Equity & Diversity

Integrated Schools Viewed As Benefit by Their Graduates

By Karla Scoon Reid — March 31, 2004 6 min read
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Integrated schools are often either touted as a must to foster cross-cultural connections and greater racial understanding, or regarded as unnecessary social engineering in an increasingly diverse America.

Aiming to add to that debate, a study scheduled for release this week probes the views of people who graduated from integrated high schools in 1980. They said their school experiences greatly influenced their views about race, leaving them less prejudiced and more comfortable around people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds as adults.

Read the report’s executive summary, or download “How Desegregation Changed Us,” from the Columbia University Teachers College. (Full report requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

With their high school years long behind them, however, many of the members of the class of 1980 lamented that their home lives and social circles were largely segregated. Similarly, they said their children would experience little of the cultural interaction that they say enriched their lives immeasurably.

“How Desegregation Changed Us: The Effects of Racially Mixed Schools on Students and Society” chronicles the experiences of 242 graduates of six public high schools with racially mixed student enrollments.

The five-year study concludes that public schools—on their own—could not realize the full potential of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which struck down separate schooling for white and black students.

Counter to much of the prevailing political and policy debates of today, the graduates interviewed do value diversity in the classroom, said Amy Stuart Wells, the report’s lead author and a professor of sociology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Ms. Wells said she had anticipated a more mixed reaction to the graduates’ desegregated school experience. Instead, she found a collective sense of loss rooted in the realities of contemporary American life.

“There seems to be some silent majority out there that wants more diversity in schools, but it seems that the whole [academic] ranking system out there is ignoring that demand,” she said in an interview last week. “We should be defining ‘good’ schools more broadly than just using test scores.”

‘What Happened?’

In addition to the graduates, researchers interviewed more than 250 educators, politicians, lawyers, and advocates who were involved with each of the six schools: Austin High School in Austin, Texas; Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood, N.J.; John Muir High School in Pasadena, Calif.; Shaker Heights High School in Shaker Heights, Ohio; Topeka High School in Topeka, Kan.; and West Charlotte High School in Charlotte, N.C.

The study will be elaborated on in the book In Search of Brown, to be published next year by Harvard University Press. Research associates Awo Korantemaa Atanda of Teachers College and Jennifer Jellison Holme and Anita Tijerina Revilla of the University of California, Los Angeles, are co-authors of the report.

The in-depth examination of how white, African-American, and Latino graduates of desegregated schools define their school experiences includes 136 interviews with white graduates. The report points out that no researchers have interviewed such “large numbers” of white graduates of integrated schools before.

Of the white adults interviewed, 75 percent described the communities where they live as “mostly white and not diverse.” Conversely, roughly half the African-American graduates reported that they live in diverse communities. And many of the graduates of both races maintained mostly same- race friendships.

About half the white graduates with school-age children enrolled them in diverse schools, compared with 75 percent of the African- American and Latino graduates. Many cited the pressure to find schools with the highest test scores, which for white parents often meant less diverse schools.

“They thought they were part of this wave of change,” Ms. Wells said. “That’s what they were getting ready for in high school. Now, they’re wondering: ‘What happened on the way to the integrated society?’”

The report recommends that school quality and accountability measures be expanded to include other factors, including racial diversity.

Although she does not envision a mandatory requirement, Ms. Wells said, federal incentives should be implemented to maintain and cultivate diversity in schools and communities.

‘Sense of Empathy’

Claire Lerner, who was interviewed for the study, was one of the few white members of the girls’ softball team at Dwight Morrow High School in the late 1970s.

Ms. Lerner remembers members of opposing teams teasing her for associating with her black teammates. It was her first experience being in the minority.

“It gave me a sense of empathy,” the 41-year-old mother of two said. “I think you just can’t have that without the everyday, real-life experience of living with people very different from yourself.”

Clair Lerner of Bethesda, Md.
Claire Lerner of Bethesda, Md., who was one of the few white members of her high school softball team, regrets that her own children have few opportunities to mix with students of other races.
—James W. Prichard/Education Week

Now living in a predominantly white neighborhood in Bethesda, Md., Ms. Lerner struggles to teach her children to be accepting of people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. But she believes those lessons are too abstract and that her children, who attend schools with few minority students, are learning about race by watching sports and television shows.

“I don’t have the confidence that [my children] will feel comfortable or won’t develop prejudices without that daily experience,” said Ms. Lerner, a child-development specialist.

For Edward Antoine, who grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, an integrated life was all he ever knew. At Shaker Heights High, Mr. Antoine was often one of a few black students in higher-level classes, which he said likely explains why he had friends of all races growing up.

Mr. Antoine, 42, now a test-preparation tutor in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, said he doesn’t characterize his high school years as a “unique opportunity to participate in the dominant culture that we live in.”

“I do that every day,” he added, laughing.

Still, he said he often is surprised by the racial attitudes of people who did not share his racially diverse upbringing. While perhaps not an irreplaceable experience, he concluded: “I think it was an early opportunity to broaden my point of view.”

Even if students do reap benefits from attending school with children from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, forcing families to send their children to certain schools to achieve diversity is a “terrible idea,” argued Roger Clegg, the general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity. The Sterling, Va.-based public-policy group is critical of affirmative action programs.

“I don’t believe that it’s essential for students to sit in a classroom of people from different races and ethnicities to appreciate the fact that we are all Americans,” he said.

The study’s findings mirror present-day racial realities in the nation’s classrooms, said Rossi Ray- Taylor, the executive director of the Minority Student Achievement Network. The Evanston, Ill.-based group works to improve the achievement of African- American and Hispanic students.

Districts continue to grapple with low enrollment of minority students in upper-level courses, Ms. Ray-Taylor said. And cross-cultural relationships among students rarely reach beyond school- based activities, she added.

But she said the study also acknowledges the strides K-12 education made in valuing racial diversity. “This study points to the challenge for the rest of society,” she said, “to pick up the same type of fervor for diversity that was brought to bear in the ’70s and ’80s.”

Coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision is underwritten by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations.

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