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(With additional reporting by Melissa Silverberg of CU-CitizenAccess)
Over the past decade, public schools in Champaign County have seen a loss in white students, but none more so dramatic than in its two largest urban school districts.
Officials attribute the shift in students to national trends mirrored by census data as well as more choices in private education.
“In general, the county is becoming more diverse, and it’s not necessarily the case of white families leaving Champaign-Urbana,” said Jane Quinlan, regional superintendent for the Champaign-Ford Regional Office of Education.
But a review of Champaign and Urbana school enrollment data shows the drop in white students over the last 10 years has far exceeded the drop in the overall student-age white population.
The white enrollment drop comes at a time when districts in Champaign and Urbana have been striving to increase diversity among its students and staff.
In Champaign — through policy, a 2002 federal consent decree and federal mandates — officials pushed the district to examine the education and services provided to minority students and redistribute students among the schools to ensure diversity.
In Urbana, the district increased its minority staff to better reflect its student population.
But during the same period, both school systems have lost a disproportionate number of white students.
A review of this year’s enrollment figures supplied by the Illinois State Board of Education shows:
— The Champaign school district has seen a nearly 30 percent decrease in the number of white students since 2002-2003, while the district’s overall enrollment has remained nearly the same.
— The Urbana school district has had a 34 percent decrease in white students while its enrollment has dropped about 8 percent.
——In Rantoul’s city school district, white student enrollment dropped 36 percent while its overall enrollment fell only 4 percent.
By comparison, the number of white children 18 and younger in Champaign County has declined 12.7 percent, from the 2000 Census to 2010.
But enrollment and the number of white students has increased in at least at one private school in Champaign County: the High School of St. Thomas More.
St. Thomas More, which opened in 2000, saw a nearly 60 percent increase in enrollment — from 220 students to 350 students from 2003 to 2011.
In the 2010-2011 school year, St. Thomas More was mostly white, with four black students, according to state education data.
Another private school, Countryside School in Champaign, also saw a 9 percent increase in enrollment from 2003 to 2011. While more diverse — 64 white students and 40 Asian-American — it has only eight black students.
The Champaign school district is seeking a racial makeup in its schools that more closely mirrors the community’s racial profile.
“Obviously the numbers aren’t reflective of our total population; the numbers in our school aren’t perfectly reflected of our entire community. So what are we missing?” said Lynn Peisker, community relations coordinator with the Champaign school district. “So we’re missing some of (the) traditional white families. So how do we reach out to them?”
Last fall, district staff hosted focus groups with parents to better understand how they are receiving information about the school district as well as understand why some chose to leave. They also looked at how parents were getting information about the school district and found that the traditional methods — such as fliers — were not working.
Nathaniel Banks, a former Champaign school district board member, said that the United States is changing demographically, but he said that doesn’t explain the entire shift in Champaign school district’s demographics.
“When people in Champaign and Urbana think about public education, what they’re really thinking about is ‘Well, that’s where all the black kids go,’” Banks said. “There is that reality of white flight.”
White flight is defined as the migration of white families due to fear or anxiety about increasing minority populations in certain areas.
Greater than Other Districts
But new district Superintendent Judy Wiegand said that other school districts similar in size to Champaign’s have experienced similar trends.
She pointed to school districts in Danville, Springfield and Bloomington, all of which have fewer white students than 10 years ago.
According to data from the state board of education, each of those school districts had overall enrollment falloffs of less than 10 percent between 2002 and 2012, but saw larger declines among its white students.
Overall the number of white students in Bloomington’s school district declined 25 percent, 20 percent in Springfield and 19 percent in Danville.
The loss in student population cannot be explained by home school enrollment.
Parents are not required to register their children as home school students with either the regional office of education or the Illinois State Board of Education, Quinlan said.
“You know there’s this piece regarding diversity that we talk about in our schools, and I work with our principals on and it’s that, ‘Do you see diversity as an asset?’” Wiegand said. “And if you do, how do you build on that asset versus how do you see it as a disadvantage and that’s something you have to address.”
This is in deep contrast to what is happening to some of the other communities in the rural part of the county.
Tolono’s Unit 7 school district saw a nearly 15 percent increase in white students while its overall enrollment grew 18 percent.
St. Joseph’s grade school district saw a nearly 29 percent increase in white students while enrollment grew 32 percent.
Mahomet-Seymour school district saw a 3 percent increase in the number of white students while the overall student population expanded nearly 8 percent.
Not Just About Race
Banks said that the changing demographics of Champaign-Urbana schools are not just about race. Families of greater affluence may move to other districts where they believe their children will get a better education.
“It’s not just white families leaving the district,” Banks said. “It has a lot to do with income. Once families of means see their children will get a good education, they’ll stay.”
Banks said that the public perception just hasn’t caught up to the reality yet, however.
“I think it will start to turn around and it’s already turning around,” he said. “There’s plenty of evidence that Champaign schools are doing a pretty good job.”
Although the district will still be working to close the achievement gap and other quantifiable problems for years to come, Banks said, a bigger issue is that of the perception in the community.
“It’s the perception of the white community that we need to work on so that white families don’t automatically assume that just because black students are there that it is a bad system,” Banks said.
Sociological studies have shown that people tend to want to stay with people who look like them, Wiegand said, but 21st-century education has to envelop living in a global society.
“There’s a good chance that no matter what they do after high school, they are going to encounter somebody that’s different than themselves,” she said. “And how do they know how to interact and how do they know about different cultures. I think it’s just part of our education.”
The Consent Decree: Then and Now
Following several complaints filed by African-American families in Champaign in 1996, the Champaign school district entered into a federal consent decree with a court monitor in January 2002. Under the consent decree, several changes were mandated and committees were formed to examine the education and services provided to minority students in the district.
Although the federal case was settled and the consent decree was ended in July 2009, many have said the district has not fully accomplished its original goals and still struggles to achieve equality.
“We are better as a community for having worked through the consent decree, though we have not totally realized the original goals,” said Mark Aber, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois. “So from that point of view, you could say it was a failure. But we wouldn’t be as far as we are now if we hadn’t had the consent decree. It’s really a mixed bag.”
Aber conducted a climate survey in 2000 to look at perceptions of racial disparities in the district and conducted a second survey in 2009, the results of which were released last year.
The survey shows that, similar to in 2000 before the federal consent decree, African-American students, staff and families still see less fairness in the system and a need for improvement compared with their white counterparts.
While Aber said he believes the decline in white students likely has several causes, dissatisfaction with the terms of the consent decree and the changes to the district have been a factor.
“Some families moved to St. Joe or Mahomet because they weren’t happy with what’s happening in Champaign,” Aber said, remembering that in the early years of this issue there were several families and members of the board that thought it was a mistake to sign the consent decree and have the district take responsibility for what they saw as a larger societal issue.
Enrollment numbers at private schools in Champaign County do not completely account for the change in demographics from the public schools, but they are one factor.
“I think we have a very, in our community, the diversity is so great, we have a very large section of community that is consumer-oriented in terms of education,” Peiskar said. “You really want to explore all the options (and they) have a lot options available to them.”