Inside the Classroom

Members Of Citizens For Good Schools Reflect On Historic Campaign

The long battle to desegregate Houston schools included a political campaign called Citizens for Good Schools.

vicki Birenbaum and Jonathan Day were leaders with the political campaign Citizens for Good Schools.
Back in the 1960s, Vicki Birenbaum and Jonathan Day joined other young activists and parents who wanted to reform Houston schools. They were leaders with the political campaign Citizens for Good Schools.

After the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional, there was a long battle to integrate schools in Houston. It included court orders, lawsuits, boycotts and a political campaign called Citizens for Good Schools.

Two former members of that group talk about their effort to improve Houston education. Vicki Birenbaum was a young parent back then and served as board member for Citizens for Good Schools. She is now a vice president with Neighborhood Centers, Inc. 

Jonathan Day was a campaign manager and board member for the group and is an attorney.

Here’s a transcript of their conversation:

Vicki Birenbaum: Children were bused to the closest school that was of their race. So, an African-American students might be bused past two closer white schools in order to go to, to be sent to a black school.

Vicki Birenbaum is a vice president at Neighborhood Centers, Inc. and former board member of Citizens for Good Schools.
Vicki Birenbaum is a vice president at Neighborhood Centers, Inc. and former board member of Citizens for Good Schools.

Jonathan Day: The way we dealt with that was to communicate the need for quality education, and to communicate a tolerance and a desire to accommodate desegregation in a reasonable and prompt fashion. Which was totally contrary to those in control.

Birenbaum: Even getting an opportunity to speak before the school board at that point, let alone cause anything to happen, was nearly impossible.

Day: It was crystal clear the public education system, HISD, was not going to change without a change at the policy level at the board, because the board was driving all of the policies relating to desegregation, relating to educational policy, rejection of federal funding of all types, closing down kindergarten because that would lead to desegregation. You had to start at the top. That was the only solution.

Jonathan Day is an attorney and former board member of Citizens for Good Schools.
Jonathan Day is an attorney and former board member of Citizens for Good Schools.

Birenbaum: And part of it was there really wasn’t at that point for people who were citizens to get good information of what was happening in the schools. You would think sitting through a school board meeting after a while would give you some of that. It doesn’t though because there was no transparency.

Day: In 1969, because the elections were staggered, there were four (seats) up, so we decided to run a slate.  George Oser was the leader, but we added to that Eleanor Tinsley, Deleon Everett, an African-American Baptist minister and Leonard Robbins. And because they were elected at-large, we had terrific energy in the campaign and again, from a political perspective, it was in my mind the first time there was a genuine coalition of minority voters, both African-American and Hispanic, and white progressive voters.

Birenbaum: My classic memory is that we put together huge notebooks of materials on every, possible subject that our candidates might have to know about or deal with in a debate or whatever. It was everything from desegregation to my own particular specialty at that time, for whatever reason, which was sex education — which was just the hottest thing. You just wouldn’t believe what a hot topic that was!

Day: And we won! It was a fabulous victory for us.

Birenbaum: Did we fix the world? No. But do I see real changes? I do.  Three of my grandchildren have graduated, and the other four are still in HISD schools, and I’m always slightly surprised and delighted to go up to school after school activities whether it’s elementary, junior or senior, for my grandchildren and realize how desegregated their world is.

Day: The challenge is how to deal with the demographics to try to maintain high quality at every school and we haven’t figured it out. It’s a very challenging problem which we have to deal with. And I’m kind of hoping we’ll find some young CGS parents who would like to take that on!

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Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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