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Never Black and White

Nearing the 50th anniversary of federally ordered school desegregation, the man at the center of Pennsylvania's last case speaks for the first time

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Mark Fatla spent much of the past 23 years at the center of the Woodland Hills school desegregation case -- the last state-ordered district merger in Pennsylvania. In 1981, after a decade of legal resistance, it brought together the more affluent and more white Churchill, Turtle Creek, Swissvale and Edgewood with nearby General Braddock, then "broken and financially distressed," Fatla recalls.

 

On the mantelpiece of his North Side office, Fatla keeps a photograph of Gerald J. Weber, chief judge of U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, where the case was heard. As a second-year Duquesne University law student in 1980, Fatla became Weber's senior clerk and was thrust into managing the case. He wrote portions of the merger opinion during the '80s, until Weber died in 1989.

 

When Maurice B. Cohill inherited the case and Weber's position, Cohill asked Fatla to serve as "special master," a kind of substitute judge charged with overseeing the remedial plan until Cohill ruled in 2003 that all district programs were fully integrated. Fatla says his 1990 recommendations on "damn near every part of the school district" -- from curriculum to discipline -- became the framework under which the district operated until the court stopped its oversight.

 

Fatla today is executive director of CTAC, a nonprofit that provides support for community development groups. As the 50th anniversary nears for the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision on May 17, Fatla sat down for his first interview about a case that has taken more than half his lifetime.

 

"We're touching the great third rail of American life, which is race," he says. "There are people who still didn't want [Woodland Hills] to happen, and still resent that it happened. The whole long chapter of mass desegregation in America has been one of mixed blessings and unintended consequences without the clear victory and change its initiators hoped for. It poses tremendously difficult questions and still has an emotional charge for some folks."

 

Would desegregation have happened without court intervention?

No, no, no, no. The Pennsylvania legislature in the '60s passed a series of laws requiring the consolidation of school districts into districts of a certain size. Each time, the more affluent and the more white districts marshaled whatever instruments they had and marched to Harrisburg and begged to be combined with other affluent and white districts. And each time the [state] acceded to that.

 

There is still an "achievement gap" at Woodland Hill -- a disparity between black and white student scores on standardized tests -- that happens across the U.S. Shouldn't Woodland Hills be better than average after integration?

The General Braddock School District would have been an ongoing disaster if it had been allowed to continue the last 30 years. The gap that would have been there if nothing had been done would have been worse than the gap that occurs in Woodland Hills today. I wish somebody had kept this cardboard display of posters for the General Braddock School District in the late '70s, pre-merger. You looked at these photos and you said, how in good conscience does anybody send children into this facility? Broken urinals, filthy conditions, broken furniture ... it was starved for resources. Would we have done these children a service by leaving General Braddock as it was?

 

In this district, as in many others, poverty disproportionately affects the minority community. You're going to see corresponding gaps in achievement. The appropriate measure, though, may not be comparing achievement gaps in Woodland Hills with other districts. It would be comparing [overall Woodland Hills test scores] with a poor minority district that was never consolidated. Fortunately there are few situations like that remaining.

 

One thing the court did to make Woodland Hills equal for blacks and white was to "de-track" the curriculum, eliminating both high- and low-level courses in certain subjects. What was wrong with tracking?

De-tracking is a cornerstone of the 1990 [court ruling]. I went through this with my own daughter. Tracking tends to take a downswing in a child's performance and adopt that as a permanent predictor of how that child will perform in that subject throughout the rest of his school life. And if the child is placed in the "slow track" it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because every year the child falls farther and farther behind his peers in the fast track. These predictors happen as early as, in my daughter's case, the third grade. Her teacher wanted to put her in remedial math. And I asked, "How long will it take to put her back with the regular class?" They said. "Three months." And I knew that at three months she would feel so far behind, in third grade, that she would never catch up.

 

What school does she attend?

She's in parish schools -- Catholic school. I'm the poster child for Catholic education. We actually changed [Catholic schools] because they were tracking. The trouble with de-tracking is that many teachers were taught to handle a homogenous classroom. I do not for one moment discount the incredible difficulty this presents for teachers. You've got different kids achieving at different levels in the same room. But guess what -- that's the world.

 

Why as recently as 2002 was there still voluntary segregation in Woodland Hills' school lunchrooms? Can integration be court-ordered?

Ask me something I have the answer to. I don't know that anybody knows. I remember it when I went to college, I had African-American friends who were on the same dorm floor, then when everybody went to the cafeteria all the black guys sat together and all the white guys sat together. I was puzzled by it 20 years ago. I am equally puzzled by it today. I'm the product of immigrants and immigrants certainly created their social networks. You do tend to cluster with others who share some cultural traits. The difference is, with these ethnic groups, over generations the cultural identities begin to fade. My grandfather came to this country and didn't speak English. I'm the second generation in this country and I don't speak Polish. For race, the distinctions don't fade. Having said all that, that's a really big sociological discussion that I'm not able to make a conclusion about.

 

Did the courts overstep or stay too long on the case?

No. Obviously this is a bit self-serving, but in Woodland Hills the court struck the correct balance between oversight and providing autonomy to the district. And that's the great tension in many of these cases across the country. There are other cases in this country where the court did too much. The decisions in Kansas City -- the court was practically running the district, making decisions about virtually every program. In Woodland Hills the court set parameters, established an ongoing system of oversight and allowed the district as much autonomy as possible within those parameters. Now, some people in the district would have been satisfied with nothing less than the court's exit. But I think the court balanced its constitutional obligation with the desired independence of the district.

 

If, by magic, all those districts had wanted to merge, could they have done it without the courts?

If people have the will, they can achieve enormous things. It would have been difficult. It certainly was difficult. I guess the question was, could anyone have sustained the will as long as necessary? The courts sustained that will for 30 years.

 

In the end, how do you assess success here?
Facilities across the district are excellent -- far better than the pre-merger facilities in the minority districts, but even better for the majority district. The curriculum offerings in Woodland Hills are broader and stronger than they were in any of the pre-merger districts. And that's true for every child -- white or black, rich or poor. There's a more diverse teaching staff, diverse administration. Minority children can see role models in their teachers. Is there a healthier understanding of race? Maybe that can be the measure of success. Not that the work is done. But is there healthier understanding of race in Woodland Hills than there was before in those communities, or than there still is in other communities today? Lord, I hope so.

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