The Limits of Desegregation: a Story of Maple School (Part 5)

The following is part of an ongoing series about school desegregation efforts in Fullerton from the 1960s to today.

‘White Flight’

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the percentage of ethnic minority students (mainly Latino and Asian) in the Fullerton School District rose steadily, mirroring statewide and national trends.

“1982 minority student enrollment was 38%, up 4% from last year and more than three times what it was 15 years ago,” states a 1984 article in the Fullerton Observer.

This steady influx of Latinos and Asians created a few key challenges for the district: the need for more bilingual education, exacerbation of de facto segregation, and white backlash.

A 1987 Fullerton Observer article entitled “Concerned Parent Charges ‘White Flight’ at Richman” quotes a parent of a student at Richman elementary saying, “One of my son’s friends told him that the reason he was transferring out of Richman was ‘there were too many Mexicans there.'”

The article describes how some white parents were removing their children from Richman, a south Fullerton school with a high Latino enrollment, complaining about bilingual classes and a perceived lowering of educational quality.

“Expectations seem to be lower,” said one parent, who chose to have her two children transferred out of Richman. “My two boys were beginning to feel bad about themselves and showing prejudice, which I don’t like; so we decided to take them out. We have to take care of our own.”

By 1988, Richman was the new Maple, with a nearly 80% minority population. Also in 1988 the first ever Latina was elected to the FSD Board of Trustees, Anita Varela.

1989 Fullerton Observer newspaper clipping.

Re-Opening Maple Elementary?

In 1988, an ad hoc District Advisory Committee was formed to study these changing demographic trends, as well as overcrowding in some schools. The committee ultimately recommended reopening Maple as an elementary school. The merits of this recommendation were debated in a series of community meetings.

“I think (re-opening Maple) is probably going to be one of the greatest days for our community,” Bobby Melendez said. “I think it’s going to have a positive effect on our community because it’s a rallying point of the community, the focal point of the community.”

1989 Fullerton Observer newspaper clipping.

Trustee Fred Mason and others, while not opposed to re-opening Maple, expressed concern that doing so could re-create a segregated school, due to neighborhood demographics.

“We’ll be segregated again; we haven’t learned anything in 20 years,”

Maple resident Gil Perkins said.

The chair of the committee, Ellen Ballard, said that the priority of the committee was quality education and language instruction rather than correcting “ethnic imbalance.”

Trustee Anita Varela, while not opposed to re-opening Maple, pointed out that “the District had not been serving the interests of Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students throughout the city in its existing programs, and wasn’t prepared for the challenge of a linguistically-segregated school.”

“I would like to see Maple reopened with bilingual teachers and a bilingual principal,” Maple area parent Terry Garcia said. “But first the school would have to be fixed up and the neighborhood parents involved in the reopening before, during, and after.”

A Magnet School?

In 1989, the Fullerton City Council appointed another “Task Force” committee to study and make recommendations about re-opening Maple. During these meetings, one point of discussion was (again) whether re-opening Maple would re-create a segregated school.

One recommendation was to re-open Maple as a “magnet” school—to create such unique and strong educational programs that students from around the City would be drawn to Maple.

Ultimately, this second committee also recommended re-opening Maple as an elementary school. When the committee presented its recommendations in a series of community meetings in 1990, the same debate about whether re-opening Maple would re-create a segregated school continued.

A March 1990 article in the Fullerton Observer states, “Several longtime residents in the Maple neighborhood expressed their fears that a re-opened Maple School would put their grandchildren right back where their children had been 20 years ago when the

Fullerton School District closed the school for being almost totally segregated.”

Comic from a 1989 issue of the Fullerton Observer newspaper.

Those in favor of re-opening Maple expressed hope in the possibility of a “magnet” school that would draw diverse students and achieve integration.

“I think this committee has done an excellent job, and if resources and enrichment can be provided in a new Maple school sufficient to attract the children required for a necessary balance and diversity, it can work,” said David Quezada.

An editorial published in the June 1990 issue of the Fullerton Observer expressed doubts about the feasibility of this option: “We are not aware of any examples where magnet schools located in minority neighborhoods have been successful in drawing enough Anglo students to achieve an integrated student body.”

Unfortunately, this editorial would prove prophetic. In 2020, 24 years after Maple was re-opened in 1996, the demographics were virtually identical to 1972, when the school was closed.

But in 1990, a cautious optimism prevailed. The Fullerton School Board accepted the recommendations of both committees and hired a consultant to develop a plan to re-open Maple Elementary School.

It would be six more years before the first kindergarten classes began at Maple.

To be continued . . .