Bucking the Trend of School Resegregation

By Anne O'Brien

With some schools across the country becoming more segregated, we can learn much from Morris School District (NJ), where the community is committed to school integration.

“I am all for school diversity, but not when my kid has to take the bus across town.”

This comment was made during the ongoing middle school boundary debate in my community. It reminded me of findings on school diversity from this year’s PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools.

All else equal, PDK found that 70% of parents would prefer for their children to attend racially diverse schools (61% for economically diverse schools). But when asked whether they would accept a longer commute for their children to attend such a school, parents say no—60% would prefer the less diverse, closer school (80% for economically diverse schools). Exactly what my fellow community member said.

Advocates for school integration—known to have academic, cognitive, social and emotional benefits for students*—haven’t had much to celebrate recently. In 2016, the Washington Post reported on a Government Accountability Office (GAO) study that found the proportion of schools segregated by race and class (more than 75% of children receiving free or reduced-price lunch and more than 75% black or Hispanic) increased from 9% to 16% between 2001 and 2014, with the proportion of the most intensively segregated schools (90% low-income and students of color) more than doubling. A September 2017 report for the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University confirmed these trends in their state, finding (among other things) significant increases in both intensely segregated schools (those with 90-100% enrollment of nonwhite students) and “apartheid schools” (99-100% nonwhite schools) between 1994-95 and 2014-15. In addition, GAO found that minority students concentrated in high-poverty schools don’t have the same access to opportunities as students in other schools—for example, such schools are less likely to offer a full range of math and science courses.

Both The Nation and The New York Times Magazine recently posted in-depth pieces on the re-segregation of Jefferson County (Alabama), a district that resisted desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education—it did not adopt a true desegregation plan zoning black and white students to the same schools until 15 years after Brown, when a court ruling required it. And now, the articles point out, the courts are now overseeing its re-segregation (and the re-segregation of many other school districts across the nation), as communities attempt to break off to form their own school districts, which typically have much different demographics than that of the district they are looking to leave.

Yet there are places where the opposite is true—where schools and districts, supported by their communities, are increasing contact between students of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds. The November 2017 issue of School Administrator, published by AASA, The School Superintendents Association, highlights one – the 5,200 Morris School District in northern New Jersey.

The Morris success story began in 1971, with a state-ordered merger of two school districts to prevent de facto segregation caused by housing patterns and changing demographics. While there was initially “fierce opposition” to the merger, over the past 40+ years district administrators, teachers, school board members, and much of the broader community has grown to support the unified school district.

Why has Morris succeeded while others have not? Allison Roda and Paul Tractenberg, who authored the School Administrator article as well as (with Ryan Coughlan) a report based on a three-year research project in the district, believe that key factors include culturally sustaining leadership and a supportive community. That did not happen by accident—former Morris Superintendent Thomas Ficarra said that “30 percent of my energy, maybe more, went into caring for the community.” He established a tradition of collaboration and involving all stakeholders in the school decision-making process—a tradition that continues under his successor, Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast, who made visits to the NAACP, local churches and other community organizations an early priority in his tenure.

Also cited as a contributing factor to the district’s success is a whole-child approach to education, resisting test scores as the sole measure of academic achievement—important as the district’s test scores are lower than in predominantly white, upper-middle class suburban districts. The authors also point out that “a dedicated, stable community that believes in diversity sustains successful and durable integration, which … attracts like-minded families to the community.”

In addition, in a separate interview for School Administrator, Pendergrast notes that a critical element in the district’s success is “a board of education that embraces these core values and has partnered with school administrators, teachers and community leaders in making it happen in the most authentic way possible.”

There is much we can learn from the Morris example, but to me one of the most important lessons is that, while developing and maintaining integrated schools is extremely challenging work that requires ongoing attention and effort, it is possible—and ultimately beneficial. As Roda and Tractenberg write, “New residents are drawn to the community because of its diversity and cosmopolitan nature, and current graduates value the experience they have had in attending a diverse public high school—both attributable to the 1971 merger.”

 

 

*Want more information? Check out the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education’s 2017 School Segregation Then & Now: How to Move Toward a More Perfect Union; Inside School Research’s October 2017 post How Segregation Impacts Graduation: New Research to Know; the National Coalition on School Diversity’s 2017 Research Brief: The Complementary Benefits of Racial and Socioeconomic Diversity in Schools; and the American Educational Research Association’s 2016 Research Fact Sheet: The Educational Benefits of Diverse Schools and Classrooms for All Students.

 

Views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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Group of racially diverse girls around a computer

“New residents are drawn to the community because of its diversity and cosmopolitan nature, and current graduates value the experience they have had in attending a diverse public high school—both attributable to the 1971 merger.” - Allison Roda & Paul Tractenberg