Choosing Integration and Making It Last

Morris School District in New Jersey offers a rare counter-story to segregated and unequal education
BY ALLISON RODA AND PAUL L. TRACTENBERG/School Administrator, November 2017

Allison Roda and Paul Tractenberg co-authored (with Ryan Coughlan) a study of desegregation practices in the Morris School District.
More than 60 years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision condemned segregated schools, most of the country’s schools still labor under the vise of segregation. Indeed, the situation seems to be worsening even in the South, where Brown had its greatest impact. One of the latest examples of resegregation involves wealthy white communities seceding from larger more diverse school districts to create new segregated districts.

Northern New Jersey, however, is home to a hopeful counter-story. It involves the creation and ongoing development of one of the nation’s most racially and socioeconomically diverse districts — the 5,200-student Morris School District.

Some would say the merger between the Morristown and Morris Township school districts happened in the unlikeliest of times and places. The year was 1971, when the work of trying to implement Brown outside of the South was beginning to prove problematic. Suburban Morris County, N.J., was a predominantly white, upper-income and conservative area of the state. Nonetheless, the state’s education commissioner, Carl Marburger, a former school administrator in Detroit and a bona fide education progressive, acted on a power just given him by the New Jersey Supreme Court to order the merger of two separate and unequal school districts. The purpose was to prevent de facto segregation caused by housing patterns and changing demographics and to ensure racial balance in the schools.

The early years were not easy, though. The New York Times reported in 1973 on the “painful” and “agonizing” process of the forced merger, which the newspaper said had been “plagued by controversies and numerous [law] suits.” There was fierce opposition to the merger and predictions of massive white flight (which did not actually happen).

What the news media failed to mention, though, was that the merger’s proponents were a diverse group of individuals who proactively and heroically stopped segregation in its tracks because they believed in racial justice and opportunity for all. This original pro-merger group came to be supported over the 46-year history of the unified Morris district by key school leaders, teachers, school board members and a critical mass of the broader community.

Impressive Strides
The fact so many school districts nationwide, as well as in New Jersey, have turned their backs on school desegregation and integration efforts in the decades since Brown makes the Morris district stand out. In our three-year research project, we have engaged in extensive legal and policy analysis, 100 stakeholder interviews, school observations and quantitative analysis and mapping. We got a close look at the role local district leadership — superintendents and their board members — have played in sustaining district commitment to racial/ethnic and socioeconomic integration over the years and what the nation might learn from the Morris district experience.

Local school administrators, board members and community advocates are an especially fascinating group to study on many levels within this integrated but demographically changing community where the continued threat of white flight often competes with doing what’s best for all children educated within the system.

Morris is a place where school desegregation has made impressive strides at the school and district levels, though the challenge of achieving true integration extending to courses and programs within each school remains.

One theme helps to explain how the Morris district has flourished for so long, while other district desegregation efforts have not — namely the actions taken by school administrators to further the idea that a successfully integrated district needs a supportive community and culturally sustaining leadership in the schools.

Substantial evidence emerged from our interviews that such conditions were essential to the Morris schools maintaining their diversity for as long as they have. We also found school leaders have had to walk a fine line between doing what is best for the general community and what is best for subgroups to keep them invested in the public schools.

Culturally Sustaining
As our research on the long-term effects of the merger unfolded, we kept asking ourselves, ”What is it about the Morris district that has kept it together so long”? A former administrator we interviewed, who was highly supportive of our project, says he laughed when people said, ”It is something in the water.” His story reflects the kind of culturally sustaining leadership and community partnerships needed to attract and maintain a delicate balance of diversity in the schools.

“I would say 30 percent of my energy, maybe more, went into caring for the community,” said Thomas Ficarra, who served as superintendent in Morris between 2002 and 2014. “I get a kick out of [the fact] some people tend to think it was something in the water, but I used to have three and sometimes four key communicators in my house where we would invite over 100 people to my house for dinner … and answer those phone calls when they came in and build those relationships and feed and care for every segment of that community as best we could, keeping an eye on the fact that at any moment in time it could all unravel. That was how I lived my life.”

The district’s middle school had been the point of exit for many students and their families. During Ficarra’s tenure, the white enrollment in the high school went from 50 percent to 62 percent.

“There was white flight, and I’m not tooting my own horn, but I lived every day conscious that … every decision that was made was made knowing that I had a diverse community and I couldn’t swing radically left or radically right. I had to walk a fine line of how we promote the district and one of the things that I got a wonderful response about was we were one of the highest per-pupil costs around.

“I would stand up in front of the community when the budget came around and say our schools are a reflection of the community, we have kids that want to go to Harvard and we have kids that come in here where their parents do not speak English and we have to provide a quality program for every one of them at every level and that costs more money than it does at the community next door, and they would support that.”

When Ficarra’s tenure was over, he passed down a powerful tradition to the next superintendent, namely the importance of collaboration and involving all stakeholders in the school decision-making process. He also set a clear precedent about the importance of community support for the work of the school district.

Leonard Posey (left), school board president in New Jersey’s Morris School District, and Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast (fifth from left) conducted a bus tour of the district for new teachers, an annual practice to help with multicultural understanding.

A Stable Community
The first thing Ficarra’s successor as superintendent, Mackey Pendergrast, did was visit the NAACP, the local churches and other community organizations to spread his message and vision of integration and inclusion and to hear what others had to say about the district’s challenges, notably the persistent achievement gaps by race and class.

Pendergrast said he was attracted to the Morris superintendency by the fact a third of the students were economically disadvantaged. “I don’t want to go into a situation if I can’t do anything about it, so the community and the resources that are here and the intellectual commitment I discovered was here in the interview process, I thought we could do something with this. … How many public schools are actually overcoming poverty gaps? How many? Not many.”

Stability in the community was a key factor. “When I interviewed, the board of ed here was so impressive and dedicated to each of the kids,” added Pendergrast, who has served as Morris superintendent since 2014. “You’ve got to have (support) from the board of ed all the way straight down through everybody, everybody really rooting and trying hard.”

In addition to building community support for the schools’ work, the district leadership in Morris also had the task of explaining that diversity in the student body means test scores are not comparable to the neighboring suburban system with a mostly white population.

A current member of the school board, Ann Rhines, who previously taught in the district, said many of the appealing programs, such as the STEM Academy, the Classics Academy, various music ensembles, the TV and radio broadcasting program and other enriching opportunities came about because of a concerted effort to reach every student.

“We aspire to succeed in fulfilling all student needs, to motivate each and every student, resulting in excitement about learning and to make each and every student feel that he or she is an integral member of the Morris School District community,” she said.

“Our problems come up when the scores come out,” Rhines added. “We don’t do what [the suburban district] does. We don’t get the scores that they get because everybody’s the same there. … We try to provide programs so that all kids can have all that they need to reach their potential and ultimately be prepared for the future. This is a challenge in a district as diverse as the Morris School District, but we feel up to that challenge.”

A dedicated, stable community that believes in diversity sustains successful and durable integration, which is something that attracts like-minded families to the community. Equally important is trusting and hoping the schools and community enable all children to reach their greatest potential, even when average test scores are lower than they are in predominantly white, upper-middle suburban districts. In fact, we found the district’s administrators have resisted testing metrics as the sole indicators of educational achieve-ment. Instead, they take a whole-child approach to educating students.

What’s Been Learned
Today, 46 years later, the history of the Morris School District merger is, ironically, either unknown to or taken for granted by many residents living in Morristown and surrounding communities. New residents are drawn to the community because of its diversity and cosmopolitan nature, and current graduates value the experience they have had in attending a diverse public high school — both attributable to the 1971 merger.

Long-time residents who lived through the merger regard it as one of the most important things ever to happen to the community because it symbolizes the belief that “we are all in this together.”

An important lesson to be learned from the Morris example is the need for more multiethnic schools to help combat racism, ethnocentrism and intolerance, particularly in this period of racial unrest and political divisiveness.

Decades of social science literature suggest integrated school environments can close achievement and opportunity gaps in education; students of color benefit substantially, mostly in the early grades; white students are not harmed academically; and all students learn tolerance and inter-group understanding.

In our dealings with the Morris district leadership, we have urged them to do more to attend to social justice concerns. Education leaders should train staff members in racial and cultural literacies to work with diverse student populations to maximize their learning.

An important lesson from the experiences in Morris is that you need culturally sustaining leadership and buy-in from the community to succeed. Certainly, the structures need to be in place to maintain school diversity. Achieving racial balance, however, does not guarantee positive short- and long-term outcomes.

You also need the hearts and minds of school staff and community members to support the hard work that integration requires for diversity to be addressed effectively. Morris has been and continues to be on the path to achieve both goals and become a positive model for other school districts committed to school diversity’s many transformational benefits.
ALLISON RODA is an assistant professor of education at Molloy College in Rockville Centre, N.Y. E-mail: Twitter: @akt1211. PAUL TRACTENBERG is professor of law emeritus at Rutgers University’s S.I. Newhouse Center for Law and Justice in Newark, N.J. They are co-authors of “Remedying School Segregation,” upon which this article is based.

Additional Resource
Copies of “Remedying School Segregation: How New Jersey’s Morris School District Chose to Make Diversity Work,” produced by the Center for Diversity and Equity in Education in Newark, N.J., are accessible at

The report, written by Paul Tractenberg, Allison Roda and Ryan Coughlan and issued last December by the Century Foundation, showcases a distinctive New Jersey school district that acted to prevent school inequities and took decisive legal action to make student diversity work in the public schools.