Rafar Springs sees students like himself every day.
More than 96 percent of those who attend Howard School for Academics and Technology and the majority of his Highland Park neighbors are black.
So when Mr. Springs talked with a white student from Soddy-Daisy during a school-sponsored event last year, it caught him off guard.
"That was probably one of the first conversations I've had with a white person my age in 10 years," the 18-year-old senior said. "It's nothing against white people, I'm just not used to them."
More than half of Hamilton County Schools students attend a school where at least 75 percent of their peers are of the same race, records show.
Fifty-five years after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision and more than a year after the U.S. Department of Justice declared Hamilton County Schools had achieved "unitary status," 30 of Hamilton County's 78 schools are predominantly white and 18 schools are predominantly black.
The Supreme Court decision in the Brown case declared that segregated schools denied minorities equal educational opportunities. But the challenge of ensuring all students are treated equally is far from over, those inside and outside the Hamilton County school system agree. Leaders in the black community recently expressed dissatisfaction over the possible closing of two predominantly black schools - Howard Middle and 21st Century Academy - to help balance the district's budget next year.
Black schools are easier to close than white ones because there is less outcry from the community, said Eddie Holmes, former president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"Decisions may not be made on race, but they're based on least resistance," he said. "You can close a black school and get less resistance than if you try to close a white school."
Administrators have denied the closures are based on anything but budgetary necessity. The seven schools that may be closed next year all are in the suburbs, officials offered as proof of equal treatment.
Achieving racial diversity in all Hamilton County schools is a lofty but difficult goal, said Superintendent Jim Scales, because individual school populations reflect their surrounding neighborhoods.
But for Mr. Holmes, the fight for desegregation always has been more about resources than race. Predominantly black, inner-city schools typically have fewer resources than their suburban counterparts, he said.
"Race is such a small part; it's more so about resources," he said. "Every kid can learn if you provide them the resources."
As president of the local chapter of the NAACP, Mr. Holmes in 2002 filed a complaint against Hamilton County Schools for the condition of Howard School of Academics and Technology. When compared with Red Bank and East Ridge high schools, Howard had a disproportionate number of new, inexperienced teachers, few technology resources and an outdated library, he said.
The complaint eventually was dropped, Mr. Holmes said, because administrators restructured the school, reassigned some teachers and spent millions to renovate the building.
Six years after Brown v. Board of Education, James Mapp filed a lawsuit in 1960 to desegregate the Chattanooga public school system where, at the time, most students were black. White students mostly attended school in the separate Hamilton County system.
The boundaries that divided them were sometimes convoluted and often intentionally segregated the population, Deputy Superintendent Rick Smith said.
In some places, parents drove through the city school zone to get to their child's county school, he said.
"The lines deliberately gerrymandered the zones," Mr. Smith said.
The Mapp lawsuit was dismissed in 1986 and, in 1997, the mostly white county district and the mostly black city schools merged.
Administrators reconfigured all school attendance zones, considering each school's capacity, trying to avoid splitting neighborhoods between schools, Mr. Smith said.
"We pay attention to whether schools are racially mixed," he said. "It's something we consider."
To pull together more black and white students, district administrators in 1999 created a magnet school program, a strategy adopted by other systems across the country. Rather than busing students all over the county and forcing them to attend schools outside their neighborhoods, the district offered parents a choice: enroll their children in their neighborhood school or send them to a magnet.
"We don't have transportation or zoning systems (to get) a mix of students, simply to desegregate the schools. We don't do that. We do it by choice," Dr. Scales said.
The result is a district about as diverse as it can be, made up mostly of neighborhood schools that represent their community's racial makeup, Mr. Smith said.
But Brainerd High School junior Maurice Miller said a segregated system is what people are used to, so administrators have incentive to keep the public comfortable in schools that are predominantly one race.
"School zoning is an undercover system of segregation," said the 17-year-old, who is black. "It's under the radar. It's the simplest and most effective way to continue segregating students."
A report issued last year by the Tennessee Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said Hamilton County's "unitary status" was determined because the system had an acceptable percentage of white and minority students, said the Rev. Bernie Miller, a committee member from Chattanooga. There is no "magic number" of black or white students that a school system must have to be considered desegregated, he said.
Mr. Springs, who plans to attend the University of Tennessee at Knoxville this fall, said he sees no immediate way to improve the racial balance in local schools, but he is convinced that students' education suffers when they are not exposed to diversity.
"When we do get into the real world, it will be like entering another galaxy," he said. "America loses out when you have two races that barely see or talk to each other. You have this giant rift in American culture. And it shouldn't be that way."
The magnet schools were created deliberately to encourage diversity in schools.
Magnet schools such as Chattanooga School for Arts and Sciences, Center for the Creative Arts, Chattanooga School for the Liberal Arts and Normal Park Upper School boast a racially mixed student enrollment where roughly 60 percent of the population is white and 40 percent is minority, records show.
Although parents are not asked to tell the district why they send their children to a magnet school, some do so to give their children greater exposure to other races, Mr. Smith said.
"I think choices that students and parents have probably are the best way to achieve (greater diversity)," he said. "Otherwise it's forcing kids out of their neighborhood to another school versus the parents deciding to leave that neighborhood."
Soddy-Daisy High School junior Whitney Luckhart, agrees.
"Diversity is a process," she said. "It can't just happen overnight or it will create resentment."
While the process is ongoing, CSAS senior Jesse Nance said her school's "rich culture" is a step in the right direction.
After attending predominantly white Daisy Elementary and Soddy-Daisy Middle, coming in seventh grade to CSAS, where minorities make up nearly half the student population, was a "really nice treat," she said.
"It's really one of the best things that I love about CSAS," she said. "We're on our way to unity and diversity."
Of the county's 8,000 magnet school students, 41 percent are zoned to attend their school, while 59 percent are like Ms. Nance and attend from other school zones.
But for all the talk of diverse magnet schools, the student body in half of Hamilton County's 16 magnet schools is at least 80 percent black. White students make up as little as 1 percent of the schools' population, in some cases, records show.
The key to racially mixed schools, according to Dr. Scales, is neighborhood diversification, which already is happening in communities such as East Ridge, Hixson and Red Bank.
As the neighborhoods become more racially mixed, diversity will trickle down and create a more integrated student body at nearby schools, he said.
But until then, there is only so much the school system can do to create a diverse student population, so Dr. Scales said hiring a racially mixed group of teachers is a priority.
"It's incumbent upon us to provide that diversity by hiring diverse staffs," he said.
Exposure to different races is part of a well-rounded education, and if the school system can't provide that through a school's student body, the least it can do is hire a diverse teaching staff, Dr. Scales said.
But a recent legislative report issued by the Tennessee Board of Education suggests the state has room for improvement when it comes to hiring minority teachers.
While more than 31 percent of students in Tennessee are minority, only about 10 percent of its teachers are nonwhite.
John Norris, who worked seven years in Hamilton County Schools to defuse racial and cultural conflicts and build character and leadership programs, said building positive race relations likely always will be an ongoing job.
"Sometimes we lose ourselves in the moment and forget that America is a very complicated place."
Mr. Norris, a Chattanooga native who now lives in Florida, returned to the city in 2000 to help quell racial tensions at Central High School after some students from Tyner High were rezoned to Central. There had been no violence, but rumors that there might be prompted a third of Central's 1,160 students to stay home.
The incident gave school officials and students what Mr. Norris, then a group dynamics consultant with the Southeastern Equity Center, called "an opportunity for dialogue."
"(Students) have to sort of chart their own course in race relations," he said. "When it becomes clear to everyone in every town that none of us will get to the future without the rest of us, then race relations will be a nonissue."