America already has integrated schools — here’s how we can have more

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Diverse Schools / Education Equity / Uncategorized

In his Will America ever have integrated schools ? blog post yesterday, Neerav Kingsland asked for ways to better understand the story for school integration advocacy.  Here at One Good Question, I’m usually talking to other people about their perspectives, but since I spend a lot of time wondering about his question myself, I have a few thoughts to share.

Dear Neerav,

I love that you’re thinking about this from personal, policy, and practical perspectives ! I am a firm believer that no culture is monolithic, so to be fair, there are parents all over the country, who go to great lengths to live in integrated neighborhoods and/or enroll their children in integrated schools, like this recent study of DCPS demonstrates. We could provide personal testimony from thousands of Black, White, and Latinx parents who advocate for integrated schools and related civil rights/social justice equity in their communities.  For the sake of this conversation, let’s assume that you don’t mean them.  Let’s also assume that we’re only talking about high-quality education — no one is advocating that we send children to low-performing schools for diversity’s sake.

Top-down policy does not create lasting change when the people living through the change are oppositional.  We definitely see that, as court-mandated integration programs end, most communities revert back to segregated schooling.  We have bright spots in places like Wake County, North Carolina where the community – White and Black students & families – advocated to maintain their integrated school options after the court mandates ended. In St. Louis majority-white school district leaders maintained their commitment to their desegregation program for 10 years after the court mandate ended.  Those decisions take personal conviction and local advocacy/political support.  You could also look to communities like Tucson Unified (no pun intended) that achieved unitary status after 30 years of court oversight (it is a long, hard battle), and still needs an ongoing comprehensive plan to remove the traces of the forced segregation in their past.  A scalable solution has to include ways to build public will and shift personal attitudes about diversity.

Location, location, location.  To your point that “White parents won’t send their children to poor neighborhoods” Frankenberg and Debray (2011) also argue that we should focus integrated school efforts on deconcentrating low-income housing and starting the work in more affluent communities.  White families wouldn’t have to “send their children to poor neighborhoods,” Black/Brown kids wouldn’t have to be bused all over town, districts/coalitions wouldn’t incur the exorbitant cost of said busing, and the community would avoid the White Flight tipping point that happens in more racially tense/fragile mixed communities.  I don’t know that any place is actually trying this, but it’s an interesting position.

New schools – district or charter – that are intentional about their diverse population are just as intentional about location.  I’m most encouraged by the strategy at Rhode Island Mayoral Academies where they locate schools on the borders of the stratified communities that they intend to serve.  No one has to leave their greater neighborhood for a quality, diverse education.  That’s a scalable practice that districts/regions could implement when they create neighborhood school assignment zones.

Rural bright spots. For the long-term integration argument, I would actually be more focused on census projections.  Not in the antagonistic – White people you’re going to be the minority by 2044 ! way, but in the spirit that, if we don’t figure out scalable solutions to integration, our society will implode.  I would look to our rural communities, like Beardstown, IL and Carthage, MO, as bellwethers over urban examples.  Rural communities are becoming majority-minority at a faster rate than the nation, have relatively few financial resources to respond to the shift, and are using school integration to address the community’s needs.

We’re in a catch-22 here.  What makes resistant families more apt to support school integration ? Positive experience with school integration.  To go back to the DCPS study, when everything is equal, families are more likely to choose integrated and high-performing schools.  Get the public school quality right, get the location right, launch local campaign on the academic and social benefits of New XXXXX School model and many diverse parents will come.

Creating diverse schools as the new normal will take generations, but it is incumbent upon us to promote such integration now. Sustainability of diverse schools and diverse communities requires that the people who live in them have a shared value.  What’s the best place to teach those shared values on a large scale?  Our public schools.

Looking forward,

The Author

Passionate about education reform, multilingualism, peace, diaspora dance forms, and intersectionality.

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