In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that schools could use busing to achieve desegregation. States, cities and communities used different methods, some were successful, many were not. Especially in the South and some major northern cities, white flight reduced the effectiveness of this policy.
Luckily the system worked in San Mateo when it was initiated in the early ’70s, or at least there was no white flight as experienced in other communities. This was because African American children who lived primarily in North Central were bused to schools where the population was primarily white. But no white children were bused out of their neighborhood. It was very tough for those children from North Central being bused to schools in other strange neighborhoods where they knew few children. Their educational opportunity may have increased but at a high cost to these kids emotionally and socially. An effort set up by volunteers to support these children was called the co-parent program. Parents, mostly white, from receiving schools “adopted” a North Central youngster and helped when the child became sick and the mother could not leave work to pick him up. Or when there were minimum days and the working parents had no place to leave their child. This reflected on the openness of the San Mateo community to make busing work — but it was not enough.
So it was no surprise when I was on the San Mateo Elementary School Board that a group of parents from North Central asked me to help stop the busing and instead provide a good school in the neighborhood. The district at that time was in the process of closing, not opening schools because of financial hardships caused by the impact of Proposition 13. Instead, the district decided not to send just one or two children to a school but to increase that number so at least there were enough neighborhood kids to make the bused children feel more comfortable. That system remains even though today most of the children in North Central are Latino.
The other factor was that the district had closed the neighborhood elementary school (Lawrence, because of safety concerns) and the neighborhood middle school (Turnbull, because of declining enrollment. I voted against closing Turnbull because it was already a desegregated excellent school with children attending from North Central, San Mateo Park and San Mateo Highlands). For a short time, Turnbull became an elementary school but the school was marked as failing and soon became a magnet elementary for Mandarin immersion, and an elementary gifted program. It also has a preschool and kindergarten for neighborhood children. Ironically, students from Foster City (which does not have students from North Central because of overcrowding) are now bused to the Mandarin immersion program while students from North Central are bused to schools throughout San Mateo.
There is a plan, not finalized and hopefully not on the back burner, to build a neighborhood pre-K-third-grade school on the Turnbull site. That school could be a pilot for special help, longer hours and superior day care so that students entering fourth grade would be proficient in English and math.
Busing, however, has not been considered a successful means of achieving racial integration. A 1999 Gallup Poll found that 82% of respondents said letting children go to their neighborhood school would be better than achieving racial balance through busing. Meanwhile, as a result of white flight, schools have become more segregated. The number of schools with nonwhite enrollment of more than 90% more than tripled from 1988 to 2016. Many of these schools are struggling academically. Some have become charter schools to address the problem — offering extended hours and focusing on academics with well trained teachers. The San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District is the exception to the rule. Its school integration program has worked well. Today, one third of the students are white; one-third Latino and one-third Asian.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.