MLK50: WREG looks at education in the Mid-South

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Equal opportunity in the classroom was a big part of Dr. King's campaign for civil rights.

When the Supreme Court ordered an end to segregation, some assumed the battle had been won and the struggle was over.

But after much research, we've discovered reality rarely measures up.

"The school system was segregated. The administration was segregated. We had no blacks on the school board," Willie Herenton, former Mayor of Memphis, said. "I'm the product of a racially segregated school system."

From segregation to integration, Herenton knows the view from the valley and the mountaintop.

"He'll be the first to acknowledge his pathway to Memphis City Hall started in segregated Memphis City Schools.

"Many black scholars will contend that when the schools were segregated we had better teachers they cared about us and understood out culture," Herenton said.

He cautiously argues the hallways of equal education were complicated by the nation's reaction to integration.

"Some scholars will argue that integration really placed African-Americans in some kind of cultural shackle," Herenton said.

Daniel Kiel is a graduate of Harvard Law and currently a law professor at The University of Memphis.

"You look back at some of the historic black schools in our community and people look back with such nostalgia. They say integration ruined them," Kiel said. "But only because integration was enacted in such a way that tilted the burden almost exclusively on the African American community."

Professor Kiel lectures frequently on segregation and has researched and written extensively on civil rights.

He believes unintended consequences of court ordered integration are still being felt today.

Decades later, Memphis is still trying to fix that problem.

"I can't say enough that there have been some challenges," Shante Avant, chair of The Shelby County School Board, said.

She also says we can't ignore the victories.

"We have 16 schools come off of our bottom five list just this past year. That's something for us to be proud," Avant said.

The district can also boast it has four nationally ranked high school and 35 school performing in the top five percent of the state.

Yet, even the superintendent realizes more needs to be done.

"We still have a long way to go because I think the ghosts of poverty still haunt us," Dorsey Hopson said. "You have to be conditioned to take advantage of the equal opportunity and equal access."

While the district has shown consistent improvement over the past several years, a thorough examination of statistics from the Tennessee Department of Education reveals the Shelby County School District is one of the lowest performing districts in the state.

There were 146 school districts in Tennessee last year.

Only three spent more money per student than Shelby County. All three had higher graduation rates than Shelby.

In fact, while Shelby County has seen increases in graduation rates for the past four years it's graduation rate is still 10 points behind the state average.

"I think in comparison to those statistics we're also the poorest district in the state. So the issues our kids face are different than any other community that is the state of Tennessee," Avant said.

Beyond the educational outcome, there's another issue facing the district. That's re-segregation.

Legally mandated segregation was abolished, but many schools in Tennessee remain heavily segregated by race.

"There remains a significant number of schools where there are exclusively people of color," Kiel said. "Those are the schools that are most vulnerable to the lack of public support, lack of public funding and lack of equitable opportunity to their students."

That has led some families to lose faith in Shelby County Schools.

They say they left the inner city in pursuit of better performing districts and why they believe was a safer school environment.

We confirmed that with numerous families, black and white.

Be we also found parents who are all in on Shelby County Schools.

Matt and Tiffany Nason have six children and have chosen to live in Midtown and send their kids to school in the area.

"Snowden is one of the best schools in the city of Memphis. A lot of people are saying that," the parents said.

They also believe diversity in the classroom is a vital part of the educational experience. "We want them to learn that just because someone is different in the way they look, talk or speak doesn't mean we can't love them the same."

"I believe in what we're doing in this district. I believe in the opportunities we can continue to create for our kids. I believe in the success of this city," Avant, chair of Shelby County School Board said.