In the fall of 1976, I started kindergarten by climbing onto a yellow school bus that wove its way through my tree-lined North Buffalo neighborhood and deposited me downtown near the edge of Lake Erie.
Waterfront Elementary – a new Brutalist-style building made of corrugated concrete – was anything but brutal on the inside. We had a swimming pool, a dance studio, and open classrooms where children from all over our otherwise segregated city came together to learn.
It was the first year of Buffalo’s new magnet-school program – part of the response to a federal court order to desegregate. The “magnets” drew families into schools voluntarily to contribute to racial balancing.
My best friend in elementary school was biracial and lived in the mostly black subsidized apartment complex next to Waterfront. When I visited Sondae Stevens’s place, she’d dare me to climb up with her on the low-slung roof of the school. When she visited mine, she enjoyed the novelty of playing in an attic. Our quirky personalities just clicked.
While we progressed through the grades, the magnet system grew into a national model. Before the desegregation order, 7 out of 10 Buffalo public schools were segregated – meaning more than 80 percent white or 80 percent minority. By the mid-1980s, that was down to 4 out of 10. The peak of school integration nationwide happened around 1988, when I was starting my senior year of high school.
It took less than 25 years for that progress to unravel. By 2012, some 70 percent of Buffalo schools were once again segregated. Courts had lifted many integration orders (including Buffalo’s) in the 1990s. Subsequently, a series of Supreme Court decisions limited the tools school districts could use to racially integrate.
On top of that, City Honors – a school for Grades 5 through 12 that I started attending in ninth grade – had become the centerpiece of a civil rights complaint in 2014, focused on the low rate of African-American students admitted to Buffalo’s selective schools.
When I came across this information as an education reporter, my heart sank. I had been largely out of touch with Buffalo since my parents had relocated in the early 1990s. Had it really so drastically changed?