School & District Management

Urban Leaders Assess Methods for Integrating Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — November 12, 2007 3 min read
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The Jefferson County, Ky., school district, set back by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling invalidating its student-assignment plan, is exploring other remaining legal avenues in its bid to maintain racially integrated schools, its superintendent said recently.

Sheldon Berman said the high court might have sidelined one potent integration strategy—assigning individual students to schools based on their race—but his district is investigating other race-conscious means that are still available under the June 28 ruling, such as redrawing attendance boundaries.

“The court took away one tool. We have to maximize the others,” he told educators gathered to hear five urban district leaders discuss what lies ahead for school diversity since the Supreme Court found the student-assignment systems in Jefferson County and Seattle to be unconstitutional. The Nov. 2 panel was part of the annual conference of the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based advocacy group.

In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court said schools cannot use a student’s race to make school assignment or transfer decisions. But in a concurring opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said it would be legally permissible for schools to consider race when funding special programs, locating new schools, recruiting faculty and staff in a targeted way, or creating attendance zones. (“Use of Race Uncertain for Schools,” July 18, 2007.)

The question now, Mr. Berman said, is “how can we use the strategies Justice Kennedy gave us?”

He and his fellow panelists detailed the difficulties of trying to do something they passionately believe in—ensure that children of all races, ethnicities, and income levels learn together—without running afoul of the U.S. Constitution.

Jefferson County, a 98,000- student district that includes Louisville, is crunching demographic numbers “endlessly” to devise a new student-assignment plan, Mr. Berman said. Officials plan to put it in place for the 2009-10 school year. Mr. Berman said one idea involves a “satellite” approach, in which lower-income regions of the district are paired with affluent ones to form attendance areas that include a diverse mix of students.

Raising Value

Carla J. Santorno, the chief academic officer of the 46,000-student Seattle system, said her district, meanwhile, is studying ways to build as much demand for schools in the lower-income, higher-minority southern part of the city as there is for schools in the whiter, wealthier north.

Transportation changes might have to factor into the plan, she said. Because no bus rides are provided for children who live one to two miles from their schools, depending on their grade levels, south-end parents sometimes choose north-end schools. Reducing the “walk zone” and building attractive programs in the south end might be one way to manage demand and address equity issues, she said. “The key to a student-assignment plan is to raise the value of all schools,” said Ms. Santorno, who was also on the panel.

Creating “special” or “advanced” programs as a way to increase diversity can prove controversial because they can spark resentment, Mr. Berman said. Ms. Santorno said officials must ensure equal access to any attractive new programs. In an open-choice system like Seattle’s, she said, creating a magnet school in a low-income neighborhood could draw so many affluent families that the needier ones are shut out.

The Kansas City, Mo., district spent nearly $2 billion on court-ordered integration tools such as magnet schools in the 1980s and 1990s, only to see continued poor academic performance. David A. Smith, the president of the Kansas City school board, said diversity is a particular challenge in a district where 86 percent of the 27,000 students are members of racial or ethnic minority groups.

“We really are left without anything to integrate,” he said during the panel discussion. His district is returning to neighborhood schools.

The district’s aim now is to make all its schools good, Mr. Smith said. “Don’t keep looking for greener fields,” he said. “Cultivate what you have.”

Carlos A. Garcia, who became the superintendent of San Francisco’s 55,000-student public schools in July, said his team is examining the possibility of “gerrymandering” attendance zones to attain racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity in the city’s schools. They are discussing whether they could factor severe poverty into the index they use to make school assignments.

“Since we are the People’s Republic,” he said, referring to the city’s liberal politics, “we’re not just going to sit there and take it.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as Urban Leaders Assess Methods for Integrating Schools

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