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"Same School, Same Opportunities? Addressing Within-school Segregation,"

by Halley Potter September/October 2014 issue of Poverty & Race

As we mark the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision this year, promoting racial and socioeconomic integration in our schools remains an uphill battle. Research from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA shows that much of the progress made by legal desegregation was lost after court orders were lifted, and students of color increasingly face “double segregation” in racially isolated schools with high poverty concentrations.

There is so much work still to be done on the first level of integration, addressing disparities among schools, that it is easy to forget about the next frontier: addressing within-school segregation. Schools that look integrated from the outside based on aggregate demographics may be sharply segregated when you look at the classrooms, see who takes part in academic enrichment or support programs, or count the students that are not in the classroom because they have been suspended or expelled.

Remedying this internal segregation in schools and classrooms requires first identifying and understanding the problem. Adding to work on this front from scholars such as Gloria Ladson-Billings and Jeannie Oakes, R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, Associate Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at The City College of New York, makes an important contribution with his new book, Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources and Suburban Schooling (Stanford Univ. Press, 2014, 232 pp.). The book provides a case study of the ways in which classrooms, schools and districts create unequal pathways to resources for families of different racial backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses. While the study is small-scale, focused on three fourth-grade classrooms in two schools in a single Midwestern district, the patterns and pitfalls Lewis-McCoy uncovers are no doubt common in many locations across the country. The book is a worthwhile read for researchers, stakeholders and activists, who should reflect on ways that other districts may share some of these dynamics of inequality.

A District Divided

Inequality in the Promised Land profiles an unidentified Midwestern suburban school district that Lewis-McCoy dubs Rolling Acres Public Schools. (Individual schools and interview subjects in the book are also given pseudonyms to preserve anonymity.) Rolling Acres has a reputation as a good school district, garnering national academic and extracurricular accolades. It is the kind of school district that families with means flock to when choosing where to live. The district spends more than $10,000 per pupil each year, and just 20% of students receive free or reduced-price lunch. The largest racial/ethnic group in the district is white students, at 50% of the student population. Black students are the second largest group, at 15%. (Lewis-McCoy does not provide district-wide demographic data for other racial/ethnic groups.)

Over the past 60 years, the district went through a number of legal challenges and reforms to address de facto racial segregation of schools. The attitude of most white residents in the district, however, is that their schools are now well integrated. As one interviewee put it, “Our [Rolling Acres’] children are in the same classrooms. Children in the same classrooms have the same opportunity to learn” (p. 28).

Most black families, on the other hand, saw things differently. One middle-class black parent explained why her family chose to send their children to private schools instead of the generally well-regarded public schools. In Rolling Acres Public Schools, she declared, “there’s two systems. It’s an apartheid system” (p. 140).

“Same opportunity” or “an apartheid system”? Lewis-McCoy examines the relationships among students, families, teachers, administrators and politicians that yield such different views of the same school district. And from the picture that Lewis-McCoy paints, it is not at all the case that Rolling Acres children are in the same classrooms with the same opportunities. While elementary school classrooms in the district are not systematically segregated by race or class, and there is no ability tracking at that level, students’ opportunities varied according to their backgrounds.

Lewis-McCoy writes that “race and class are conjoined twins in a process of inequality production” in Rolling Acres (p. 172). The effects of race and class showed up in small and large ways in the district. Standardized test scores showed persistent race- and class-based achievement gaps. But most important, Lewis-McCoy argues, are the “gaps in everyday schooling experiences” (p. xi).

Three students who failed to get reading logs signed by parents received different responses and consequences from the same teacher, depending on her assessment of their socioeconomic status and home environment, and whether the families were “legitimately” or “illegitimately” busy. A middle-class black student received free breakfast because school staff mistakenly identify him for the program based on race. All students brought home optional forms soliciting parent input on classroom assignments for the next year, but affluent white families were most likely to return the forms. In one classroom, some of the black families were missing from the parent-run email listserv. Black students were also overrepresented in special education and were more likely to spend considerable portions of their day in separate classrooms for pull-out services. The cumulative effects of these differences created stratified educational opportunities and outcomes for students.

A number of racial and socioeconomic dynamics contributed to these differences in schooling experiences. Middle-class and affluent families hired housekeepers and babysitters to allow them to rearrange schedules in order to take advantage of parent volunteer opportunities and afford time to sort through information about school and extracurricular offerings. And affluent families often held out the threat of exiting the public school system as leverage for getting their child into a particular classroom or program. Social networks were also crucial pathways for finding out information about school opportunities, and these networks were highly stratified by race and class. For example, parents in an affluent, mostly white subdivision circulated a petition to keep their children out of the classroom of an African-American teacher with a bad reputation, while families in other neighborhoods—and a multiethnic family within the subdivision—were left unaware of these efforts. Middle-class and affluent white parents were often able to act as “consumers,” customizing education for their children through frequent feedback and requests, while most black families, including some who were middle-class, were pushed into the roles of “beneficiaries,” with little influence in their children’s schooling.

Affluent white parents were most likely to write letters to the editor, spark local news stories, or advocate for policy changes with school board members. And while some affluent black families would have been well-positioned to contribute to this discussion, Rolling Acres Public Schools’ mixed record of providing strong educational opportunities for black students created a vicious downward cycle that marginalized black voices. Concern about the public schools caused many black middle-class and affluent families to choose private, parochial or charter schools. As a result, the voices of the black middle class were largely absent from advocacy for the traditional district schools. Where they were present, middle-class black voices were less effective when advocates did not themselves have children enrolled in the public schools. As a result, programs targeting disadvantaged students seldom garnered much political support in Rolling Acres.

Restoring Opportunity

While Lewis-McCoy describes in general terms a few potential strategies for addressing educational inequality, and he affirms “this outcome is not inevitable,” the book is heavy on diagnosis and light on cure (p. 94). The conversation shouldn’t stop there. After recognizing symptoms and diagnosing causes of educational inequality within classrooms, schools and districts, the next step is to begin treating the problem with proven strategies.

Lewis-McCoy found that a relentless focus on achievement gaps in standardized tests backfired in terms of promoting equity in Rolling Acres Public Schools. People began to view the gap as intractable rather than motivating, and they saw students rather than schools as failing. “The single most significant gap in Rolling Acres was not the achievement gap,” Lewis-McCoy writes. “It was the gap between the citizens who acknowledged their role and responsibility in contributing to educational inequality and those who did not” (p. 161).

Instead of merely looking at standardized test scores, districts should pay attention to the demographic breakdown of students in different educational services, extracurricular programs and academic tracks, working towards having representative demographics in each slice. The nonprofit organization Equal Opportunity Schools (EOS) provides one strong example for approaching this work. EOS partners with high schools to find the “missing students” in their Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) classes—students of color and low-income students who would rise to the challenge if given access to these high-level courses. EOS helps schools identify these students, build staff support and capacity, and expand their AP or IB programs, with the goal that demographics in these courses reflect demographics of the school as a whole, while exam pass rates remain high. EOS has worked with almost 150 high schools and is continuing to expand. According to EOS founder and director Reid Saaris, San Jose Unified School District, one of their first partners, is now the largest school district in the country to have AP/IB enrollment that fully reflects the racial and socioeconomic diversity of their student body. San Jose more than doubled low-income and Latino participation in AP and IB courses without seeing a decline in percentage of students passing exams.

At the same time that they take a hard look at data on student participation and outcomes, schools can also target and change the specific social and institutional inputs that propagate many of these inequalities in opportunity. School actions that may seem race- and class-neutral—such as sending families important information in the mail or establishing parent volunteer hours during the day—can in practice privilege some groups over others. But intentional planning can help replace these power imbalances with more inclusive pathways of participation.

In our book A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education (Teachers College Press, 2014, 240 pp.) Richard Kahlenberg and I profile a number of successful charter schools with innovative strategies for enrolling diverse student bodies and promoting equity within the school. At Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn, New York, for example, school leaders have developed a variety of programs, from strategically grouped play dates to community workshops, designed to create integrated social networks among families. Opening lines of communication between families of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds may help reduce the information gaps created by homogeneous parent networks like those seen in Rolling Acres. Similarly, at Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy in Rhode Island, a regional charter network serving urban and suburban communities, the Family Leadership Council (similar to a Parent Teacher Organization) has been co-chaired by one urban and one suburban parent to promote family engagement across backgrounds. At E. L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, DC, all staff members take part in a Race and Equity Education Seminar series that goes far beyond cultural sensitivity training to help participants develop the skill, will and courage to fight institutional racism.

Lewis-McCoy’s slender book does not go into detail about these or other methods of promoting equal opportunity and integration at the classroom or program level—nor, perhaps, does it need to. But the danger in focusing on the problem of within-school inequality without giving equal weight to potential remedies is that it risks giving fuel to opponents of school integration policies, who are quick to point out the failings of integrated schools. Rather, integration advocates should be clear from the outset that the goal is integrated schools, integrated classrooms, and equal opportunity for each student—nothing less.

Halley Potter is a Fellow at The Century Foundation

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