Focusing on forgotten voices: Professor’s research investigates past, future of equal education

Jerome Morris, Professor

Jerome E. Morris is the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Urban Education at UMSL. He came to the university from the University of Georgia in 2015 and has performed decades of research investigating the ways in which race, social class, education and place intersect and shape student experiences. (Photo by August Jennewein)

For more than 20 years, Jerome Morris has been researching the ways in which educational policies and reforms shape the experiences of black students and families. His ethnographic approaches have often focused on communities in the South – from poor and urban Birmingham, Alabama, to booming, suburban and middle-class Atlanta, Georgia.

But he’s also investigated the Midwest – specifically St. Louis.

His 2009 book, “Troubling the Waters: Fulfilling the Promise of Quality Schooling for Black Children,” reveals how one St. Louis community in particular has been impacted by the city’s voluntary student transfer program – otherwise known as the school desegregation plan.

Now, Morris will have another opportunity to investigate the effects and outcomes of that plan, but on a much wider scale.

The E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Urban Education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis has been tapped to lead an 18-month-long study titled “The St. Louis Desegregation Plan: Gains, Losses and Community Recommendations for Future Success.”

The study will play an important role in determining forthcoming options for many students. The Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation, which oversees the implementation of the plan, announced in November that the program – a post-Brown v. Board of Education effort that has been in existence since 1981 – will operate in a limited capacity during its final five-year extension. It will be phased out after the 2023-24 school year.

“My goal for the research project includes getting a good sense of the extent to which black children in particular – from St. Louis public schools and those who resided in the city – benefited from various aspects of the desegregation plan,” Morris says.

Keeping the investigation centered around that specific population is crucial, Morris believes, because of the original purpose of Brown.

“We must not forget that Brown v. Board of Education had two promises,” he explains, “the first being the eradication of legalized segregation, and the second being the focus on creating quality schooling for black children.”

This emphasis is also important because it’s rare.

Often, researchers will look at desegregation plans largely from a white perspective or narrative, Morris explains. Observations might be made, for example, about the social benefits of diversity for white, suburban children. Morris believes that while that’s great, more can and should be done.

He hopes to focus not only on the social benefits for all children, but on tangible, academic outcomes for black children – the kind that can be predictors of future academic success.

“In the current climate in America today, generally people are asking specific questions,” Morris says. “Do you have skills? How well do you perform academically in school? Do you take AP or honors courses? How well do you perform on standardized tests?

“I want to know those kinds of answers, too. Why? Because that’s the kind of criteria that determines the next level in terms of these students going to college.”

In order to begin collecting many of the answers he seeks, Morris intends to keep his work steeped in the ethnographic approaches he’s so familiar with.

He and his team, consisting of a director of community-based research and researchers at the Public Policy Research Center at UMSL, will begin conducting interviews this month with past and present students, family members, educators, district leaders and other key players. They’ll also take an extensive look at reports, correspondence and other crucial texts connected to VICC.

While Morris acknowledges that the project will have many challenges – including the time constraint on what could be a much longer, longitudinal study – he says he’s excited to get started, and he’s intent on keeping the families who have been directly impacted by the transfer program front and center.

“I think that a lot of times people never talk to those black families who are directly affected. They talk about them, but they don’t ask them, ‘What has been your perspective? What are your thoughts? What do you think the next steps should be?’”

Morris says these types of questions are exactly the kind he and his team want to keep at the heart of their work.

“We’re going to include those forgotten voices. That’s the charge I believe I have as a researcher.”

Morris, who joined the College of Education last year after 18 years at the University of Georgia in Athens, says that this opportunity to work so closely with community members and leaders – to truly investigate how theory translates into practice – is one reason why he wanted to come to UMSL in the first place.

“My Des Lee professorship specifically is a unique arrangement that puts me in direct communication with so many vital individuals who are directly engaged with the everyday experiences of people,” he says. “That’s very important to me in terms of the scholarship that I do. I want it to be useful.”

That concept of usefulness, in concert with the drive to bring scholarship out from behind the walls of the academic institution, is always at the forefront of Morris’ work.

“I see myself as playing a role here. I want to do a great job obviously, but I want it to be meaningful. I want it to be something that we can look back on later and say, ‘Hey, we made something happen here. We really started something.’”

For more information about VICC’s recent decision on the transfer program, as well as Morris’ study, please visit St. Louis Public Radio.

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