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Washington DC

Districts Must Get Creative to Eliminate Segregated Schools

This post is part of a two-part series on what it means to be in a "good school." Read the first part here on how "good schools" often mean "White schools."
School segregation continues to plague our nation’s districts, and is showing no sign of slowing down. From intentional efforts to keep White students in the majority, to the failure of well-intentioned urban liberal parents to think beyond their own children's success, it is clear parents are not those we can rely on to combat this problem. Instead, school districts, with their moral and legal imperative to serve all students, are the key to ensuring every child has the opportunity to attend a high-performing school. A widely circulated Vox piece described how some districts are already making efforts to reduce longstanding school segregation by neighborhood. Unfortunately, such efforts have not gone far enough and there has only been marginal improvement. Ideally, districts would be able to assign students based on race to make schools more representative of the cities themselves. Unfortunately, after the 2007 Supreme Court PICS v. Seattle Public Schools decision, school districts cannot use race as a determining factor for school assignment.

Could Income Replace Race to Diversify Schools?

What school districts can do, nonetheless, is to use income as a determining factor, and fortunately—at least for the sake of this argument— income level is strongly correlated with race in the United States. School districts could consider the median incomes of its attendance boundaries when creating its feeder patterns. Using this information, schools should redraw the boundaries in a way that would diversify the student body. Yet, even when I consider this policy change as a solution in my current home of Washington, D.C., I’m lost as to whether this would work. The map above illustrates the current level of income disparity across the District, with darker colors representing higher incomes. The distribution of income is too large to use as attendance boundary criteria, with a clear divide between the upper northwestern region and the rest of the District. D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) tries to remedy this by designating most of their schools as open enrollment, but priority is still given to neighborhood students. Although DCPS should be commended for its strong commitment to equity, there is still much work to be done, especially considering its most recent PARCC scores and the disparities between racial groups that still exist.

Real Solutions Will Mean Moving Teachers

Limited by the highest court’s ruling, and with income distributions only becoming worse, school districts are running out of options to solve the segregation problem, at least with single-step solutions. Instead, districts must consider multifaceted approaches to this work. Possible strategies include:
  • Strengthening partnerships between school districts, city governments and local developers. Districts should identify their highest-performing schools, which are most likely in higher-income areas with more expensive housing options. By working with local stakeholders to develop more affordable housing within those attendance boundaries, districts would allow for more students to receive “priority” status for those schools. Further, this approach would allow for a greater diversity between socioeconomic status of the student body.
  • Increasing the number of “open-enrollment” schools. Other districts should mimic DCPS and allow almost all schools to be open enrollment. Districts would need to develop a lottery system, which can have different weights given to applicants based on prioritized identities, such as what is happening in Denver Public Schools. Implementing an open-enrollment plan would require districts to provide supports for families, so students can attend out-of-boundary schools without economic barriers.
  • Redistributing highly effective teachers where they are most needed. Teachers who are determined to be effective or highly effective should be provided bonuses if they are teaching in lower-performing schools. Additionally, strong teachers at other schools should be encouraged to transfer to these struggling schools. Such inducements can take the form of monetary bonuses, or even soft incentives such as more workplace flexibility.
If we can desegregate our schools, not only can we change academic outcomes, we have the opportunity to change the mindset of our future society. At this point I have little hope for the adults in our nation, but I still have faith in the ability of our youngest citizens. In 20 years, after these efforts, maybe our “good schools” will be those that reflect the diversity of our country, not those that just enroll all the White students.
Sean Worley has worked in urban education for the last five years as a high school science teacher and instructional coach. He started his career with Teach For America in Sacramento, California, but now serves his community in Washington, D.C. Sean received his master's in education policy from American University.

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