December 9, 2017 10:01:19 PM
Johnny Coleman has always moved comfortably in and out of the black community of Columbus.
First as a popular coach and teacher during his 27 years in the Columbus Municipal School District, and now as a 70-year-old member of the band "Swing Shift," Coleman is at ease with blacks and whites alike.
That's why it pains him to see what has happened with CMSD.
It was once said that Sundays are the most segregated day in the South, but in Columbus the most segregated day of the week may be any day school is in session in the city.
According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, 37.4 percent of the city's population is white. Data from the Mississippi Department of Education shows that when school began this fall, white students accounted for just 4.2 percent of the student population in the city's schools.
Over the past 15 years, student population in the CMSD has fallen by 1,149 students, including a stunning 690 decrease in student since 2014.
The "white flight" that began soon after the city's school were integrated has gone on unabated, something Coleman noticed during his years as a teacher.
"Even in the early 90s, we were still just bleeding white students," Coleman said. "Real estate people would tell folks who had moved to Columbus, 'Look, you want your kids to go to the county schools. They're better schools.' What they meant by that was that the county schools were whiter. But they weren't better. It didn't matter. We just bled students anyway."
Five years ago, white students made up 15.6 percent of the CMSD's student population. This fall, just 160 of the district's 3,826 students were white.
CMSD has been rated by the state as a D district for the past nine years, something some people unfairly attribute the change in racial demographics.
"I hate that idea," Coleman said. "What I know is that I had good students and poor students, and their race didn't matter at all. But I do think, in a way, losing those white students has hurt the schools. Here's why: As a coach or in the classroom, when you are divided you can't do get anything done. To me, the problem is how divided we have become."
Coleman said he also believes the black community bears some responsibility, too.
"People want to be the boss of their ward, or of the city or their school," he said. "Well, I say, 'Alright. You're the big dog. But you don't have to hike your leg on everybody.'"
The decline in student population goes beyond "white flight," the data shows. Of the 1,149 drop in student population over the past 15 years, black students have left in numbers comparable to white students -- There are 564 fewer black students and 618 fewer white students today than in 2003.
Lori Pierce, who is white, pulled her three children out of the CMSD in 2015.
"It's not just white parents who are taking their children out of the district," Pierce said. "I know just as many African-American parents who took their kids out, for the same reason. They just lost faith that the schools have the leadership to turn things around."
Again, the data backs Pierce's claim.
There are 557 fewer black students in the district today than there were in 2014. There are 156 fewer white students today compared to 2014.
"Certainly, it's concerning," said CMSD Board of Trustees president Jason Spears. "You want to understand why it's happening, but there are a lot of variables you can't control. You can accelerate your level, say from a D to a C or from a C to a B. That helps how your schools are perceived. ... But ultimately, it's the parents' decision."
Coleman said he believes the city schools are not doomed to failure, despite the trend in that direction.
"It will be hard," he said. "Some people don't like hard. But it can be done. We can find a way to come together."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]
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