Making Strides on School Integration
April 01, 2022
Appears in April 2022: School Administrator.
The research has long pointed to benefits for all students, and these four school systems studied by the Century Foundation are making it happen
Nearly seven decades after the landmark Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, American schools remain highly segregated. Nationwide, two out of five Black and Latinx students attend schools where more than 90 percent of their
classmates are students of color, while one in five white students attends a school where more than 90 percent of students are also white.
Segregated schools, whether all white or all students of color, are a poor way to prepare students to live and work in our increasingly diverse world. As economist Heather McGhee explains in her book The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together: “[S]egregation sends disturbing messages not just to Black and Brown but also to white children.”
By contrast, integrated schools, when done well, offer benefits to all students. Study after study has shown that students in integrated schools have higher test scores, are more likely to graduate, show stronger critical thinking skills and have reduced racial biases. Having a diverse peer group gives students experience with people from all walks of life and is a crucial part of the full, well-rounded education that colleges and employers are increasingly looking for.
The path to integrating schools in the 21st century has plenty of obstacles, political and pragmatic, but thoughtful school district leaders across the country are helping their communities tackle this challenge. In a report for The Century Foundation, we identified 185 school districts and charter schools that are taking active steps to integrate their schools by race or class. Districts have redrawn attendance zone boundaries to capture more diverse groups of students, created magnet schools that factor diversity into their admissions policy and implemented districtwide equitable choice policies.
Below we offer examples from four communities where education leaders are trying to integrate schools at the building and classroom levels.
Redrawing School Attendance Zones
The 57,300-student Howard County Public Schools, one of the highest-achieving districts in Maryland and beyond, recently underwent a progressive redistricting plan. In 2019, the average number of students eligible for free and reduced-price meals countywide
was 22.5 percent. However, nearly 70 percent of high school students participating in free and reduced-price meals were attending only five of the 12 high schools, while the remaining 30 percent of students were attending other high schools spread
throughout the county.
The segregation by socioeconomic status was associated with lower graduation rates for students participating in FARM versus those who were not: 78 percent versus 95 percent, respectively. District leaders knew that decades of research suggest that schools with high levels of poverty rarely provide equal opportunities for low-income students. Michael Martirano, the superintendent now in his fourth year, knew that Howard County needed to make a change.
Despite the physical structures of school buildings being closed due to the pandemic and the diverse positions that historically come with redrawing school boundaries, the redistricting plan prevailed. By fall 2020, more than 5,000 students were attending newly integrated schools with a FARM percentage decrease.
Redesigning School Choice Processes
New York City’s Community School District 13 serves a racially and socioeconomically diverse section of Brooklyn, but when Kamar Samuels became superintendent in 2019, few schools reflected this overall diversity. For instance, 57 percent of 5th
graders were eligible for FARM, but some middle schools had as few as 22 percent FARM, while others had 100 percent eligibility. These disparities were due in part to the fact several middle schools in the district set requirements around test scores
or grades for students to be admitted.
Over the past two years, Samuels has helped lead the district in implementing new school admissions priorities and school choice processes to help promote integration. The district’s middle schools have dropped academic admissions requirements, in keeping with a citywide policy change, and have implemented a new admissions priority that reserves 57 percent of seats in each school for students who are low-income or in temporary housing, matching the district average. The district also has shepherded the merger of two elementary schools — a disproportionately white and oversubscribed lottery-based school and a majority-Black, under-enrolled neighborhood school — to create a more integrated combined school.
Samuels emphasizes that District 13 has a long way to go in promoting equity and integration, but he credits the successes so far to “developing the muscle for co-creation” by implementing processes to listen to people in the community and using that engagement to build a base of support.
Samuels and other senior district leaders as well as principals have participated in trainings on how to have difficult conversations about race and difference. He says they strive to model in their interactions what it looks like to “hear hard things being said about you … and then give people tools to stay there in the conversation.” They have established norms for community meetings to encourage active and respectful participation and, through virtual meetings, to reach a wider range of community members and give people multiple ways to engage through breakout rooms and chats.
Promoting Antiracist Approaches to School Discipline
In the Capitol Region Education Council, or CREC, a regional education service center in Hartford, Conn., “pursuing racial equity in education is non-negotiable,” says Elsie Gonzalez, director of diversity, equity and inclusion. Core to this
work is disrupting racism in school discipline.
CREC serves 35 school districts and operates 16 inter-district magnet schools bringing together students from Hartford and surrounding suburbs to promote racial and socioeconomic integration. Advancing integration in the region required digging into school practices to ensure schools are supportive environments for all students.
In Connecticut, as of 2019-20, Black students were nearly four times as likely to be suspended as their white peers: 10.3 percent and 2.9 percent, respectively. According to Elaina Brachman, assistant superintendent in the regional agency, “a concerted effort to reduce suspensions came from the top, and time for professional learning was necessary.”
CREC magnet schools set out to reduce these disparities and lower school suspensions. They changed practices for suspensions such that instead of certain behaviors triggering an automatic suspension, other alternatives are considered. CREC looked at academic data and compared it to patterns in discipline. They noticed overrepresentation of Black and Brown boys receiving pullout interventions and discipline referrals.
The potential impact on self-esteem and perceptions among their peers led schools to pivot to push-in services as their primary strategy for academic support. Professional development on restorative practices, trauma-informed approaches and awareness of implicit bias was provided districtwide. CREC established equity team leaders in the schools, making them responsible for supporting initiatives to achieve schoolwide equity goals.
CREC believes ensuring equitable school discipline and supporting social and emotional learning are key components of successful integration and deserve as much attention as core subjects. Their equity statement is more than symbolic, and, as Brachman describes it, is “putting our money where our mouth is.”
Integrating Classrooms and Courses
Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, has had a longstanding commitment to racial integration in its public schools. In recent years, however, community members and district leaders alike have called for action to address the segregation that was
happening inside its schools in the form of academic tracking.
When superintendent David Glasner came to the district in 2014, originally as a middle school principal, he thought the district needed more tracking, not less. However, observing more closely the experiences and outcomes for students in Shaker Heights as well as diving into the research on the results of tracking nationwide convinced Glasner that the district’s tracking system was not promoting academic rigor but rather exacerbating inequity. He recognized a new approach was needed.
Under Shaker Heights’ old approach, students were tracked into different levels of math and English courses starting in 5th grade. By the time students were in high school, some subjects had a wide array of levels. White students were overrepresented in top tracks, and Black students were overrepresented in bottom tracks.
Equity in course assignments became a goal in the district’s strategic plan that went into effect in 2020, and the work of detracking was accelerated during the pandemic. District leaders realized the challenges of reconfiguring the school day to accommodate small cohorts for in-person learning were incompatible with maintaining many different course levels.
As a result, Shaker Heights has removed tracks from all core classes through 8th grade, and at the high school level, core subjects have been consolidated to reduce the total number of levels. Initial data on state assessments suggest that students in detracked courses, including algebra, have made more than expected growth.
Glasner urges other school districts that are considering whether to integrate their schools or classrooms to take the leap. “If you wait until everybody is prepared, you will never get to do this work,” he explains. “It is still incumbent upon us to make sure we’re providing supports to teachers, to students, to families, to learn how to reenvision and reimagine their educational system, but we’ve also got to just try to do it.”
About the Authors
Halley Potter is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation in New York, N.Y.
Michelle Burris is a fellow at The Century Foundation in Washington, D.C.