FRONTLINE | Separate and Unequal
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Watch Tuesday, July 15, 2014 at 10pm on WMHT TV.

School segregation is making a comeback, sixty years after the Supreme Court declared separate schools for black and white children unconstitutional.

What’s behind the growing racial divide in American schools—and what’s the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education?

In Separate and Unequal—part one of FRONTLINE’s two-part hour on education, class and race in America—FRONTLINE travels to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the site of one of the country’s longest battles over school integration.  

The East Baton Rouge Parish School District was forced to desegregate its schools in 1981 after a 25-year legal fight. But now, frustrated over the district’s many low-performing schools, a group of mostly white, middle-class parents and business leaders are trying to break away and form a new city with its own separate schools.

“We’ve had enough of failing our children. We’re not going to do it anymore. And we’ll go to the length of creating our own city, to create our own education system to take control back from the status quo,” says Lionel Rainey, the group’s spokesperson.

It’s a controversial effort that mirrors similar breakaway movements in cities around the country that critics say are reversing hard-fought civil rights gains.  If the plan succeeds in Baton Rouge, the new district is expected to be more affluent and white, and will leave behind a population of mostly black students from low-income families. 

“You are automatically going to be creating a city that is less diverse than the one you are leaving, and it will take away resources,” says Belinda Davis, spokesperson for a group opposing the creation of the new city. “And that is not fair to the children who remain behind.”

Also this hour: Omarina’s Story, FRONTLINE’s continuing examination of a groundbreaking effort to stem the dropout crisis in America’s high-poverty schools. The film follows the story of Omarina Cabrera, a young girl from the Bronx.

When FRONTLINE first met Omarina back in 2012 for the documentary Middle School Moment, she was a student at Middle School 244. She was doing poorly in school and had a tumultuous family life.

But when her teachers identified her as being at risk for dropping out, they intervened, using an experimental program based on the research of Robert Balfanz of Johns Hopkins University. Balfanz’s theory is that the make-or-break moment for preventing kids from dropping out of high school actually happens in middle school.

“If a 6th grade child in a high-poverty school is absent more than 20 percent of the time, or fails math or English, or receives an unsatisfactory behavior grade in a core course, there is a 75 percent chance that they will drop out of high school—unless there is a decisive intervention,” Balfanz tells FRONTLINE. “Even kids in the most dire circumstances really want a future. They just need to have a path to it.”

Omarina’s path has lead her out of the Bronx and to an elite New England prep school, where she has now finished her sophomore year.

“[My middle school teacher] Ms. Miller told me that I can break through it, that I’m strong enough, that I have the courage to do it,” Cabrera tells FRONTLINE. “The fact that she believed in me, I believed in me.”

But Cabrera’s journey has not been without challenges: she makes regular trips home to the Bronx, juggling the competing demands of her schoolwork and her sense of responsibility to her twin brother—who was not part of the intervention program. He is still in the 9th grade, and was recently arrested for carrying a knife.  

“We actually know that kids are resilient and so it still makes sense to have strong recovery efforts in high school and strong high school reform efforts and you’ll still be able to turn kids around, put them back on track,” Balfanz says. “But it gets much harder.”