The principal pulled an unruly student into her office and sized him up. Droopy trousers. Sideways baseball cap. Shiny “grill” clamped to his front teeth.
“You’re no gangster,” said Ingrid Clark-Jackson, principal of Hazelwood West High. “If I dropped you off at the projects where the real gangs are, you wouldn’t last 10 minutes.”
The Hazelwood School District doesn’t have a gang problem, she said. “It has a race problem.”
The problem is that whites are leaving the district in droves as blacks are moving into it. They are leaving despite schools that are meeting most state performance standards, despite that the blacks moving in are mostly middle- and upper-middle-class, and despite attempts by Clark-Jackson and other administrators to talk them into staying.
And historically in this region, when white flight has occurred, school districts have failed.
It happened in the St. Louis, Riverview Gardens and Wellston districts.
In terms of race, Hazelwood is the fastest-changing district in the Metro area.
Since 2002, black enrollment has risen 32 percent, while white enrollment has dropped 32 percent.
In 1990, 70 percent of the district’s students were white. Today, 65 percent of the district’s 19,369 students are black.
The changes have brought tension to the district, which has the second-largest enrollment in St. Louis County and covers the largest area.
“I know that some people are leaving because they are threatened by an increase in the African-American population,” said Wright, 56. “But what they don’t understand is that, while an increase in the African-American population is a fact, the socioeconomic level of that population is in some cases higher than some of the folks that are leaving. And the houses they’re buying here are some of the most expensive being built in St. Louis County.”
That’s a lot different than past demographic shifts in this region.
But Hazelwood is experiencing a boom in housing construction—about 2,000 new homes since 2000 and more on the drawing boards. And these houses are on spacious lots with two- or three-car garages.
Homes in the Portland Grove subdivision, off Old Halls Ferry Road in unincorporated St. Louis County, fetch from $300,000 to $500,000 and up.
Thallis Malone, a retired engineer with McDonnell Douglas Corp., lives in a Portland Grove house on a half-acre lot. His backyard is as smooth and green as a golf fairway.
Malone estimated that about 70 percent of the subdivision’s residents are, like him, African-American. They include the physician next door. Nearby live airline pilots, office managers, utility company employees and insurance agents, aerospace workers and retired St. Louis Police Department brass.
Malone said he was shocked when he heard recent news reports of gang trouble at nearby Hazelwood Central and West high schools.
But it was Clark-Jackson, the Hazelwood West principal who dismisses the notion of a gang problem in the district, who raised the alarm that led to the cancellation of her school’s homecoming bonfire and pep rally. The event had been scheduled for Oct. 19 in front of the high school, just off Howdershell Road, less than a mile north of Interstate 270.
“They aren’t real gangsters. It’s all about the music you like and the clothes,” said Aris Williams, 17, who also lives in the Portland Grove neighborhood. “All it takes are three or four kids to decide to give themselves a name, and to some people, that’s a gang. But it’s really just about social status. It doesn’t mean they’re thugs.”
Hazelwood police have said they do not believe gangs are a problem in district schools.
Population changes in the district, along with the opening this fall of four new middle schools, led to large-scale shifts of students and materials to different schools.
Diane Livingston, a Hazelwood Central algebra teacher and longtime district resident, said multigenerational housing arrangements in the district soften the blow of unemployment.
She said she knows of some children who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches who, with their parents, “happen to be living in a very nice home with grandma and grandpa that they (the grandparents) own.”
Leon Henderson, 17, a junior, said goodbye to one of his best friends this summer.
The friend is white. Henderson is the son of a white father and black mother.
The parents of the white friend took Henderson aside before the move.
“They told me, ‘This is nothing personal against you, Leon. You know as well as we do that we love you. But things are just getting too rowdy around here.’”
Henderson said, “I know that what they were really saying was that Hazelwood was getting too black.”
Alana Flowers, 17, a black senior, said she took it personally that whites were leaving.
“I take it as an insult,” she said. “It makes me feel like Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X died for nothing.”
Ryan Blankenship, 18, is a white senior at Hazelwood West.
He said having black friends will give him a leg up in life.
“I might be a manager at a company, and when I interview a black job candidate, I won’t be worried about anything but their qualifications,” he said.
As for kids raised in racially isolated areas, Blankenship said: “I feel sorry for them. They’re in for a big shock when they go out in the real world.”