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September 1, 2017
Vol. 59
No. 9

Lessons from Little Rock

Sixty years after the Little Rock Nine brought national attention to school segregation, a new generation is advocating for every student's right to attend diverse schools.

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School Culture
Looking back on her schooling in western New York, education policy advocate Jenna Tomasello characterizes it as "very segregated." It wasn't until this first-generation college student went to grad school, however, that anyone used the term segregated to describe her experiences. "It's kind of crazy that I had to get a graduate degree just to understand the context of my own city," she reflects.

Brown Was Just the Beginning

In September 1957, nine students in Little Rock, Arkansas, embodied the United States's rocky—and sometimes volatile—path toward public school desegregation. Many thought the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling erased all separate and unequal schooling. But images of nine black students being escorted by U.S. Army troops on Little Rock Central High School's campus—and of Ruby Bridges flanked by U.S. Marshals as she walked into William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans shortly after—were a wake-up call that it hadn't. Some 60 years later, those alarm bells are ringing again.
"We have really good data that says schools are becoming more segregated," says Syracuse University education professor George Theoharis. Recent findings from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA show that U.S. schools have become more segregated since 1990—and students in major metropolitan areas have been increasingly divided by race and income. "There are also lots of places, like metropolitan areas in the Midwest and Northeast, that never desegregated," Theoharis adds. "They've maintained segregation, and it's gotten worse."
In response, a far-flung movement is under way to break the silence on segregated schooling—whether evidenced by a lack of racial or socioeconomic diversity. From the classroom to the community, from lesson plans to policy, a new generation is taking up the fight of the Little Rock Nine.

Bringing the Conversation to the Classroom

School enrollment data shows that black students were nonexistent in majority white schools in 1954. As a result of desegregation efforts, by 1988, U.S. schools reached peak integration rates with majority white schools shifting to 43.5 percent black enrollment. Parallel to this trend, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) data shows a correlation between school integration and improved achievement outcomes for black students. Reading gaps between white and black 17-year-olds reached their lowest levels at the height of school integration. Recent reports from the Century Foundation, a progressive nonpartisan think tank, outline decades of research illustrating the social, academic, and cognitive benefits of diverse schools for all students.
Yet in 2015, a two-part This American Life radio series ("The Problem We All Live With") described how U.S. schools have become increasingly segregated since the early 1990s and how this phenomenon provides a backdrop for racial and economic inequities in places like Ferguson, Missouri. Lauren Fish, a teacher in Chicago, happened to be tuning in when the series aired. "I sat in my car long after I'd arrived at my destination, just so I could hear the rest of it," she recalls. Inspiration struck, and the outline of a unit plan took shape.
Fish teaches 6th grade IB math and science at Agassiz Elementary, a diverse magnet school in Chicago's North Side. Her students from across the city have a diverse mix of racial, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. So when she kicks off her unit on school segregation by asking students if they think segregation is over, their responses vary.
"This is one of those units that really allows students to learn from each other and explore their own experience," she says. A white student might claim segregation isn't that bad, and a black student will counter with, "Oh, it is—in my neighborhood, there are no white people."
Ground rules for talking about race and one another's experiences are essential to setting up this unit. Fish guides students to "accept other people's experiences and trust that they are being honest about them." She says she doesn't pretend to be neutral about topics. Rather, she tells students, "I have really strong feelings about this, and I'm sure you will, too. We can talk about them as long as we respect that different people come from different viewpoints."

Podcasting the Problem

Over the course of the interdisciplinary unit, students unpack Norman Rockwell's famous painting of Ruby Bridges as she integrated a New Orleans elementary school in 1960. They also learn about the history of segregation in Chicago, listen to the This American Life podcast series, research Chicago Public Schools (CPS) data, and use that information to create their own data sets about the current state of segregation in CPS.
By the end of the unit, students have analyzed and created charts and graphs on the demographics of more than 100 CPS schools. "We're able to draw some pretty sophisticated conclusions that expose racial and socioeconomic segregation in CPS," notes Fish. The unit culminates in students creating their own podcasts discussing their findings.
Fish hopes students emerge from the unit with more than math, social studies, and literacy content knowledge and skills. "I want them to have a better understanding of the privilege of going to a diverse school like Agassiz, how that diversity shapes their identity, and that school segregation persists and is not being fixed by current systems."
Engaging children of all ages in understanding segregation is an important lesson for making kids more informed citizens, says Theoharis. "It's an issue that affects them directly, so they're naturally invested in raising awareness and finding solutions," adds Fish.
"The more we have thoughtful, sustained conversations around integration, the better we are as a community and a nation," argues Theoharis.

Balancing Act in Jefferson County

Keeping conversations about school diversity open and inclusive is a challenge, especially as more districts fragment into smaller, locally controlled systems. Theoharis notes, "We will have a really hard or impossible time integrating schools when we have, like the county I live and teach in, 18 different school districts." But some systems are able to convince constituents to come together for the collective good.
Louisville, Kentucky, is often ranked as one of the nation's most residentially segregated cities. In 1975, the city merged with the county to form Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), today serving about 100,000 students. Despite its size and residential patterns, JCPS is also the site of one of the most promising school desegregation efforts in the country.
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that schools couldn't use only one factor (like race) to assign students to schools, JCPS developed a plan for mapping the district according to three: socioeconomics, race, and adult educational attainment per household. Cultural competence training for educators and a push for teacher diversity ensure that what happens inside JCPS classrooms matches the needs of the diverse students in them. "Our office is focused on student placement to schools, but it's what happens during the school day that makes a big difference," says Dena Dossett, JCPS chief of data management, planning, and program evaluation.
There is busing in JCPS, but through a system of "managed choice," parents have options like choosing from appealing magnet schools and selecting from within an elementary cluster system. Dossett says it's a balancing act between the ethics that guide the district's diversity plan and giving the community what it wants. "When you talk about diversity and choice, those don't always align," she admits. That's why, every five to eight years, the district regularly reviews and adjusts the plan. Dossett credits fine-tuning based on feedback, ensuring that families have equal access to school choice, and engaging in grassroots leadership with helping the district defeat a recent challenge by the Kentucky state GOP to the school diversity plan.
Districts need to have the community on board and develop their leadership in support of school diversity, she advises. "Everyone needs to be involved in this conversation, even your critics."

Big Tent Rebranding

In part because they allowed for some level of choice in a system emphasizing socioeconomic and racial integration, JCPS shifted from 98 percent parent opposition for compulsory busing in the 1970s, to 89 percent parental support for their school diversity plan in 2011.
"We have to be willing to put everything on the table with integration," argues Chris Suarez. Along with Tomasello, Suarez started the nonprofit organization Learn Together, Live Together (LTLT), which seeks to build bipartisan coalitions around an array of integration policies. With full-time jobs—Suarez as a lawyer and Tomasello at the American Youth Policy Forum—they run the organization in their spare time because they believe "school integration and diversity is a key lever for long-term democratic gains in our society," says Suarez. Their biggest challenge is overcoming the perception that school integration is a failed brand.
"Integration is a third-rail issue because it's been very narrowly conceived as forced busing," says Suarez. "To bring this topic into the mainstream, we have to be willing to do things that will be comfortable for a wide range of constituencies." Tomasello says that includes linking integration to other reform movements; for example, partnering with charters that make student diversity part of their mission. After-school programs, rural–urban summer exchanges, and even private school partnerships could be part of a multifaceted approach, adds Suarez.

"The best way to understand a diverse world is to live it."

"One lesson we can take from recent education policies like Race to the Top and NCLB is that we know how to use the carrot and the stick," Theoharis says. He imagines a system where districts are rewarded or sanctioned for taking certain steps to or from integration. Metrowide policies (not just district-level reforms) also need to be considered, as well as revisiting the Milliken decision (a 1974 U.S. Supreme Court case that allowed suburban schools to break away from their urban counterparts).
"We want to broaden the tent on school diversity by inviting everyone to the conversation," Suarez insists. "It's still a conversation grounded in equity and democracy, but if we exclusively go back to the desegregation efforts of the past, we're not going anywhere."
Under a big-tent approach to integration, there are roles to play at every level. Academics, policymakers, and classroom advocates comingle in Harvard's Reimagining Integration Project, an initiative launched in 2016 to investigate and identify a common vision for growing equitable, diverse, and truly integrated schools. IntegratedSchools.org provides a venue for parents to organize around school diversity.
In New York City, student activists with IntegrateNYC4Me work on citywide committees to take on the "Four Rs of Integration": race and enrollment (students are learning to code in order to rewrite the school selection algorithm), resource allocation (looking at how money is spent across the district), relationships (helping students of color who feel isolated in majority white schools), and restorative justice (focusing on getting metal detectors out of schools). Their efforts are profiled in a new documentary on integration, Teach Us All, touring the United States this fall.

Global Citizenship Begins at Home

Renewed interest in school integration is beginning to spread policy roots. Between 2007 and 2016, the number of school districts using socioeconomic status as a factor for curating a diverse student enrollment more than doubled. What we need now, says Theoharis, are leaders from different walks of life willing not only to have, but also to lead, conversations about school diversity. "It requires looking in the mirror and wrestling with a lot of racial bias. It requires courage and practice."
Students are an important ally in these conversations—making the case for school integration to parents who may still harbor negative associations from past reforms.
"Our students are one of our most powerful voices," says Dossett. In a survey from 2011–12, JCPS students overwhelmingly agreed that going to school with peers from diverse backgrounds would help them prepare for life after school, particularly in developing collaboration skills. College and corporate America value diversity; why not K–12?, asks Suarez. "We are a global society," he notes. "We need to be able to create, problem-solve, and interact with people different from us to be successful."
Theoharis agrees. "The best way to understand a diverse world is to live it."

Laura Varlas is a former ASCD writer and editor.

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