A story the other day reported sixth-grade kids at King Middle School in Atlanta were surprised when they arrived for their first day of school and found most classes split up, with girls in one and boys in the other.
The school is one of only two in Georgia to separate boys from girls, and The Atlanta Constitution quotes Kings principal as saying I know we are a trailblazer with this.
Well, not really. Columbia County blazed this trail first. Heres a story that now seems like ancient history.
Way back in 1970, Columbia Countys schools reluctantly complied with federal court orders to racially integrate. Prior to the courts sanction, the system had operated under the then-common separate but equal philosophy.
Separate but equal schools were separate but rarely equal. Whites attended newer schools while blacks were housed in what were often less-than-adequate facilities.
Not so in Columbia County. John Pierce Blanchard, who served 32 years as the countys elected superintendent - and its most powerful politician - embarked on an ambitious school-building program in 1956.
His program closed down nearly a dozen black schools, most of them housed in single rooms at churches such as Oakey Grove or Gospel Water Branch in Evans, or Walnut Grove in Appling (thats the old building outside the Board of Education office; it was moved there and restored by the countys historical society).
Those students were consolidated into new school buildings, such as Gibbs Elementary (now Evans) and Phinizy Elementary (now North Columbia). If they were white, they went to Evans (then a comprehensive, first-12th-grade school, housed at what is now Evans Middle) or Harlem High (in what is now Harlem Middle); if they were black, they went to Blanchard High (now Columbia Middle).
For about 10 years, then, most county children were housed in new schools, generally equal but racially separate. When the order came to integrate, it was a simple matter of shuffling students around to each others buildings. Thanks to Blanchards foresight, Columbia County avoided the racially charged strife some other systems met when they mixed.
Because of their age and proximity to another school, two schools eventually closed as a result of integration - George T. White, or South Harlem; and Appling Elementary, behind Kiokee Baptist Church. One was black, the other white.
But before those two schools closed, and just after integration, they shared students across their two areas. Harlem kids continued to attend South and North Harlem, while Appling kids went to re-named North Columbia/ Appling Building and North Columbia/ Phinizy Building.
For both areas, integration put the races together, but it split the genders; girls went to one school, boys the other.
Harlems experiment lasted only a year. But Appling and Phinizy stayed separate more than 10 years, as I recall. The situation gave culture shock to newcomers like my then-future wife, who arrived at Appling Elementary in the seventh grade and was bewildered to find it boy-free.
he Atlanta principal says theyre already getting benefits from sex segregation. The boys are paying more attention, and the girls are spending less time flirting. Having raised a couple of middle-schoolers, with another two years away, it sounds like a pretty good idea to me now.
To a growing teen, it sure didnt back then. And Im still trying to figure out the benefits of Columbia Countys trailblazing experiment. Still, even though it wasnt much fun at the time, I guess this Phinizy boy turned out OK - especially when I crossed the line to marry an Appling girl.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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