In middle school, Iman Abdul started to notice that certain classmates were treated differently from her. “My black peer got a 75 and was told that was good, but when I got a 75, the teacher said, ‘You can do better,’” said Abdul, who remembers going through metal detectors every morning and seeing the same kids getting suspended again and again. Later, at her predominantly white Brooklyn high school, the dynamics shifted. “As students of color, we felt uncomfortable,” she said.
These experiences in schools where one race dominated—black in middle school, white in high school—led Abdul, now a college junior, to become part of Integrate NYC, a youth-run nonprofit calling for greater integration in New York City’s schools. Ideally, she says, “every school would reflect the demographics of its city,” which should help all students learn better.
Research backs Abdul up. Studies have found that racially segregated schools depress learning gains as early as first grade for black students, for example, and that overall achievement for black students is lower in highly segregated schools, even after accounting for income. Conversely, racially desegregated schools have been found to increase graduation rates, earnings, and health outcomes for black students, according to a decades-long study released in 2011. The impact was neutral for white students in both.
Studies also find that integration by income can be a powerful equalizer of opportunity for students—no matter their ethnic group. A 2010 study found that low-income students who went to schools with higher-income students improved their performance on standardized tests—the achievement gap between the two groups was reduced by half for math, and by one-third for reading. There was no negative impact on high-income students. As an explanation, scholars suggest that diverse schools tend to have more resources and stability, and can help all students improve their critical thinking skills while reducing prejudice and fostering a sense of belonging.
“There is still overwhelming evidence that one of the best things we can do for students is give them a chance to go to integrated schools,” said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and one of the leading researchers on school integration in the nation. “The outcomes for students are stronger in economically and racially integrated schools than in high-poverty, segregated schools.”
Yet integrating schools has proved frustratingly elusive, even 64 years after Brown v. Board of Education declared racially segregated schools unconstitutional. School systems like the 148,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenberg district in North Carolina, which were required to launch ambitious race-based desegregation plans in the 1960s and ’70s, had their plans struck down by courts decades later. More recent legal rulings and executive orders have only furthered districts’ shift away from race-based desegregation.
But a closer look at school demographics reveals a more complex pattern of segregation that reflects systemic societal divisions by class, ethnicity, and language, in addition to race. Black and Latino students, for example, are more than five times as likely to attend high-poverty schools as white students, and three times as likely as Asian students. Moreover, many districts’ zoning maps—mandating where students attend school—don’t take into account longstanding housing or neighborhood segregation, which can be slow to change and highly politicized.
“The issue is geography, it really is. Spatial segregation is hard to overcome—groups stay so radically far apart,” said James Ford, a former North Carolina teacher of the year and now education consultant. Ford, who is waiting to see how the Charlotte-Mecklenberg district’s latest integration proposal will play out, says he sees a “glimmer of encouragement” as “there are parents here willing to give it a shot.”
Looking for ways to diversify schools that don’t place the focus solely on race, Charlotte-Mecklenberg and at least 100 other districts around the country are currently pursuing new strategies that look at school integration more comprehensively. These new plans take into consideration criteria such as parental income and education levels, and whether a student lives in temporary housing, is enrolled in foster care, or is not a native English speaker, to name a few. By broadening their view of diversity, districts hope to more accurately reflect the communities they serve and improve outcomes for students.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: A Blended Community
Situated across the Charles River from Boston, Cambridge is home to two of the nation’s most prestigious universities—Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)—along with a number of subsidized housing projects.
After watching the heated riots and political upheaval that followed Boston’s school desegregation plan in the 1970s and ’80s, Cambridge school leaders became proactive about integrating their schools, and by 1981, made racial diversity a priority for every school.
Two decades later, district leaders saw the writing on the wall as courts began ruling against race-based plans, and in 2001, they switched their focus to socioeconomic diversity, adopting a system of “controlled choice” that has been lauded as one of the earliest integration plans to focus on family income. In the model, every school in the 6,700-student district has to have a balance of lower and higher income families that reflects the district’s socioeconomic distributions as a whole.
Additionally, there are no “neighborhood schools.” All Cambridge families must select and rank their top school choices, and the district makes a match that factors in their preferences and their socioeconomic standing to ensure parity at each school.
“It’s only when social justice and academic excellence are married that a school or district has the right to stake a claim to be successful or excellent,” said Jeffrey Young, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College and a former superintendent in Cambridge. “There’s a difference between teaching about social justice and acting in socially just ways.”
San Antonio: Attracting New Families
Not every district is economically diverse within its boundaries, which can be a challenge for communities that are majority high-poverty like San Antonio Independent School District (ISD), where 90 percent of the 52,500 public school students are low-income. San Antonio ISD is surrounded by 16 other districts in greater San Antonio, a city that’s been called one of “the most economically segregated” in the country.
But rather than wait for larger political or housing solutions, district Chief Innovation Officer Mohammed Choudhury and Superintendent Pedro Martinez are trying something else: developing high-quality, innovative schools that attract families from all backgrounds to attend them.
Recently opened specialized schools such as Steele Montessori Academy, Advanced Learning Academy, and Mark Twain Dual Language Academy are already wooing high- and middle-income families who might otherwise send their children out of district or to local private schools. These choice schools give priority to students within their attendance boundaries, but strive to balance student composition by socioeconomic status. Some seats are set aside for students who live outside the district, and busing is provided to students no matter where they live.
“It’s very important to me that my children go to school with a diverse group of kids—that’s real life,” said parent Cristina Noriega, who moved her children from a charter school to Mark Twain this year. “The key is the school does not become an island of privilege.”
San Antonio’s efforts, which are gaining national attention, have involved taking a microscopic view of communities—looking at the levels of poverty within every city block and assessing factors like parents’ education levels and housing, in addition to more traditional measures of disadvantage.
Already, San Antonio ISD is seeing significant improvements in student performance and has waiting lists at new schools. The district was recently recognized by the state as one of its fastest improving, and the district’s schools designated as requiring improvement dropped from 35 to 16 in a year. The number of students enrolled in low performing schools also dropped, from 47 percent to 16 percent—the largest decrease of any urban district in Texas.
New York City: A Broader Definition of Diversity
New York City has one of the most diverse yet segregated school systems in the nation. Recent integration efforts in the 1.1-million-student district represent a look at diversity beyond socioeconomics. The New York City Department of Education has offered up a total of $2 million in grants to any of its 34 sub-districts that develop integration plans, and has created a task force to look at school diversity city-wide.
Last year, District 1, which serves 5,700 students from the Lower East Side and East Village, launched a lottery-based plan to improve school diversity—the first in the city—which factors in whether students are low-income, English language learners, or homeless as a more nuanced way to measure disadvantage and make schools more comprehensively diverse. This fall, income and racial disparities have already started to even out. Seven of the 16 elementary schools in District 1 met their inaugural targets for diversity, giving 57 to 77 percent of kindergarten slots to students who qualify as English language learners, live in temporary housing, or are eligible for free and reduced price lunch—up from four schools the year before.
District 15, a sub-district in Brooklyn, is poised to follow next, with parents and community members driving an integration plan that will eliminate the standard admissions requirements of test scores, grades, or auditions for some of the prized magnet middle schools, and give weight to students in need instead. Proponents have argued that existing admissions requirements create segregated schools that reflect the socioeconomic and racial divisions in Brooklyn.
As New York City schools continue these efforts, it will be important to recognize that diversity on paper means little if students don’t feel welcome in a school, said Matt Gonzales with the advocacy group New York Appleseed.
“Desegregation is about creating diverse spaces and breaking down barriers to access,” he said. “Integration is about the cultural and pedagogical school climate shifts [needed] to create a truly equitable environment.”