It took this Texas school district 48 years to desegregate. Now, some fear a return to the past.
Though students of color in Longview ISD still don’t have the same educational opportunities as white students, a federal judge dismissed a longstanding desegregation court order. Will the district succeed without it?
LONGVIEW — At the first Friday football game in the first school year since the school district in this East Texas town had been declared racially integrated — nearly 50 years after a federal court order — thousands of spectators dressed in forest-green Lobos gear filled the stadium anticipating a win.
Enduring the late-August heat, fans piled out of haphazardly parked cars and filed into creaky fold-down seats they’d reserved for years. Some who had attended segregated white or black schools in Longview decades ago now shared the same rows. When the marching band played the school’s fight song, most of the crowd formed an “L” with their fingers and rocked them back and forth in unison.
Opting for the bird’s eye view from the press box, Ted Beard, a longtime Longview Independent School District board member, watched the football players race across the field to the cheers of a rapt and raucous crowd and wondered how long the commitment to integration would last.
The district is at a pivotal moment now that a federal court has released it from decades-long supervision of its policies for educating students of color. It has made progress to topple the barriers still holding black and Hispanic students back from the same academic success as white students. It has poured millions of dollars into a new Montessori program for its pre-K and kindergarten students, launched advanced International Baccalaureate courses starting with first grade and constructed its own meat processing lab for kids who don’t plan to attend college.
But whether it continues a commitment to student equity now depends solely on the collective will of a school board that could change with a single election cycle. And that worries Beard, whose father was part of the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965 and faced threats and violence along the way. Beard is black and had two kids go through Longview schools. He knows the progress he’s helped fight for in Longview is fragile.
“That attitude can turn at any moment,” Beard said gravely, against a sports announcer’s booming narration. “The board could change and then the direction could change, and those that are ultimately affected are going to be the students.”
The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision declared school segregation unconstitutional in 1954, but Longview ISD — along with hundreds of Texas school districts — resisted until federal judges intervened and imposed detailed desegregation plans across large swaths of the state.
“The same factors which were found to exist in Brown v. Board of Education, and which led the Supreme Court to hold that separate education was ‘inherently unequal,’ exhibit themselves in” Texas’ segregated districts, Judge William Wayne Justice wrote in one order.
In 1970, an East Texas-based federal court mandated Longview ISD tackle a long list of tasks designed to make sure its black students were learning and playing in the same classrooms and playgrounds as their white peers — including closing four all-black schools and busing black students to formerly all-white schools throughout the district.
Forty-seven years later, Longview was one of only three Texas districts that remained under a federal court order, along with San Angelo and Garland.
A federal judge fully released the district from that order in June, and just weeks before the school year started, Beard and the rest of the board unanimously approved a voluntary plan to keep the district’s schools desegregated and ensure that students of color have equal opportunities to graduate and succeed beyond high school.
But Beard and others know the district has yet to overcome the deep disparities that have defined so much of its history. In Longview ISD, white students — who make up a fraction of the district’s enrollment — still outpace their black and Hispanic peers in many ways. They are roughly half of the students enrolled at Longview’s specialized elementary school, which has higher academic standards. And they are more likely to take classes and tests meant to prepare them for college.
And district leaders also have struggled with a new education challenge that federal judges couldn’t have foreseen in 1970 — adequately providing a burgeoning group of Hispanic students with crucial services they need to learn English.
Decades later, districts statewide are grappling with many of the same challenges: how to address major demographic changes as Texas public schools become majority Hispanic, while also working to make up for deep-rooted, historical inequities.
In Longview, people like Beard can look in the stands at the football game and see plenty of success stories — like high school senior Taleiah Fortner. Sitting with her friends in the student section, Fortner — whose grandfather was one of the first black students to desegregate Longview’s schools — has never known a world in which she was prohibited from learning with white students.
An accomplished student excited by the high school’s long list of student clubs and activities, Fortner looks forward to pursuing a career in education after she graduates in May, following in the footsteps of her mother, a middle-school coach in the district.
But Beard worried about the ramifications of exiting court supervision for students of color who are still being left behind. If the district had spent almost 50 years trying and failing to completely close the educational gap between white, black and Hispanic students with a mandate from a federal court, how would it succeed now without one?
“You can’t get over it”
Troy Simmons started his education in an all-black school in a small unincorporated community 75 miles southwest of Longview. It had no kindergarten program, and he started first grade in a classroom with no air conditioner to fight the late-summer Texas heat, poring over old, tattered textbooks.
When his school integrated in the mid-1960s, a decade after Brown v. Board of Education, he watched his father, a teacher and coach, lose his coaching job to a white administrator. When he visited Longview schools for a high school basketball game, he remembers being cursed and spat at by the all-white crowd.
Simmons, now 67 and a dentist in Longview, has carried memories of those misdeeds, which he likens to bad relationships, throughout the decades he’s spent trying to make things better for the students who came after him.
“You don’t walk away from those relationships without some bitterness in you because you see the injustice in it,” Simmons said from a chair in the waiting room of his dentistry practice. “And when people say you ought to get over it, you can’t get over it. That is in your core.”
Simmons had already started his freshman year of college when the federal government sued the state of Texas for refusing to integrate most of its schools, 16 years after the Brown ruling. Ruling for the federal government in 1970, a federal judge almost 40 miles from Longview placed nearly the entire state under court order and threatened sanctions against defiant school districts — resulting in one of the largest series of desegregation orders in the nation’s history.
The same court ordered Longview to integrate both its faculty and students, requiring that each campus have a roughly 70-to-30 ratio between white and black students, administrators, teachers and even teacher’s aides. That meant busing more than 600 black students to white schools and the consolidation or closure of several all-black schools, including Mary C. Womack High School. If white students tried to transfer, the court order mandated that they could only be reassigned to schools in which they would be in the minority.
Tucked behind the state’s pine curtain, Longview ISD was unlikely to have integrated without a court order. Like in much of the state, white people in Longview saw the federal push for integration as a threat to their autonomy and the racist status quo — and some reacted with violence.
The details are laid out in federal court findings: Fearing a “revolution” and “uprising” of the black community, a group of white residents conspired to "injure, oppress, threaten and intimidate" black students in Longview, collecting lethal weapons including mortars, hand grenades, dynamite and Molotov cocktails.
In the summer before the first integrated classes began at Longview ISD, a local man named Fred Loyd Hayes set off dynamite at the house of a black woman in a white neighborhood and then joined forces with Kenneth Ray McMaster to blow up dozens of school buses that were meant to transport black students to white schools. They were later convicted and each drew 11 years in prison.
The violence didn’t stop integration. Fifteen years after the first buses transported black kids to previously all-white schools, Simmons was appointed to the school board to fill a vacancy, making him just the second black school board member in Longview. He was spurred to run for a full term after recognizing that Longview ISD, in some ways, still resembled the segregated school system he grew up in.
The district had closed the all-black schools and bused students across its long L shape, but Simmons said he found a district in 1985 that had failed black families for generations and still refused to truly extinguish long-standing disparities between the southern end of the district, where mostly black families lived, and the north side, which was still largely white.
“You had black kids scattered all over the district and all of the schools, but the quality of education was vastly different,” Simmons said. “The quality of facilities and services were vastly different.”
Schools in south Longview were saddled with lower-end, slow computers, while schools in north Longview were stocked with the newest models — with no district-wide effort to equalize resources.
Board members began pushing to renovate some of the old school buildings in the late 90s, though they were not able to get the community to agree to extensive changes. Since the integration order, white families — who still made up the majority of Longview’s population — had left the school district in droves for private schools, and white voters actively resisted paying to renovate the district’s schools.
“If you’re an Anglo family and you’re taking your kid out of school, why would you vote yes to float a bond?” said Chris Mack, a white board member first elected in 1993 who was a middle school student in Longview ISD when it was forced to integrate. In his opinion, it would have been impossible to convince them to pay to repair all the district’s schools at the time: “I don’t think it would have had an ice cube’s chance in hell.”
When Beard was elected to the seven-member board in 1998, 13 years after Simmons, not much had changed. Beard describes a dysfunctional board whose meetings were stymied by personal politics and disagreements over district leadership, leaving little room for attention to their court-ordered requirements.
Meanwhile, the same federal courts that had slapped schools around the country with desegregation orders weren’t aggressively enforcing those orders as national political will plummeted for mandated busing and transfers of teachers.
By many accounts, the turning point came when James Wilcox — a hard-charging leader with high ambitions for the district — was hired as superintendent in 2007.
“Wilcox, in my opinion, is the most valuable player ever in the school district,” Mack said. “It’s his leadership, the programs he brought in, the things he implemented since we got here, that’s what started winning people back to Longview ISD.”
With Wilcox at the helm, Simmons, Beard, Mack and other board members asked the community to approve a $266.9 million bond to finance a massive overhaul of the district’s schools. They aggressively courted community support at town halls across the district, pitching the bond as a way to curb the excessive price tag of maintaining old buildings, ensure that all schools were in the best shape, and curtail the use of busing.
The measure passed in 2008 by fewer than 20 votes.
Longview ISD built eight schools, renovated three others, razed several school buildings and upgraded technology across the district.
By then, the makeup of the town had changed significantly since the court order forced Longview to start busing. Hispanic families, primarily Mexican immigrants, moved to Longview and filled the void left by white families who had fled the public schools. A district that was about 65 percent white, 0.2 percent Hispanic and 35 percent black in 1973 had become about 48 percent black, 28 percent Hispanic and 24 percent white by 2008.
The massive overhaul appears to have worked. Longview ISD made more progress integrating black students after 2008 than it had in the previous 15 years, according to an analysis of school segregation data by Meredith Richards, an assistant professor of education policy and leadership at Southern Methodist University.
While overhauling schools, the district went back to the federal court to argue that it no longer needed an extensive busing system, which district leaders argued had become tedious, with students living on the same street sometimes shuttled to different schools miles apart.
“We did what was best for our students while meeting the requirements of the desegregation order,” Wilcox said from his office earlier this year. “But it was a dinosaur, a pyramid, or whatever you want to say — something that in our mind has lost its function because it’s a totally different district.”
In 2014, the courts agreed to release the district from some of the restrictions of the original 1970 court order. In exchange, the district’s leaders promised to spend the next three years working to improve in areas where Longview still needed to make progress after more than four decades: monitoring racial disparities in student discipline, preventing students from transferring to schools where their race was the majority, hiring a more diverse staff and ensuring students of color had equal opportunity to take advanced classes.
A strategy with a Montessori in mind
Wilcox and the school board had transformed the district with the aim of giving every student the same building blocks for a quality education from the second they stepped inside a school.
Since 2017, most pre-K and kindergarten students in Longview have begun their education at East Texas Montessori Prep, a $31 million, 150,000-square-foot building located right in the middle of the district.
“We have the same exact expectations for every student,” Wilcox said.
Widely considered an exclusive educational program more common in private schools, Montessori prioritizes self-directed, hands-on student learning. Longview ISD’s leaders first incorporated Montessori instruction at different elementary schools before deciding to consolidate the programs at one massive campus.
Simmons saw the school as a way to give students of color a competitive advantage early in their lives, which he had been preaching for decades — but like the bond issue, that too was met with resistance. Community members often responded to the district’s pitch to create the Montessori school by complaining about how much it would cost, Simmons said.
“People don’t believe in educating all children. They believe in educating their kids, not your kid,” Simmons said.
Among the strongest objections to a district-wide Montessori school came from parents at Johnston-McQueen Elementary School, located in the whitest part of the school district, where parents successfully advocated to keep a traditional pre-K and kindergarten program for students zoned there. Scott Fisher, last year’s principal, said parents wanted a school with more structure than the Montessori model, in which teachers present a lesson and give students freedom to continue learning the concept on their own.
Wilcox and board members agreed, in part to appease white parents and keep them from leaving the district, which would make its schools even less diverse, according to Mack. “If parents want their kids to go, then fine. We want to keep them in our district,” he said.
To Simmons, the separate program is a figurative foot in the door, impeding the district’s plan for a cohesive education system. “Now you make it make sense to me, when Montessori is the most well-known preparatory program worldwide,” Simmons said with a laugh. “Why would you not take advantage of that? So I think you can read into it what it says.”
If the decision had been left up to Beard, Longview ISD would not have given up court supervision at all. He made that clear to his colleagues before they gathered in the district’s boardroom in November 2017 to take a final vote on the district’s request to be completely released from federal oversight now that they had complied with the 2014 order.
His opposition is recorded in a few lines in the board minutes: “Knowing that at a drop of a dime the board could change and take…its sight off what is best for ALL students, he will not support this motion.”
Beard voted no, joined by Shan Bauer, who is also black.
Simmons, who had been one of the board’s fiercest advocates for integration, joined the majority in the 5-2 vote to ask the court to fully release the district — a decision he later regretted as he saw the Trump administration rolling back civil rights protections for students of color.
“What will happen, given an opportunity, it will all be rolled back,” Simmons said. “I’m well aware of that.”
In June 2018, Judge Robert Schroeder lifted Longview ISD’s court order though he acknowledged its schools had not achieved perfect racial integration. Even after 48 years of court supervision, black students at Longview were much more likely to be suspended, just more than half of teachers were still white and white students still far outnumbered black and Hispanic students in advanced courses.
But Schroeder ruled the district had complied with the order “for a reasonable period of time” and eliminated vestiges of institutional segregation “to the extent practicable.”
Another challenge emerges
By the time the district had ended its long saga to lift the court order, it was confronting a new challenge that the courts in 1970 had never anticipated: Providing an equal education to an exploding population of Hispanic students — many of them immigrants or first-generation citizens, and many of them Spanish speakers.
Without a court order hanging over them, the district’s leaders, by their own admission, have struggled to lift Hispanic students like they did, belatedly, for black students.
Hispanic enrollment in Longview schools has almost doubled in the last 13 years alone. The district has included them in many of its desegregation measures, particularly in its efforts to recruit students for advanced classes, said Jody Clements, an assistant superintendent at Longview ISD.
But in Longview, most Hispanic students need bilingual or English as a second language instruction — hundreds more students enrolled in those programs between 2009 and 2017, state data shows. But the number of teachers for those programs only increased by about five.
“We haven’t cracked that nut yet,” Mack said after an August school board meeting during which the issue was discussed in executive session. “There’s not one meeting that goes by that we don’t talk about our need for ESL teachers and bilingual and all this sort of thing.”
Longview can’t compete financially with cities like San Antonio that have the means to offer bigger salaries to bilingual teachers, he said. And its attempts to recruit bilingual teachers from Mexico are often derailed by visa problems.
That puts more pressure on employees like Antonio Gomez-Pedroso, a physics teacher from Mexico City who has become a de facto translator for other teachers at Longview High School.
Gomez-Pedroso, whose children attend Longview schools, said he sometimes finds himself explaining delicate matters — like why a student is acting out or failing a class — on behalf of colleagues who don’t speak Spanish, without knowing important details of the situation.
“I know there’s a lot of responsibility in that phone call I have to make,” Gomez-Pedroso said.
A handful of Longview schools don’t enroll enough students with language needs to cover a bilingual program, including Johnston-McQueen Elementary, which has the second-largest share of white students and where teachers rely on aides to go over lessons with students outside of class. The school also relies on a recently hired, Spanish-speaking receptionist to help its mostly white faculty communicate with parents who aren’t fluent in English.
Parents in Longview are clamoring for programs that will allow students to improve in both languages, which studies show is a more effective method at guaranteeing academic success for those learning English.
After her two older sons mastered both Spanish and English in an elementary school bilingual program, Luisa Landaverde hoped for the same for her youngest daughter who, at first, tested into the bilingual pre-K program at her school.
But once she started classes, her daughter’s teacher determined that her English fluency was too high to participate in the program, Landaverde said.
“It was very saddening to me because the fact that my children are bilingual is very important to me,” Landaverde, who moved from Mexico 22 years ago, said in Spanish. “I feel she missed out. They robbed her of the opportunity of being in a program that exists for Hispanic children. It seems unjust to me.”
The new reality
For Longview, life after court order supervision looks in many ways similar to what it was before — leaders are working on getting more kids of color into challenging academic programs and persuading more white students to enroll to create diverse schools.
Now freed from the court order, board members agreed they wanted to maintain the gains they had made.
In a brief, undramatic August meeting, Longview’s school board unanimously approved a seven-page voluntary desegregation plan that it plans to implement with the help of a $15 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Starting this year, five predominately black and Hispanic schools will offer special programs, such as advanced engineering or college preparatory courses, to attract higher-income students and white students living in the district but are attending private school or homeschool.
The U.S. Education Department has offered these grants since 1985 to school districts still under desegregation court orders or those interested in voluntarily getting rid of segregated schools and making sure students of color are getting a high-quality education.
The plan is self-enforced, with no federal judge serving as referee. The district will regularly monitor and report to the board percentages of students of color, economically disadvantaged students, and students learning English to make sure the five schools are diverse.
But unlike the original 1970 court order, the new plan does not give district leaders as much power to correct any disparities between white students and students of color, after a 2007 Supreme Court decision limited how school districts could consider race in voluntary desegregation plans.
Longview ISD leaders will no longer limit student transfers to certain schools based on race or set goals for the percentage of white, black or Hispanic students for each school. Instead, if they notice a school is becoming more segregated, they will correct the problem using “race-neutral” strategies, such as recruiting students from low-income neighborhoods — which some experts say is not as effective in achieving racial integration.
Even before the district was released from court supervision, white students had started coming back — drawn to the wide array of career training and college-prep classes. By 2017, white students made up more than half of the transfers into Longview ISD, with a third of them seeking entry into courses and programs where black and Hispanic students are already underrepresented.
And while the majority of Longview ISD students are now starting with Montessori and ending at Longview High School, white students are still more likely to complete the advanced courses and exams needed to pursue a college degree than their black and Hispanic classmates.
About 56.2 percent of white students graduated ready for college English and math in 2016, according to state data, compared with a dismal 23 percent of Hispanic students and 16 percent of black students. That disparity is similar among students who take Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes in high school.
The district’s class of 2016 saw 43 percent of white students scoring college ready on SAT and ACT exams, compared with just 2 percent and 3 percent of black and Hispanic students.
Those disparities don’t surprise Simmons, given the decades-long battle to give students of color more opportunities, though he pointed out the numbers have improved significantly.
“This battle has been from ground up, and just to get equity in facilities was a major issue,” he said. “Trying to change their academic outcomes is not something you can do real quick, is what I’ve come to accept.”
As black and Hispanic students struggle academically, Wilcox has poured resources into strengthening the district’s vocational programs to help students who are less likely to go to college.
For example, the board gave Wilcox the go-ahead to spend more than $2 million to build a district-owned meat processing lab, complete with a smoke room, processing and packaging equipment, and instruction room. Soon after the lab was built in 2014, students gave board members a tour, walking them through the process from bringing in live animals to butchering them and shipping them out in packages.
“I would bet a lot of money that those kids who showed us through that facility, had they not been part of a program like that, they’d be dropouts,” Mack said. “You could just tell they were that kind of kid. You know, I’m not trying to label people, but I just know that those kids were not going to be mathematicians probably … They’re going to excel in doing something with their hands and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
But Beard is watching the participation in those programs closely, to make sure black and Hispanic students are not disproportionately encouraged to enter vocational programs. “Let’s provide those opportunities, but let’s also push them academically,” he said.
He doesn’t buy the argument that some kids aren’t college material. “Well, they may not [go to college], but I want them to be prepared to go regardless of what path they may choose,” he said.
Could the momentum stall?
The community’s resolve and commitment to equity could soon be tested. Though Mack was just re-elected to another three-year term, he will likely step down after handing his daughter her diploma at graduation this spring, after nearly 20 years on the board.
Wilcox said the responsibility for ensuring continued progress lies primarily with voters.
“I hope it’s not an oversimplification, but the community is going to have to elect the right kind of people to the school board that will represent all the community,” Wilcox said gruffly. “Not certain segments and not their particular social group or whatever you want to say, but elect people that have as a priority the needs of every single student in the district.”
But depending on community support to drive Longview’s commitment to integration could prove risky. Longview is still a small town where many hesitate to talk directly about race. And people are divided on how they recount the racially fraught history or whether they acknowledge that same racism still exists today.
Some Longview ISD leaders acknowledge that the opposition to integration that drove the two white men to blow up Longview’s bus barn in 1970 likely still exists in the community. “People had to be force-fed unfortunately, and that’s a shame. And I don’t want to see that kind of thing occur again,” Wilcox said. “There are those who don’t feel that way. I’m not going to pretend that that’s not a fact.”
At Ned E. Williams Elementary, where the student body is mostly black and Hispanic, teachers — vaguely and without delving into specifics — suggest that some Longview residents haven’t eagerly welcomed Hispanics’ quick population growth.
“You could feel what people felt outside of the school about different individuals coming into their community,” said Sharon Collins, a fifth-grade math teacher who has taught in Longview for 19 years. “It was like a separation outside the school.”
At the football game three months ago, Mattie Johnson, who is black, used careful language to describe a process of forced integration that she said was long and often painful, especially for black students.
“All of the athletics and the classes and everything were one,” she said. “I didn’t say they were at peace. They were one.”
Johnson was the valedictorian of the last class that graduated from Longview ISD’s Mary C. Womack High School, the segregated all-black school whose students proudly sported blue and gold. White students at Longview High School wore green and white. When the schools were integrated, their colors were, too.
But it wasn’t until 20 years later — when her own daughter graduated from Longview — that Johnson truly felt a connection to the institution.
“That was when I finally had some heart for this school,” Johnson said, at ease in a sea of people wearing green, white and gold as they whooped in the stands, almost exactly 48 years after the court ordered Longview ISD to integrate. “It took me that long to really feel OK.”
Perched just a few rows away in the top row of reserved seats, 87-year-old Glenn Gordon said without hesitation that integration was a process “everybody accepted” in Longview.
“No problems whatsoever that I know of,” said Gordon, who retired from a local chemical manufacturing plant decades ago.
After a short pause, Gordon, who is white, then recalled one exception — the bus bombing.
That quick dismissal of Longview’s past trailed Simmons into the district boardroom over the past few years, when members of the board and community regularly complained about federal involvement in their schools.
“People [who are] saying that are sons and daughters of people who purposely did not give access to black and brown kids,” Simmons said.
Simmons, who now has the longest tenure on the board, regularly considers whether it’s time to retire. He’s tired, he says, but leaving is not a decision he can make without considering the impact on Longview’s progress.
What if the community elected someone in his place who didn’t believe in further pursuing integration? What if his seat ends up being just the first to fall to the people he believes want to reverse the gains of the past 48 years?
“I have a lot of faith in our superintendent. I have a lot of faith in the core of our board, the way it operates, but I also know that one change, one blip, one glitch can turn the board into something completely different and basically destroy everything that we’ve built in these past years in doing this,” Simmons said solemnly at the start of the year. “And so that makes me hesitant about not seeking re-election, but at the same time I am tired of fighting this the way I have to.”
Four months later, Simmons ran for — and secured — another three-year term.
Ryan Murphy contributed to this report.
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