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"Segregation and Exposure to High-Poverty Schools in Large Metropolitan Areas: 2008-09,"

by Nancy McArdle, Theresa L. Osypuk & Dolores Acevedo-Garcia November/December 2010 issue of Poverty & Race

Schools are a key environment influencing child development, and research has documented the negative effects of concentrated-poverty schools as well as the advantages of racially/ethnically diverse learning environments. Yet minority children continue to attend high-poverty, high-minority schools, separate from the vast majority of white children. A new report by, Segregation and Exposure to High-Poverty Schools in Large Metropolitan Areas: 2008-09, describes patterns of school segregation and poverty concentration of 30,989 public primary schools in the 100 largest metropolitan areas for the 2008-09 school year, drawing on the National Center for Education Statistics’ Common Core of Data. In these schools overall, enrollment is already “majority minority,” with Hispanics comprising over a quarter and blacks almost a fifth of enrollment. However, school composition differs greatly across the country, with enrollment in the West close to two-thirds minority. School composition also differs within metropolitan areas. High levels of neighborhood segregation fuel high levels of school segregation. As a result, white students attend schools that are disproportionately white and low-poverty, and black and Hispanic students attend schools that are disproportionately minority and high-poverty. Data on school segregation and differential exposure to high-poverty schools by student race/ethnicity and income level are available for all 362 metro areas at

In previous work, has documented that racial/ethnic minority children are more likely than non-Hispanic white children to experience disadvantaged environments which compromise their chances of achieving positive developmental and health outcomes. For example, black and Hispanic children are about 20 times more likely than white children to experience double jeopardy—to live both in poor families and concentrated poverty neighborhoods.

In addition to families and neighborhoods, schools are a key context influencing child development. Currently, much media and policy attention is devoted to charter schools, despite the fact that charters enroll only about 2% of primary and secondary school students. The debate focusing on the charter school versus traditional public school models means that the issues of persistent high racial/ethnic segregation and high exposure of minority children to economic disadvantage at the school level remain largely unaddressed.

Among public primary schools in the 100 largest metro areas, the highest levels of school segregation from whites, as defined by the commonly used Dissimilarity Index, are experienced by black students, followed by Hispanics and then Asians. The most segregated metros for black students are located primarily in older, large Midwest and Northeast metros such as Chicago, Milwaukee, New York, Detroit and Cleveland. In these metros, at least 80% of black students would have to change schools in order for the metro area to be fully desegregated. The least segregated metros are primarily in the West but also in some Southeastern locations. This finding coincides with previous research that revealed higher levels of segregation in large metropolitan areas which are fragmented into many districts and which have large concentrations of minority students.

While Los Angeles tops the list of segregated metros for Hispanic students, the most segregated metros are generally found in the Northeast and Midwest, with a heavy representation in New England. Four out of the top ten most segregated metros for Hispanics are in New England (Springfield [MA], Boston, Hartford and Providence). The least segregated metros for Hispanics are located mostly in the Southeast. Baton Rouge, LA is the most segregated metro for Asian students.

Another useful measure of segregation is the extent to which minority students are exposed to other students of their own group (in other words, their degree of isolation) relative to the extent to which white students in the same metro area are exposed to students of that particular minority group. For example, in Chicago, the average black student attends a school that is 73.7% black, while the average white student attends a school that is 6.3% black. In other words, the average black student attends a school with a black share of enrollment that is 11.7 times that of the school attended by the average white student, the highest disparity of any large metro area. The average black student in Cincinnati attends a school with a black share over ten times that of the school attended by the average white student. In Detroit and Buffalo, the average Hispanic student attends a school with a Hispanic share over nine times that of the school attended by the average white student. In Baton Rouge, the average Asian student attends a school with an Asian share almost six times that of the school attended by the average white student.

Being educated in less isolated, more diverse environments is a benefit both to students and to the community, a benefit that becomes more important as our nation becomes increasingly diverse. Research has shown that “racially integrated schools prepare students to be effective citizens in our pluralistic society, further social cohesion, and reinforce democratic values. They promote cross-racial understanding, reduce prejudice, improve critical thinking skills and academic achievement, and enhance life opportunities for students of all races.” [Brief of 553 Social Scientists as Amici Curiae Supporting Respondents, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1] Despite these benefits, high levels of school segregation and isolation persist.

High-Poverty Schools

Racially isolated minority schools are very often also high-poverty schools. Children in high-poverty schools face enormous challenges, with classmates who are generally less prepared, have lower aspirations and graduation rates, and have greater absences; parents who are less involved, with less political and financial clout; and teachers who tend to be less experienced and more commonly teach outside their fields of concentration.

In the vast majority of large metros (88 of 97 metros analyzed), the average black student attends a school where half or more of the students are poor. This is also the case in 83 metros for Hispanics. In only 11 metros for Asians and 8 metros for whites does the average Asian or white student attend a school where over half of the students are impoverished.

In some metro areas, students attend schools with fairly similar poverty levels regardless of their race/ethnicity, while in others there is great disparity in the extent to which students of various races/ethnicities attend high-poverty schools. With some exceptions, metros with the lowest levels of disparity in exposure to high-poverty schools tend to be in the South. There is a strong consistency among those metros showing the highest minority/white disparities for all racial/ethnic minority groups, with Bridgeport, Hartford, Milwaukee, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco ranking in the top ten highest disparity metros for all three major racial/ethnic minority groups. In metro Bridgeport, the average black student attends a school with a poverty rate 5.2 times that of the school attended by the average white student, and the average Hispanic student attends a school with a poverty rate 4.7 times that of the school attended by the average white student. Overall across all the largest metros, black and Hispanic exposure to poverty in schools is 2.2 times that of whites, while Asian exposure to poverty is just 1.3 times that of whites. Close to 60% of black and Hispanic students are enrolled in metros where the average student of their group experiences both high-poverty schools (at least 50% poor) and attends a school with a poverty rate twice as high as that of the average white student in that metro. No Asian students live in a metro with similarly high rates of poverty and disparity.

Measures Attacking Both Are Useful Tools

Residential segregation and the routine assignment of students to schools based on geographic proximity are the underlying causes of school segregation and differential exposure to high-poverty schools. Thus, measures that attack residential segregation, such as enforcement of fair housing laws, situating affordable housing in higher-opportunity areas, reducing zoning restrictions, and aiding in geographic mobility, are all useful tools in reducing racial and economic segregation in schools as well. Policies to boost school and neighborhood quality in lower-income minority areas, such as the new Promise Neighborhood Initiative, could also help by reducing poverty in those schools/neighborhoods and attracting more mixed-income and white families, producing more middle-income and diverse schools. At the same time, school mobility and assignment programs should not be overlooked. More should be done to allow students in failing schools to transfer to better schools, even if they are outside school district boundaries. Innovative school assignment plans, which take into consideration the composition of students’ neighborhoods as well as other factors, should continue to be explored, perfected and utilized to break down segregation. Magnet schools that provide high-quality education and draw diverse students from diverse neighborhoods may be another important tool. Schools should prepare all students to excel. The fact that such gross levels of disparity continue must not be met with apathy or acceptance but rather confronted to ensure that our children and our nation can thrive in an increasingly diverse and challenging world.

Nancy McArdle is Senior Research Analyst with, a board member of the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston, and has served as an expert witness in several school and housing segregation cases.
Theresa L. Osypuk is Assistant Professor at the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, Northeastern Univ. and Research Director of She is a social epidemiologist researching racial and socioeconomic disparities in health, their geographic patterns, and causes.
Dolores Acevedo-Garcia is Associate Professor at the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, Northeastern Univ. and Associate Director of the Institute on Urban Health Research. She is Project Director of and a member of PRRAC’s Social Science Advisory Board.

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