Race and Equity

OPINION: Can we trace the roots of Charlottesville to school segregation?

School isolation by race begins with our earliest learners

Like many Americans (and Southerners like myself), I awoke earlier this month to the terrifying images of torch-bearing men lighting up the Old Main at the University of Virginia with flames and chants of racism, antisemitism and hate.

The Southern Poverty Law Center called the Charlottesville rally “the largest hate-gathering of its kind in decades in the United States.” Protester Heather Heyer, was killed at the rally, others were hurt badly and two state troopers died in a helicopter crash.

As many of us question the reasons for this disturbing incident and our current era of separation, we ought to take a long look at how we allow our education system to instill various kinds of separation into children’s lives. The South was once known for legal segregation, then its schools became the country’s most racially diverse as the courts tried to erase Jim Crow. But for many children in the South and across the nation, this trend toward integration has reversed.

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Most American children are isolated in school by race starting at 4 years old, Penn State University professor Erica Frankenberg found in her study of pre-K published in fall 2016. (I cited Frankenberg’s research in a recent story for the Hechinger Report. The story also ran in The Washington Post). About half of black and Hispanic pre-K students attended “racially isolated nonwhite schools,” meaning their enrollment is at least 90 percent minority even in a fast-gentrifying city, according to federal data cited by Frankenberg.

Nearly two-thirds of black students in New York state attend racially isolated schools, and nearly half do in Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, Michigan and California, a 2014 study by Frankenberg and UCLA professor Gary Orfield showed. A majority of Hispanic students attend racially isolated schools in New York, California and Texas, the same study showed. On average, black and Hispanic students nationally attend schools in which two-thirds of students are from low-income families, the researchers found.

Hundreds of our communities across the “Black Belt” of the South still have never addressed the type of segregation that occurs when white families flock to private schools in majority-black small towns and rural communities. A number of white families left the public schools in these communities in the 1960s and 1970s to start these small, private academies, many of which still thrive.

In a recent visit to Clarendon County, South Carolina, the location of one of the Brown v. Board of Education cases, I found virtually no white students attending the local public schools.

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Many poor and working-class whites in the South who supported President Trump in the 2016 election may have far more in common economically and culturally with urban and rural African Americans and Hispanics than with Wall Street. But do their children ever have a chance to get to know each other?

Amy Stuart Wells of Teachers College, Columbia University has shown clear social benefits of well-integrated schools — and the boon diversity can provide to many students’ achievement. “Students’ exposure to other students who are different from themselves and the novel ideas and challenges that such exposure brings leads to improved cognitive skills, including critical thinking and problem solving,” Wells and her colleagues wrote in a 2016 report for The Century Foundation.

Integrated Schools, a nonprofit organization based in Los Angeles, asks urban parents to pledge to visit and consider diverse schools for their children. In 2013, the Equity and Excellence Commission appointed by then-Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, called for including school integration as part of federal or state systems of school accountability.

Among those who support this idea are Jenna Tomasello and Chris Suarez, who have started Learn Together, Live Together, a small but promising Washington-based startup that hopes to encourage families nationwide to pursue more diverse schools for their children and neighborhoods. (Tomasello and Suarez were also profiled in the Hechinger story mentioned earlier). They’re among a small but growing number of young adults who think it’s nothing less than bizarre to live in an incredibly diverse city — yet see many of their children’s schools almost entirely segregated by race and class.

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Tomasello and Suarez want families to consider Van Ness Elementary School in gentrifying southeast Washington, D.C., one of the city’s most diverse schools, where the principal and teachers now make home visits to ensure students from low-income families feel welcome alongside more well-to-do-classmates.

“I think segregation and economic inequality are the root causes of school failure in this country. If we can’t get that right, we’ll never get it right,” Tomasello says.

Southern states may have many more segregated schools than they did 20 years ago. But even so, white students in the South are more likely to be exposed to students of color than in the past, mostly attributed to the rising number of Hispanic students attending schools with them. Suburbs are diversifying and the ratio of white students to black and Hispanic students is shrinking; students of color are now the majority of students in public schools.

Embracing this diversity rather than disrupting it – as so many communities have tried to do – could narrow a gulf that continues to grow.

It will take more of us thinking and acting differently to change things; to extinguish those evil torches in the night.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education

Alan Richard is an education writer based in Washington, D.C., formerly of Education Week and the Southern Regional Education Board. He contributes occasionally to the Hechinger Report.

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