Under Pressure: Unit 4’s Struggle With the 2002 Consent Decree

Co-Authored by Emma Atkinson and Max Larrison

Origins of the Consent Decree

For high school students Sa’Da and Tyjuan Johnson, the issue was as simple as black and white. There was a disparity in the treatment of African-American students and white students in Champaign Unit 4 Schools; an issue of racial segregation. In 2000, with the help of their mother, Felicia, Sa’Da and Tyjuan filed a class-action lawsuit against the Champaign Community Unit 4 School District. They cited deprivations of 14th Amendment rights, (which forbids states from denying its people equal protection from the law), Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in programs which receive federal financial assistance), as well as the equal protection clause of the Illinois Constitution, (which covers a similar topic).  The two plaintiffs’ complaints included the unbalanced proportion of African-American students in special education and honors classes, discipline rates, and graduation rates, along with other issues.

The plaintiffs sought to have the Court order and approve enforcement of a previously drafted consent decree. As defined by The Free Dictionary, a consent decree is “the settlement of a lawsuit or criminal case in which a person or company agrees to take specific actions without admitting fault or guilt for the

Judge Joe B. McDade, who oversaw the Consent Decree. Source: www.bradley.edu

Judge Joe B. McDade, who oversaw the Consent Decree. Source: www.bradley.edu

situation that led to the lawsuit.” The result was the Second Revised Consent Decree, approved by Peoria District Court Judge McDade, filed on January 29th, 2002. The 2002 agreement had two main areas of focus: controlled choice for student assignment to elementary schools and educational equity.


Student Assignment

The issue wasn’t simply about the treatment of African-American students in the District, but also about the distribution of races in schools, particularly those in lower-income areas. In 2002, Stratton Elementary, located on the north side of Champaign, reported an enrollment rate of 68% African-American students and 26% white students, while South Side Elementary, located more centrally in Champaign, reported respective rates of 24% and 69%. The Johnson’s case against the District called for desegregation of elementary schools all across the board. The Controlled Choice Plan (implemented in the original Consent Decree) was supposed to “guarantee racial diversity, provide individual choice regarding school enrollment within racial fairness guidelines, and promote school reform” by allowing parents to effectively choose which elementary school their child would attend, regardless of where they lived. Stratton’s enrollment numbers changed: in 2009, the rate was 43% African-American students and 27% white students. South Side’s enrollments changed as well, marginally; African-American enrollment rose to 31% and white enrollment dropped to 60%.



Diversity in Special Education and Honors Courses

Unit 4’s current mission statement asserts that one of their goals is to improve a diverse society; but was this goal a priority as few as ten years ago? In the early 2000’s, Unit 4’s definition of “diversity” looked quite different. The 2003 Illinois School Report Card for Central showed that African-American enrollment at Central was a mere 29.9%, while white enrollment was 61.1% — meaning that there were two white students for every African-American student at Central. At Centennial the difference was even greater: 18% African-American and 75% white.

Even when taking into account the disparity in enrollment, the difference between the amount of African-American and white students in honors classes was hugely disproportionate when compared to the breakdown of races in the school’s population.  Among other things, the original lawsuit cited the the over-representation of African-American Students in special education classes, as well as the fact that honors classes were almost entirely white.

The Education Equity Memorandum, part of the Consent Decree, included a “standard for participation of African–American students in each of the regular programs, courses, classes and extracurricular activities,” according to the order approving the Decree. It also provided for “standards to eliminate to the greatest extent practicable any over-representation of minority students in subjective special education categories,” leading to a serious change in how students were distributed into honors classes, academic or lower-level classes, and special education classes.

The changes made by the District to implement this policy were sudden. At the high schools, a switch was made from having three different levels of core classes to having only two levels; one honors level and one academic or “regular” level. Teachers were given no initial plan to adjust the curriculum and no training on how to adjust their own teaching. All of a sudden, students who had previously been in low-level or special education classes were thrown together with students who had been learning at a mid- to high-level rate, and teachers had to learn how to teach all of them.

Central English teacher Gary Slotnick was teaching both honors and academic level courses at the time of the change. Conceptually, he said, the switch would help lower-level kids, but without structured curriculum or teacher training it did not help kids that had previously been enrolled in special education classes or kids with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs). “We had to redefine what it meant to be an ‘honors kid’,” he said.


White Flight

“One of the things that happened during the Consent Decree is a lot of affluent white folks left,” asserted former Unit 4 educator Mike Woods in a recent phone interview. A former Central teacher as well as the former president of the Champaign Federation of Teachers, Woods said that parents of white children in the District moved to places like Mahomet, St. Joe, Tolono, therefore changing the diversity of the population at Central. Obviously, not all parents were happy with the changes being implemented by the District. The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) School Report Card shows that the percentage of white students at Central dropped from 61.1% in 2003 to 48.8% in 2009, the last year that the Consent Decree was in effect. Woods cited “white flight” from Champaign schools as a direct result of the Consent Decree, and said he believes that racism is “deeply embedded” in Champaign and the surrounding communities.


Graduation Rates

One of the biggest issues facing Unit 4 in 2002 was the racial disparity in graduation rates — only 63% of African-American seniors at Central finished high school in 2003. That same year, the rate for white seniors was 86.8%; a difference of almost 25%. The difference in the percentages at Centennial was 15% — smaller, but still a problem. During the Consent Decree, these percentages changed significantly for the better. By 2006, the graduation rate for African-American seniors at Central had jumped to 79%, and in 2009 it was up to 89% — a 26% increase in the span of only seven years. The increase at Centennial was less dramatic, a jump of only 8%, but the final graduation rate for African American seniors was 88% in 2009. The improvement in these rates shows that the Consent Decree did indeed make a quantifiable difference in the success of African-American students in the District, but how long did this last?



Current Effects

Although the Unit 4 did not manage to completely fulfill all of the goals laid out by the Consent Decree, the agreement ceased to be in effect in 2009. Both parties mutually agreed to end the Consent Decree, with the promise that Unit 4 would continue its good faith efforts to improve. The School Board created the Education Equity Excellence Committee (EEE) to help with this, and vast improvements were made from 2002 to 2009 — Graduation rates of African-American students jumped from 67% to 89%.

This graph from Illinois  Report Card shows the decline in graduation rates over the last four years.

This graph from Illinois Report Card shows the decline in graduation rates over the last four years. (Click to enlarge.)

Two graphs from Illinois Report Card show respective enrollment rates of black and white students at Central from 2010-2014.

Two graphs from Illinois Report Card show respective enrollment rates of black and white students at Central from 2010-2014. (Click to enlarge.)

However, the 2014 ISBE Report Card shows that Unit 4 has not continued to improve upon the results of the Consent Decree since it was taken out of effect — graduation rates of African-American students at Central have dropped almost 10% from 2009 to 80.9% in 2014.This raises a huge question: what has Unit 4 done to continue improving since the end of the Consent Decree? To help us answer some of these questions, we talked to current Central principal Joe Williams. 

Williams worked in the district as a dean at Jefferson Middle School at the time of the Consent Decree, and is also currently serving on the EEE Committee. Speaking specifically about changes implemented at the high school level, Williams mentioned several organizations created by the Consent Decree that still meet today; the EEE Committee and a district AP/Honors task force. As for over-identification of select students for special education programs, Williams said that parameters for identifying students with special needs have changed and are continually being refined.

Williams said that he was most excited about the social justice undercurrent that has been brought about by the Consent Decree. “Although not all the goals of the Consent Decree were met, the judge felt like we were in a position to continue working, which we are doing.” 

As for the drastic change in graduation rates from 2002-present, Williams offered a simple explanation: in 2010, one year after the conclusion of the Consent Decree, Unit 4 Schools started to keep a more accurate data collection of graduation rates and other school-related data. Before 2010, graduation rate data were simply based off of the percentage of people in that year’s senior class who graduated. After 2010, the graduation rate took into account the dropout rate of all four years of high school. 

So what does this all mean? While the District worked hard during the time that the Consent Decree was in effect, Champaign Schools still have a long way to go in terms of complete racial and socioeconomic equality. Unit 4 is meandering, slowly but surely, towards the goal of fairness in education.

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