Market forces

Feb 11, 2009 at 12:00 am

Market forces

Admitting Detroit students to one but not the other of Ferndale's public high schools amounts to racial segregation, says Donna Stern, an organizer with the civil rights group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN).

And, as the school district has refused to make changes to BAMN's satisfaction, the group has taken its campaign against what it calls "Jim Crow-style segregation" to local merchants during the last several weeks.

But when merchants didn't want to post BAMN's literature, BAMN started picketing and advocating boycotts against them.

"It's not very good PR for us," says Steve Selvaggio, one of the owners of Western Market, a produce and meat market on Nine Mile Road. "But now we've gotten so much support from the Detroit and Ferndale communities. They know we're not racist and they know we don't support segregation."

For weeks, Stern and other demonstrators have handed out fliers, carried signs and chanted such slogans as "educate, don't segregate" in front of several restaurants and stores along Nine Mile, urging customers to avoid shopping and dining there until the merchants join their fight. Some of the antics are archived on YouTube, where you can see some of the heated exchanges and in-your-face confrontations BAMN's protests generated.

"Ferndale is highly economically dependent on Detroit for customers. We don't think it is just to say, 'We want your money but we don't want your children sitting next to our children,'" says Stern.

BAMN's accusations reference the district's policy of admitting Detroit students to University High School but not Ferndale High School. "They have segregated the Detroit students into a separate facility," Stern says.

Four years ago, Ferndale Public Schools opened University High School, a smaller school than Ferndale High that offers a "rigorous" college prep curriculum of four years of math, science, English and social studies.

The district accepts students to UHS from anywhere, chosen by lottery if there are more applicants than spots, says Stephanie Hall, director of pupil services at Ferndale schools. The rest of the district has students from throughout Oakland County who can begin attending between kindergarten and ninth grade. Both programs are allowed under Michigan's school choice law, which lets districts open schools to students from outside their district boundaries.

The result in Ferndale is that University High School has 418 students, with nearly 98 percent being African-American. About 80 percent of the school's enrollment comes from Detroit, Hall says. Ferndale High School, which has students from Ferndale, Oak Park, Pleasant Ridge and Royal Oak Township, has 1,055 students; about 60 percent are African-American.

When BAMN approached the district last year, asking for both schools accept Detroit students, nothing happened. So organizers sought support from the businesses.

Selvaggio says he first displayed a poster on a community bulletin board. But after customers complained, he took it down. That's when BAMN supporters started showing up outside his store last month, trying to get customers to shop elsewhere.

Selvaggio couldn't quite understand why he was caught in the middle.

"I'm not running the schools and I'm not running BAMN, but I'm caught in between," he says.

Last weekend, Selvaggio sat down with BAMN leaders and agreed to do what he could to get Ferndale city and school officials to meet with them.

"We've progressed totally in the right direction," he says. "They make it out to be like there's this huge segregation problem in Ferndale, and it's really not true. I just want the people out from in front of my store. I want to conduct business like we have."

Stern, meanwhile, says BAMN has agreed not to picket Western Market for the next week or so, pending negotiations.

"We'll see where we go from there," she says.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]