Grant. They also remain largely white, though less so than in 1974.

 
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