Thousands of same-race schools within miles of each other – The 74

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Sedgefield Middle School and Alexander Graham Middle School are only a few miles apart and feed into the same high school. But residents of Charlotte, North Carolina know that they have long been two very different campuses.

“They were both separate colleges,” said Akeshia Craven-Howell, who until recently served as assistant superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, overseeing student school assignments.

“Sedgefield Middle School primarily serves students from lower socio-economic communities and Alexander Graham serves students from communities with predominantly higher socio-economic factors.”

But in 2019, the district, fueled by strong parent advocacy, tried something new. He mixed the student populations of the two buildings by creating a combined attendance zone and rearranging which elementary schools sent students to which middle schools.

“We were able to create two much more socio-economically diverse colleges,” said Craven-Howell, who now works as an advisor for Bellwether Education Partners.

Students outside Sedgefield Middle School in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Sedgefield Middle School via Facebook)

Across the country, thousands of schools closely resemble Sedgefield and Alexander Graham, a new US government accountability office. report revealed.

More than 7,800 predominantly same-race schools, he finds, are located just five miles from another same-race school. Expanding the radius to 10 miles inflates the total to over 13,500.

These cases can represent “low hanging fruit” for integration efforts, Craven-Howell said.

Akeshia Craven-Howell (Bellwether Education Partners)

“It doesn’t require a major trade-off with home-school distance, which I think is often a barrier for some families when thinking about school diversity.”

A strong majority of parents say they would like to see schools improve their racial and socio-economic balance, but support drops when the undertaking involves bus programs or additional travel, according to vote of the Century Foundation. Opponents of integration plans often cite long bus journeys in their resistance to the plans.

In many cases, however, such a sacrifice isn’t necessary, said Richard Kahlenberg, the organization’s K-12 equity director.

“It’s so often true that people say, ‘We would love integrated schools, but it’s just not possible logistically because of the distances,'” he told 74 .

This is often a false dichotomy.

“Distance, in many cases, is no excuse for segregation,” he said.

“On the wrong side of the tracks”

About a third of the 13,500 schools identified in the federal report belong to the same school system as their counterpart campus, meaning that any desegregation efforts would be directly in the hands of district leaders.

About 9 in 10 people have a pair across constituencies, which can entrench racial imbalances across campuses, said report co-author Jacqueline Nowicki. (The percentages, 32% and 90%, add up to more than 100% because some schools have pairs inside and outside their district.)

“Where we choose to draw school district boundaries, … that matters a lot as to where kids go to school,” the GAO director of education told The 74.

“School district lines are not given by God,” Kahlenberg added. Florida and several other states, for example, use large county-based school systems to help balance their classrooms racially and socioeconomically.

Using data from 2020-2021, the most recent figures available from the US Education Department’s Common Core of Data, Nowicki’s team found that more than a third of US students – about 18.5 million – attend mostly same-race schools. They applied the “predominantly same-race” label to schools where students of the same race or ethnicity make up at least 75% of the workforce. The percentage of heavily segregated US schools has fallen slightly from 2016, the last time the GAO investigated the issue. But given the increase in diversity over that time, including more students who identify as Asian or Hispanic, the researcher doesn’t see the numbers as particularly encouraging.

The proportion of students of color attending highly segregated schools, which disproportionately tend to also be high poverty schools, has increased, she pointed out. These campuses, on average, perform worse academically compared to their wealthier peers.

Jacqueline Nowicki (United States Government Accountability Office)

“What does it mean, in a country that is becoming increasingly diverse, to have a large proportion of children going to school only with other children who look alike?” Newicki said.

The reasons why the United States continues to have divided classrooms go back a long way, says the report from his agency. In a major example, redlining, a 1930s federal practice of denying home loans to borrowers of color while providing them to white applicants, systematically reduced black homeownership and codified racial divisions between neighborhoods. The impacts of discriminatory policy continue to haunt education outcomes to this day.

“That’s where expressions like ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ come from,” the GAO director said.

“The city that made desegregation work”

In the case of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, the recent push for school integration follows a back-and-forth story after Brown v. Commission education.

Charlotte was once known as “the city that made desegregation work”. After the 1971 turn Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education decision upheld the district’s bus system, the city’s integration plan became a model for cities in the southern United States – which today are less separated than other regions of the country.

“The achievement of which Charlotte-Mecklenburg is most proud of over the past 20 years is not the city’s impressive new skyline or its strong and growing economy. Its proudest achievement is its fully integrated schools,” the Charlotte Observer Editorial Committee declared in 1984.

The skyline of Charlotte, North Carolina

But after a 1999 ruling overturned court-imposed desegregation requirements, area campuses quickly became more and more divided – with very uneven results between its 180 schools.

In 2014, the region received sobering news: a study by Harvard University researchers ranked Charlotte last out of 50 U.S. cities for upward mobility, or the likelihood of low-income youth moving out of poverty.

The report blamed two main factors for the abysmal assessment: racial segregation and school quality.

“One of the predictors of low levels of social mobility is school and neighborhood segregation,” Kahlenberg explained.

When the district of 140,000 students resurrected decades-old conversations about how to integrate its schools, memories of past efforts remained vivid for many residents. There was an appetite for the changes, but they still proved difficult, Craven-Howell said. In merging communities that had different socio-economic makeups, the district needed to ensure that the voices and needs of wealthier relatives did not drown out those of lower-income families.

But the effort has been successful so far, the former Charlotte-Mecklenburg administrator said, and they’ve started pushing the integration forward. However, they only affect a small part of the campuses. She hopes the district will continue to build on her progress and “identify opportunities to replicate some of the great work done six years ago,” the last time it reviewed student assignments.

Charlotte is not alone in this. The district is a member of The Century Foundation’s Collaboration Bridges, a network of 27 school systems, 17 charter school networks, and 13 housing organizations across the country working to reduce segregation in their schools and communities. Although they represent only a tiny fraction of the 13,500 separate school pairs identified by the GAO report, Craven-Howell believes they demonstrate what is possible.

“There are districts all over the country that are thinking about [integration], who try things,” she said. “It is not the case that a district should embark on this work without there being role models or examples to look to.”

And as for Sedgefield and Alexander Graham, the Charlotte colleges that combined student enrollment in 2019, the change worked, Craven-Howell said.

“People don’t see the two schools and the two communities that are twinned. They really became one community.

Norma A. Roth