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School & District Management Reported Essay

Is There a Path to Desegregated Schools?

By Denisa R. Superville — January 08, 2019 8 min read
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Editor’s Note: Staff Writer Denisa Superville covers districts, leadership, and management. This analysis is part of a special report exploring pressing trends in education. Read the full report: 10 Big Ideas in Education.

It’s been nearly 65 years since the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka decision, and yet American schools remain deeply segregated.

In fact, researchers at the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, say the nation’s K-12 public schools have become doubly segregated for large numbers of black and brown students, many of whom attend schools where the majority of their peers are also brown, black, and poor.

Despite research showing the benefits of attending schools with diverse student bodies, integration proposals have often been met with acrimonious backlash and fierce pushback, even in ostensibly liberal havens such as New York City, where just last year a firestorm erupted on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in response to a diversity initiative. And there is still rancorous disagreement about how to increase the number of black and Hispanic students in the city’s prized specialized high schools.

But can a budding program in San Antonio that focuses on economic integration offer a feasible alternative to districts wrestling with this intractable American problem?

Mohammed Choudhury runs the San Antonio program, Diverse by Design, which launched last year with his arrival from Dallas, where he first started working on school integration. As the name makes clear, the goal is to build diverse schools and to be open and intentional about the objective.

San Antonio is a special case. There are 14 school districts within the city limits, with some of the poorest students concentrated in San Antonio Independent School District. While the city itself is 63 percent Hispanic and only 27 percent of those under 18 live in poverty, San Antonio ISD is 90 percent Hispanic and 92 percent economically disadvantaged. Those with means have long fled to the more affluent school districts and charter schools.

Desegregation initiatives won’t succeed until parents and educators address the central issue that perpetuates education inequality. Scroll down for more from Amy Stuart Wells.

Along with providing transportation for low-income students, the steps that the school district is taking to approach school integration are:

• Building with diversity in mind: Districts can design schools with 50-50 enrollment models, with 50 percent of the students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and the other half from more privileged backgrounds. Principals are responsible for ensuring that leadership is shared within their schools, and that leadership also reflects their schools’ diversity. Closing academic and other opportunity gaps are also priorities.

• Redefining measures of poverty or disadvantage: San Antonio goes beyond the single measure of free and reduced lunch to find and define disadvantage. It takes a block-by-block approach, using census and other demographic data to examine such factors as income, adult educational attainment, the presence of single-parent households, and homeownership. The block-by-block work not only finds those in the most abject forms of poverty, but also promotes racial diversity as well. A quarter of the seats in the 50-50 schools are reserved for students who are more likely to live in low-income households with a single parent with low-educational attainment.

• Creating smart attendance zones: In San Antonio, some schools will have no attendance zones at all, drawing students from all over the city, including those who attend the more affluent districts. Attendance zones can be drawn to exclude certain tracts or include certain residential developments to ensure a diverse student body, bypassing the legacy of red-lining and other discriminatory housing and lending practices that impact attendance boundaries to this day.

• Offering attractive academic programs: The district is developing new schools and programs like Montessori schools, dual-language programs, and STEAM and STEM programs to woo parents who have left the school system for more affluent districts or for private or charter schools. Those schools not only attract middle-class families, but they also offer the kinds of programs that require peer-to-peer interaction and collaboration to create truly integrated spaces.

• Putting a heavy emphasis on outreach and access: For parents who aren’t in the know or who don’t know how to jump through hoops, the district has made it easy for them to find out about new schools and programs, and how to apply. A family engagement team is in charge of outreach. There are hubs at schools across the city where parents can find out more about the new programs. Parents can register in person, on the phone, online, or using an app.

• Keeping it up: If the initial student demographic of a diverse by design school is not what the district seeks, the district returns to its applicant pool or goes in search of the families whose children qualify for those slots. And it has policies that will allow it to take steps in future years to restore the socioeconomic and racial balance in schools.

Choudhury has seen positive results, with applications far outpacing the number of available slots in those schools, and he believes there are lessons for other districts.

When San Antonio opened its first in-district Montessori school last year with the 50-50 enrollment model, an attendance zone that spanned a 3-mile radius around the school, and 25 percent of the seats set aside for non-district families, it was flooded with 750 applications for just 62 slots.

The San Antonio initiatives are not a panacea and will not magically transform schools overnight. For one, they are directed at new schools. The intentionally diverse schools are also currently serving a small number of students. When the new schools are completed, they will serve about 7,500 of the district’s 48,500 students. A drop in the bucket.

Districts can take steps to diversify already existing schools, including examining their choice programs to remove barriers or hurdles that have allowed schools to choose students and not students to choose schools, which is what San Antonio is seeing. And they can also funnel resources to existing schools—from additional dollars to their best teachers and principals.

But a great deal of segregation is rooted in housing patterns, so it’s not up to districts alone. Municipalities must also play a role. Until they do, districts can take steps like San Antonio has to avoid exacerbating the problem.


How to Redefine ‘Good’ in Education

By Amy Stuart Wells

San Antonio’s integration program Diverse by Design offers a new strategy to address a separate and unequal educational system. This is a bold approach to targeting concentrated poverty and segregation—two key predictors of low student achievement—in public schools. But more emphasis must be placed on a central issue that perpetuates inequality in education: How do race, ethnicity, and culture shape the way we define “good” students, schools, and communities? And how do those definitions reproduce segregation time and time again?

In our research and the professional development at Teachers College, Columbia University, we are learning about the process by which racial, ethnic, and economic segregation is reproduced and legitimized by a hierarchical understanding of different races and cultures in our society. This racial hierarchy, which is often vehemently denied by many who perpetuate it, fosters implicit racial biases that shape the choices of educators, parents, and home buyers.

We learned in our research on Long Island, for instance, that property values for virtually the same house in different school districts can vary as much as $50,000 based on the percentage of black students enrolled. Without any knowledge of the quality of the public schools or the education they provided, home buyers we interviewed assumed schools with more black students were not as good.

Similarly, the white and affluent parents moving into now-trendy urban neighborhoods their ancestors fled 50 years ago, have many school choices—public, private, or charter schools. Too often, they bypass the neighborhood public schools that have served students of color for decades, assuming they are not good schools. At one meeting of these gentrifying parents when I talked about the strong early childhood program at the predominantly black and Latinx public school nearby, one parent yelled that it was a “terrible” school, before admitting that he had never set foot inside of it.

This research makes me wonder if educators should spend less time reassigning students to diverse public schools that their parents may or may not ever enroll them in and more time examining a racial hierarchy in how we define “good” students, schools, and communities. How do our curriculum and assessments perpetuate this hierarchy and doom certain schools and students to “failure” as defined through one narrow lens of success? The ethnic studies movement in the Southwest and the culturally relevant pedagogy movement in the Northeast are two reform efforts that are beginning to address these issues. However, true integration may be elusive without this reexamination. Schools are the best sites for transforming our understandings of “goodness” and dismantling the racial hierarchy.

Amy Stuart Wells is a professor of sociology and education and the director of Reimagining Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is the president of the American Educational Research Association.

What big ideas matter to your classroom, school or district? We want to know. Tweet your comments to us at #K12BigIdeas.
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2019 edition of Education Week as A Path to Desegregation?


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