Ronnie Blake remembers the first thing he did. He punched into the Internet search engine "gender equity." A few weeks later, the assistant superintendent of the Clayton County school district had a three-inch-thick notebook from that one search and a much deeper understanding of Title IX law.
"We thought we knew what Title IX was about, but basically, we didn't know," he says. And Clayton County, the sixth-largest district in the state, is not backcountry.
"We do have indoor plumbing," he says.
In the 1999-2000 school year, a parent of a female student complained to the Clayton County Board of Education about the disparity of the girls' softball fields and the boys' baseball fields.
It was true, Blake says. The softball fields were not lighted, like the baseball fields, and out of seven high schools, only two had softball fields. Some softball games were played on baseball fields.
The baseball teams' booster clubs were responsible for the bulk of the differences, having paid for many field amenities.
Since the district was not responsible for booster club activity or the spending differences, Blake says the district thought it was in line with the law.
Research proved the district wrong.
"Title IX says it doesn't matter who does the financing. The facilities must be equal," Blake asserts.
Since the parental complaint, the district has gone from being out of compliance, to taking a lead in its state. District officials have done such an impressive job that they were asked to outline their work at a conference for the National Federation of Urban and Suburban School Districts in Kansas City this October.
To be sure, the softball fields are now lighted and have stands. In fact, field renovations have cost the board more than $1 million. Every high school now has a softball field.
To head off any official complaint to the Office of Civil Rights, the district immediately began work rectifying its problems by creating a task force to examine the issue. Blake recommends all districts do the same, because it is easier to handle problems internally.
Blake and the district, however, do not avoid the civil rights office. The district consults with the office often, finding it a valuable resource.
"We thought we had done a lot and maybe we could slack off for a while," Blake says. "But [the OCR] representative said we had to establish a five-year history first."
Gender Equity Solutions The district is currently renovating all of its schools. Dressing room and other facility disparities are addressed in renovation plans. In one school the boys had five dressing rooms, the girls had two.
Based on an interest survey, the district now offers a four-tiered volleyball program at the high schools and middle schools, and it offers improved programming for teenage mothers. Title IX does not just apply to athletics, district officials say. Due to the district offering childcare and other special services, the dropout rate among teenage mothers has decreased. "We found we were out of compliance in a number of ways," Blake says.
The most innovative approach the district has taken is that of hiring gender equity coordinators, he adds. There is now one coordinator at each of the 20 middle and high schools. The position is like that of a coach, yet the stipend is less.
Every high school and middle school has a part-time athletic director, often the head football coach. The principals needed a different person to keep an eye on Title IX compliance, Blake says. He recommends, but does not insist, the gender equity coordinators be female coaches. Most of them are.
The coordinators are responsible for various data collection including financial data for each sport and from outside sources such as booster clubs and parent groups. This coordinator also keeps track of male-female participation numbers for all sports, says Clayton County Director of Athletics Bob Brannon.
Blake says the new position sometimes causes tension and conflict, but that is inherent with Title IX.
"Each of them has different problems with principals, athletic directors and coaches," says Brannon of the coordinators. "It just takes hard work, creativity and the cooperation of a lot of people who want to see the program be a success."
This school year, there are as many sports offered for middle school girls as boys-the only discrepancy being volleyball for the girls, and football for the boys.
At the high school level, the same is true, although the district admits that one listed sport for girls, cheerleading, is not recognized by Title IX.
Volleyball in 2001 produced 121 new female athletes at the high school. In 2002, it produced 218 new female athletes at the middle school level.
And since 2000, the district has reduced the difference between the percentage of female students and the percentage of female athletes. In 2000, the variance was about 15 percent, in 2002 it dropped to 12 percent, and the 2003 numbers are expected to be around 10 percent.
Blake recommends that other districts gain more knowledge about Title IX.
"We didn't realize, honest to goodness, there were any significant differences," Blake says about the setup before the complaint. He adds that his daughters went through the Clayton County system.
Clayton County Board of Education Chairman Mark Armstrong recalls his daughter playing softball on a baseball field. When the parent came to the board to make his complaint, Armstrong says many board members had personal experiences that anchored the parent's point.
Armstrong and the other board members, with little debate, supported rectifying the situation. "It was not a hard-won issue," he says, adding that the district's debt-free status helps.
Title IX compliance doesn't come cheap. "It is expensive, it was expensive, and it continues to be expensive," Blake says.
Besides the cost of actual renovations and fields, which is in the millions, the district has spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars," Blake surmises.
Apart from being debt-free, Clayton County has another advantage, Armstrong says. The state allows schools districts to raise sales tax in that district and earmark the money exclusively for building projects.
However, this special tax, called Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, must be approved in a referendum by voters. The district has garnered about $500 million for school construction projects the last few years through the tax. People who live outside the county pay half of all the sales tax collected, Armstrong notes. It helps that part of Atlanta's airport falls within the county.
The school district is growing rapidly. "Someone said that we are growing at a rate of a classroom every three days," Armstrong says. And he's not kidding. "[The tax] has given us the opportunity to do some things other districts have not been able to do due to budget constraints."
Amy D'Orio, email@example.com, is a contributing editor.