A shadow passes over Virginia Williams' face as she leans back in her chair and considers the success of school desegregation.
"I have been thinking that from several standpoints black students were better off in a segregation system," she says slowly. "And I was very much an integrationist ten years ago."
Williams, a black guidance counselor at Fort Hunt High School in Fairfax County, echoes what many black educators and parents in Northern Virginia are saying privately -- that 25 years after the Supreme Court struck down "separate but equal" schools, blacks still suffer educational inequalities.
At times, black educators voice a nostalgia for segregated schools, even as they admit the severe problems with that system. But black educators say they are not advocating a return to segregation; they are urging that attention be focused on solving the inequities of integrated systems in Northern Virginia.
Some school officials view any nostalgia for segration with disdain. Robert Frye, the only black member of the Fairfax County school board, is one of those officials.
"I don't have a lot of sympathy for people who are nostalgic for segregated schools," Frye says. "Things were different then. We didn't have traffic jams or air pollution, either.
"In the all-black schools there were more black role models, student body leaders were black, and the issue of race was not a negative thing. (But) by and large black students are much better off with our schools today."
Black students constitute 46 percent of the student body in Alexandria, 15.7 percent in Arlington and 5.75 percent in Fairfax. With the wide difference in numbers, come a range of problems.
But there are several factors cutting across district lines, which blacks say support their contention that educational inequaliteis exist:
There are an insufficient number of black teachers and administrators in the schools to serve as role models for black students.
Black students are disciplined more frequently than white students.
Blacks are underrepresented in advanced placement courses.
White guidance counselors "steer" black students into nonacademic courses.
White teachers, who make up the bulk of the faculties, have low expectations for black students.
"What we are seeing here is educational genocide to a great degree," charges Jack Gravely, director of the Virginia NAACP. "We are about to see a whole generation of black students wiped out.
"Black students are not being held accountable in the classroom to do well. The predominately white counseling staff will not steer kids toward college.White students are in college preparatory courses, black students are in nonacademic subjects.
"What you wind up with," Gravely says emphatically, "is a school within a school . . . Black students are being tolerated while white students are being pushed."
Last year, the Virginia NAACP filed suit against the Alexandria school board, charging that the board used the school consolidation issue to close only predominately black schools. The court ruled in favor of the school board, but the NAACP is expected to appeal the decision next week.
Samuel Tucker, chief legal counsel for the NAACP, said the suit sought an injunction to prevent future closings of schools in Alexandria's black neighborhoods and to reopen two predominately black elementary schools -- Cora Kelly and Robert E. Lee.
"I think we did prove the school board was only selecting schools in black neighborhoods for closing -- placing the burden of busing students on the black community," said Tucker. "The judge didn't see it that way, so we're appealing."
At least one Alexandria school official admitted privately that part of the reason schools in black neighborhoods were closed was because administrators believe the black community wouldn't "squawk as loud as white parents would if you tried to close white schools."
Northern Virginia blacks are not the only Americans rethinking school integration. Last week, a federal judge ordered the reopening of the landmark case, Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka. The order came after a request from Topeka parents, who contended that black students in that school system still are not receiving an equal education.
In Northern Virginia, dissatisfaction with the present system is apparent.
"What the people lost when schools integrated was primarily a community meeting place. That was pretty traumatic," says Alta Newman, director of equal employment opportunities for Fairfax County schools and a former teacher in both segregated and integrated schools. "Parents had been very involved in the schools and the school administration . . . that close feeling sort of disappeared."
While yearning for the days of segregation may seem startling, Arlington Superintendent Larry Cuban says he has heard it before.
"No, I'm not shocked by that. We've heard similar comments from teachers and members of the community," Cuban said. "Not many, but some do express those feelings.
"Quite often, what I hear is that blacks lost a sense of community when schools were integrated. Young children have to go to school outside of the neighborhood."
But Cuban is emphatic about the kind of education black students are receiving now.
"There's no question in my mind," he said, "that the quality of schooling they're getting today is superior to what they got in the segregated system. Segregation was not the golden age of education, not in the least, but I do understand why some people feel the way they do."
Arlington was the first district in Virginia to adopt a plan for partial school integration -- and do it voluntarily. Because of that 1956 decision, Arlington became a target for political retaliation. The state legislature, in an era when massive resistance was the byword in Virginia, abolished the elective school board. Since that time, by state law, the school board has been an appointive body.
Black educators, like Newman, readily acknowledge that there were severe problems with the segregated system, such as the lack of a public high school in Fairfax before 1954.
"If blacks wanted to continue beyond eighth grade," she said, "they had to go to Manassas Regional High School in Manassas or bootleg an address from relatives in the District."
The regional high school served blacks in an area loosely termed "Northern Virginia." Former students say the ride in an unheated bus from Fairfax took well over an hour. Students from areas as remote as Luray and Front Royal had to board at the school, visiting their families on weekends.
Like other black educators, however, Newman believes problems in the integrated system also are severe. Newman says she knows from experience that teachers in the segregated system set high standards for students, something she says may not be as prevalent in the integrated system.
"We assumed the kids would work hard -- we insisted they work hard," she says. "We did not assume that because these children were poor -- most were -- they could not learn.
"When the schools were integrated, the children began to lag academically and act out as they found themselves at the bottom of the totem pole."
Despite dissatisfactions with the present system, most black educators acknowledge there is no turning back. The problem now, they say, is how to make integrated schools provide equal education.
"We worked hard in 1970 and '71 on this thing called integration," says Daniel Brown, human relations coordinator for the Arlington County schools. "Since that time we have not, and are not, being aggressive about this thing called integration."
In supporting their allegations of unequal education, blacks point to results of minimum competency test in Virginia and suspension statistics.
Minimum competency tests of last year's ninth grade classes in Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax show that more than 90 percent of the white students passed both parts of the test -- reading and math -- while less than 80 percent of the black students, and in one case less than 70 percent, passed one or both parts of the test.
Theories about the discrepancies abound, but the most common hypothesis is that black students are not being pushed by their parents to study.
Civil rights leaders and educators counter that motivation probably is related to economic conditions rather than race. Because many black families find themselves in lower-income brackets, they theorize, black parents are more likely to be working at two or more jobs, leaving little time to help their children with homework.
"The home environment is so important," says William Euille, one of three black members of the Alexandria school board. "Blacks students often lack the resources any student should have -- a dictionary and a set of encyclopedias.
"Many families, from my observations, are under financial constraints. Low-income families can just about afford a subscription to the newspaper, let alone other reading materials which kids should really be exposed to."
Angella Current, director of the Northern Virginia Urban League, contends that the problem -- which she describes as isolation of black students and their families -- began with integration.
Current says the "burden of desegregation" fell on the black community, when students were sent to white schools to balance the racial scales. When black students left neighborhood schools, she contends, black parents were cut off from the educational process.
"Black parents have never learned to manipulate the system," Current says. "Many lack education and they feel unsure of themselves when they have to go into the white schools to confront teachers and principals."
The rate of black suspensions, which tends to be about twice as high as white suspension rates in Northern Virginia, is of particular importance to many blacks. Parents say they fear discipline is being dealt unequally to black students.
All three major school systems in Northern Virginia, however, point out that it would be easy to reduce the suspension rates simply by enacting a policy against most suspensions. School officials contend that the real need is to find ways to reduce disruptive behavior.
As a method to improve the effectiveness of suspensions, school administrators are looking at the possibility of using more in-house suspensions. Students would be allowed to stay in school, although separated from the other students. A major benefit of in-house suspensions, school officials say, is that students would be required to be involved in school work.
At a recent seminar on human relations sponsored by the Fairfax County Schools, educators and community members struggled with the question of why suspension rates for blacks were higher than for whites.
Several speakers noted that anti-social behavior may be spawned by rejection. They suggested that black students were being treated differently -- in a subtle manner -- by school employes and other students, leading to a feeling of rejection.
At the meeting, Fairfax school board member Ann Kahn said the schools must ensure that racial prejudice is not present anywhere in the system and suggested a human relations course be instituted for all school employes, including cafeteria workers and bus drivers. The task force promised to investigate the possibility.
All teachers in Fairfax are required to take 45 hours of human relations instruction.
Another common complaint of black leaders in Northern Virginia is the small number of black teachers and administration in the school systems.
In Arlington and Fairfax the percentage of black teachers nearly equals the percentage of black students in each system. In Arlington, for example, 11 percent of all teachers are black, and in Fairfax, 6.5 percent of the teachers are black.
In Alexandria, however, where nearly half the enrollment is black, only 29 percent of the teachers and 24 percent of the administrators are black. o
George Webber, a black teacher at T. C. Williams who has been in the Alexandria school system since 1963, describes the situation from his viewpoint.
"One problem here is we don't have a sufficient number of black teachers and we never have," he said, seated at a student's desk in his empty classroom.
"All of the black students want to get into my American Government class -- not because I'm a better teacher, but because they think they can have a better rapport with me."
In Fairfax County, where black students make up less than 6 percent of the total school body, black students say they feel isolated.
One 11th grader at Fort Hunt began school in a predominately black school in the District.
"I liked it better," he says. "You didn't have to worry about the principal and teachers being prejudiced because they were black, too."
For Alexandria teacher Webber, the major concern is the matter of motivation.
"We've got to get parents more involved," he says. "They are nonchalant about pressing the children to study and this is one of the things we must find an answer to.
"I ask the kids, 'If you don't study where are we going to get all of our black doctors and lawyers?'"
Webber says he believes teachers at T. C. William are doing their best for all students, but he would like to see someone exerting pressure on blacks to take the challenging upper-level courses.
"I don't think there have been seven (black students) in advanced calculus since 1965," Webber said, shaking his head.
When asked to compare integrated schools with the segregated system, Webber replied:
"I've said this over and over and over, I'm getting to the point where I don't care where I say it -- black students were better off in segregated schools."