Leaving no child behind

Leaving no child behind

The story of a group of local parents who fought all the way to the Supreme Court to change education forever

By Kevin Uhrich 04/05/2007

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Supreme Court to change education forever

Today Greater Pasadena appears to be the very picture of racial inclusion. Many folks under 30 probably could not imagine an educational system that openly showed little more than contempt for poor African-American and Latino families, and a municipal government that served only the interests of its mostly white male operators.

But some older residents remember all too well a much different Pasadena than the one we now know.

"Pasadena has a real heritage," longtime civil rights activist Marvin Schachter said of the early 1960s, when the American Nazi Party had set up shop in nearby El Monte and the Southern-based White Citizens Council, a group whose members belonged to the Ku Klux Klan, tried to establish a foothold here.

“The story of Pasadena is one of a city that was liberal in some ways, but it's also one of a city run by white businessmen with a large disenfranchised minority community." And, as a result, Schachter said, "Pasadena was a bastion of white supremacy."

Roll 'em

It was against the backdrop of this often overt discrimination in 1968 — the year that both Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated — that Jim and Bobbie Spangler, along with Skipper and Pat Rostker and Wilton and Dorothy Clarke, filed a federal lawsuit against the school district to force it to desegregate.

Eight years later, the Spanglers, Rostkers and Clarkes would win their case but sometimes bear the brunt of hateful and violent reactions to the roles they played in shaping a portion of Pasadena's past that Schachter says "most people don't know about."

As Wilton Clarke once recalled for Altadena historian Michelle Zack, some of the troubles that he and the others experienced included receiving obscene and threatening letters, acts of petty vandalism and attempts to hurt their respective businesses.

“Our kids never had problems with fellow students,” said Clarke, who is African American. “There were just a few adults who behaved badly.”

That was not necessarily the case for everyone, Pat Rostker told the Weekly. Sure, the Rostkers, who like the Spanglers are white, received some harassing phone calls during that time, “but nothing terrible,” Pat Rostker said.  

However, the couple's youngest daughter, who was in her last year at predominantly white Pasadena High School when the landmark case was first decided in district court in 1970, “suffered some estrangement from some of her friends because we were all white and she was just a normal, typical girl. She had friends and a boyfriend who stuck by her. But she lost friends,” Rostker said.

The Rostkers now live in Monrovia and don't have much to do with the school district any longer. But in the final assessment, Rostker said her daughter is proud of the role she played in that historic moment.

“We are pleased that we did it, and we would do it again,” Pat Rostker said.

Sharon Spangler, Bobbie and Jim's daughter, remembers being bused to school when she was in fourth grade. To a little girl, it was all “very exciting,” she said. But the Altadena resident also remembers some of the pain involved with the fight for equality waged by her parents.

“Most importantly,” said the now 46-year-old Spangler, “they stood up for something they totally believed in, and they fought through good times and bad times, and they lost friends over it.”

Weekly reporter André Coleman grew up in the eastern portion of Altadena. Busing started in 1970, when Coleman was entering first grade. He remembered seeing “a caravan of parents that followed the bus to school. And when you got off the bus everybody's parents were there. It also had a profound effect on the adults.”

At first, he said, “the black parents and the white parents didn't intermingle, but slowly they began to speak to each other and laugh and talk.”

When freshman year rolled around in 1978, Coleman, who is African American, was again bused away from his home, this time to predominantly white Pasadena High School. But Coleman's parents wanted to change that, and did so by putting the addresses of relatives on school documents so Coleman and his four siblings could attend John Muir High, a 20-minute walk from home.

“Yeah, I broke the rules,” Coleman said. “But parents used to do that all the time.”

  ‘Intentional segregative acts'

On Feb. 10, 79-year-old Bobbie Spangler, a real estate agent by profession who was universally remembered for her sense of humor in even the most trying circumstances, lost her long battle with breast cancer and died at her home near Santa Rosa, surrounded by her husband and their children and grandchildren, according to a paid obituary in the Pasadena Star-News.

Ironically, the local daily paper devoted a great deal of ink to Spangler and her cause in the 1960s and '70s but never formally noticed her passing in its news pages.

On March 17, about 100 people — among them Jim Spangler, the couple's children, the Rostkers and other principal players in the case — attended a memorial service in Spangler's honor at La Casita del Arroyo Clubhouse in Pasadena.

“I'm surprised when I speak to people, even people who were here, who don't remember that time,” said longtime community activist Dolores Hickambottom, whose husband Elbie, served on the Board of Education during the critical years after Pasadena City Board of Education v. Spangler was decided by the Supreme Court.

“Bobbie Spangler's funeral just brought back to mind for me how much courage Bobbie and her husband showed in joining the effort to desegregate Pasadena schools. It was risky to her career in real estate to be involved in a lawsuit to desegregate schools, especially at a time when desegregation was so unpopular in Pasadena.”

At the heart of the complaint filed by the three families — a case with an unlikely cast of political allies that was eventually taken over by the US Justice Department and later successfully argued before the Supreme Court in 1976 by the ACLU — was the district's failure to fully integrate predominantly African-American John Muir High School and mostly white Blair and Pasadena high schools.

As Elbie Hickambottom's former Pasadena school board colleague Marge Wyatt recalled at Spangler's memorial, by 1965 some 800 mostly white students had left Muir after the nearby white and affluent community of La Cañada formed its own school district — a decade after the Supreme Court ordered all schools to desegregate, as former Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “with all deliberate speed.”

In adjusting to the loss of those students, the PUSD started moving kids from middle class east Altadena to PHS on the other side of town on Sierra Madre Boulevard, and students from impoverished west Altadena and Northwest Pasadena were assigned to once proud but by now aging and deteriorating Muir High on Lincoln Avenue.

“Muir had a great mix of involved parents — we didn't want fewer blacks or minorities, we just wanted the proportions stabilized and balanced with the other high schools,” Bobbie Spangler once told Zack.

“We and other parents wanted to preserve Muir's academic excellence — we didn't want it to become a school that all the blacks go to and all the whites avoid. Muir's campus and classrooms were under-utilized after we lost La Cañada and east Altadena students, and its physical plant was much older and being neglected compared to the other schools,” she said.

But with Blair opening in 1964 on the city's southern border, and children from largely white and affluent San Rafael School being sent there and not to Muir, Muir became a “majority minority” school with 60 percent of its students being African American, as opposed to under-utilized Blair High and overcrowded PHS, with 23 and 20 percent black students, respectively, according to Zack's thoroughly researched and well-written book “Altadena: Between Wilderness and City.”

Compounding already tense racial and economic schisms in the community, Pasadena throughout the late '50s and early 1960s had been literally carved in half by construction of the Foothill (210) Freeway, which isolated communities of color in the city's Northwest neighborhoods even more than they already were; creating more slums and even more bitterness in areas around the once thriving neighborhoods that the freeways ultimately destroyed.

The school district during that time had come up with a proposal to redistribute minority students to other schools, what came to be called Plan A, but the school board refused to enforce it, so in 1967 the Spanglers, Rostkers and Clarkes filed a lawsuit against the PUSD in Superior Court.

As Jim Spangler told Zack in an email, “The point is that the racial imbalance didn't just happen all by itself; it was tipping, and the school board pushed it further by the way it assigned students to the three high schools.”

The families lost in state court. But they persisted and filed their case again the next year, this time in federal court. In 1970, the Justice Department interceded on their behalf and US District Judge Manuel Real later found that the school district was guilty of committing “intentional segregative acts.”

But Real didn't limit his ruling to the three high schools. He prohibited all PUSD schools from having “majority minority” student populations.

The PUSD didn't act right away to appeal Real's ruling, which called for the court to have ongoing supervision of racial integration remedies — taking kids from their neighborhood schools and busing them sometimes across town to other schools in need of population boosts, or the Pasadena Plan, as Real called it — through perpetuity.

But by January 1974, after it became clear that a number of the district's 32 schools were out of compliance with the district court's order of having no majority minority schools, the PUSD asked to have that provision of Real's order modified. The school district also wanted Real to dissolve the injunction giving the court control of the Pasadena Plan and to end its jurisdiction over the actions of the board, or, as an alternative, approve the district's own modifications of the Pasadena Plan. But Real denied all of those requests.

When the PUSD did appeal, a divided Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit sided with Real, but all three judges expressed what Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist called “substantial reservations” about some of the district court's actions and the implications they presented to the future operation of local schools.

As Rehnquist later noted, two of the three appeals court judges believed Real would pay attention to the concerns laid out in their opinions and upheld his 1970 order. However, Rehnquist wrote that because the Spangler case seemed to present “issues of importance regarding the extent of a district court's authority in imposing a plan designed to achieve a unitary school system,” the Supreme Court in 1975 decided to take it on.

Featuring the notoriously conservative Rehnquist writing for the majority and in dissent Justice Thurgood Marshall, the court's only black member and the man who successfully argued for integration of all schools as a lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, the High Court sent the case back to the district court, though it limited the time of that court's authority over the Pasadena Plan.

In other words, the justices sided with the parents, but did not require court-monitoring of the school district in perpetuity.

Half a loaf

Just as diametrically opposed Supreme Court justices made for unlikely champions of civil rights, so did the lawyers involved.

Joining the ACLU in arguing Spangler's case was Robert Bork, then Solicitor General for former President Richard Nixon who went on to become a district judge and in 1987 was denied a seat on the Supreme Court after being nominated by former President Ronald Reagan, who was governor of California much of the time Pasadena was going through the throes of racial integration. (Years after briefly appearing on the same side in the Spangler case, the ACLU opposed Bork's nomination to the High Court, marking only the third time the ACLU tried to block a Supreme Court nominee.)

As Rehnquist, an appointment of Nixon's, wrote for the majority in the Spangler ruling: “In this case the district court approved a plan designed to obtain racial neutrality in the attendance of students at Pasadena's public schools. No one disputes that the initial implementation of this plan accomplished that objective.

“That being the case,” Rehnquist concluded, “the district court was not entitled to require the PUSD to rearrange its attendance zones each year so as to ensure that the racial mix desired by the court was maintained in perpetuity. For having once implemented a racially neutral attendance pattern in order to remedy the perceived constitutional violations on the part of the [school district], the district court had fully performed its function of providing the appropriate remedy for previous racially discriminatory attendance patterns.”

But Marshall sharply disagreed, noting that without court oversight there was no guarantee that discrimination would be eliminated from Pasadena schools, which white, middle-class families were already fleeing in a social phenomenon that came to be known as “white flight.”

“In insisting that the district court largely abandon its scrutiny of attendance patterns, the court might well be insuring that a unitary school system in which segregation has been eliminated ‘root and branch' will never be achieved in Pasadena,” Marshall wrote. “For at the point that the Pasadena system is in compliance with the aspects of the plan specifying procedures for hiring and promoting teachers and administrators, it may be that the attendance patterns within the system will be such as to once again manifest substantial aspects of a segregated system.

“I see no reason to require the district court in a case such as this to modify its order prior to the time that it is clear that the entire violation has been remedied and a unitary system has been achieved,” Marshall wrote. “We should not compel the district court to modify its order unless conditions have changed so much that ‘dangers, once substantial, have become attenuated to a shadow.' I, for one, cannot say that the district court was in error in determining that such attenuation had not yet taken place and that modification of the order would surely be to sign the death warrant of the Pasadena Plan and its objectives.”

In the end, even with Rehnquist's half-a-loaf ruling, Pasadena Unified School District desegregated, becoming the only school district in the country outside of the South to do so by order of a federal court.

In another of a host of interesting historical side notes to this case, Rehnquist, as a clerk for former Justice Robert Jackson at the time the Brown case was being decided in 1954, wrote a memo to his boss urging him to defy Chief Justice Warren's call for unity in the decision and to oppose integration, advice that Jackson, who a few years prior had served as the US prosecutor of Nazi war criminals in the Nuremberg trials, rejected.

Warren, also a former California governor — not to mention a two-time grand marshal of the Tournament of Roses — ultimately got his nine votes in one of the most concise and clearly written decisions ever issued by the Supreme Court.

The Pasadena Plan and its use of busing to accomplish its goal of keeping every school from having a majority minority student population remained under court supervision until 1979. That year, “integrationists” on the five-member school board, who at that time had gained a three-member majority with the elections of Wyatt, Elbie Hickambotom, who was only the fourth African-American elected to the Board of Education, and former Pasadena Mayor Katie Nack, built on the plan over the years, but were unable to staunch the exodus of well-off white families from the district.

By the mid-'70s, more than 7,000 children had already left the PUSD for other public or private schools, even with the creation of extra-rigorous state-funded “fundamental” schools, or the district's first “schools of choice” at Marshall High, Audubon middle school and Don Benito elementary, which were created in the early '70s, according to Zack, as a way of getting around the Pasadena Plan.

Nack, who served two terms on the City Council after leaving the school board, currently suffers with Alzheimer's disease. Hickambottom remained on the board until 1994, and died in 2003.

Wyatt, who remains active with a number of organizations, including the local chapter of the League of Women Voters (which recently completed a study of school dropout rates), remembered how the Board of Education during her time wanted to end Real's oversight. And finding a superintendent who was sympathetic to the integrationist cause in Ramon Cortines, it did.

“We ended up being released from the court order because we felt we had done what was asked of us to do and we pledged we would continue doing it, which we did as long as I was on the board,” Wyatt said.

  ‘The struggle continues'

As Wyatt observed, the Pasadena social landscape has changed dramatically since then. In fact, “the whole population has changed,” said Wyatt, who witnessed much of that change during her years in office.

“You had a continuing decline of white parents putting their children into schools and a continuing increase of Hispanic parents putting their children into schools. It just became a different kind of problem … and that's true of a lot of California, not just here,” she said.

Today, just as Justice Marshall foretold, the racial dynamic of Pasadena has changed, with white kids representing the school district's minority student base, and Latinos, not African Americans, now both the majority of the district's student body and its dominant minority class, representing nearly 55 percent of all PUSD students.

Today, 24.8 percent of all students are black, 15.7 percent are white, 2.5 percent are Asian-American and 1.5 percent are Filipino-American, according to statistics from the 2005-06 school year, the latest demographic data available from the California Department of Education.

Rene Amy, who along with a number of other parents filed a federal lawsuit in 2000 to stop the PUSD from using race and gender as factors in deciding admissions to the district's current schools of choice — Marshall, Don Benito and now Norma Coombs — praised Bobbie Spangler and the other parents for their efforts at changing the schools of their time for the better.

But Amy, who won his case, Scott v. PUSD, at the district court level but lost in the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which is located Pasadena, in 2002, criticized Real's Pasadena Plan and subsequent plans developed by the Pasadena school board for distributing children to area schools based on population maps in what Amy called a “cuisinart” approach that “either by design or by default … divided neighborhoods.”

Amy, who like the Spanglers and Rostkers is white, didn't live in Pasadena during the time of the historic decision. But, “from what I have heard, the insanity of what was going on and the obvious necessity for the Spangler lawsuit is very, very clear to me,” Amy said.

“Here were kids on one side getting one kind of treatment and kids at PHS getting another. Of course, look at what we have going on now and ask yourself, how much different is it?”

Amy was referring to racially motivated student violence and vandalism, consistently lagging academic performances by some schools, preferential treatment for select students and schools, declining enrollments and now parents in Altadena threatening to secede from the Pasadena school district, just as La Cañada, now called La Cañada Flintridge, did 40 years ago.

“In many respects, we are mirroring the conditions that caused PUSD v. Spangler in the first place,” Amy said.

Although he usually finds himself disagreeing with Amy on many issues — think of it in much the same vein as Judge Bork working with the ACLU and Justices Rehnquist and Marshall agreeing at least on the need for a Pasadena Plan — Schachter also feels the district has failed students in providing the best possible education.

“We have not created a school system that people fight to get into because they are the best possible schools,” Schachter said. “People moved to La Cañada because they have a terrific school system. These schools [in Pasadena] are not attractive, and they could be.” One way to accomplish that goal would be to have the district partner with some of Pasadena's top business and educational institutions, such as Caltech, Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Pasadena City College, to name but a few.

“Education has always been the place where the rubber hits the road. It has always been the place where it was decided whether we would have equality in society,” said Schachter, who is now in his early 80s but still vividly remembers the White Citizens Council, also referred to as the public face of the Klan, trying to set up a base in Pasadena in the early and mid-'60s precisely because the city was known nationwide for its racist sympathies.

Wyatt pointed out that the district has partnered with Caltech in the past, but largely agreed with Schachter. “We need to have more partnerships,” she said.

Academic performances aside, the memorial for Bobbie Spangler at La Casita three weeks ago was “really paying tribute to people who, on their own, and without major institutions helping them, said that segregation was wrong and they weren't going to accept it,” Schachter said. “It was a moving day and a reminder that the struggle continues.”

While that is true, Pat Rostker said the struggle for racial equality in Pasadena might have never gone as far as it did without the commitment and dedication of Bobbie and Jim Spangler.

“We were active and really supported integrated schools and that seemed to be the only way to do it,” recalled Rostker, who originally hails from Little Rock, Ark., which saw the first actual violence triggered by school integration in 1957. “We would never have achieved it if it had not been for Bobbie and Jim's enthusiasm and stick-to-it-iveness. … We were glad to do it, but give Bobbie all the credit. She certainly hung in there.”

For Dolores Hickambottom, “desegregation was a good thing because it was the right thing.” Bobbie Spangler's passing, she said, “was a good opportunity to remember that there were a lot of heroes — sung and unsung heroes — in this effort. And children are the better for it; to know that it's OK to be different and that our differences need not divide us and that we are enriched when we reach out and expand our horizons.”

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