When was the last time you walked into a school and saw a rainbow of students of different races and ethnicities? For me, this has happened only a few times during my 10 years of working in public education, and now I can’t go back. I can’t go back to accepting that because our residential neighborhoods are segregated, our schools have to be as well. In a time when schools are re-segregating and both racial and economic achievement gaps persist, school diversity provides a glimmer of hope in our public education system. This is why I’m excited, and also relieved, that Secretary of Education John King is prioritizing school diversity. Why do I care about school diversity? For one thing, the research is vast and unequivocal: Low-income students perform better academically when they attend socioeconomically diverse schools. And what’s even more promising is that diverse schools give all students the opportunity to learn and work with peers who are different than themselves. Numerous studies have shown that integration in public schools is important for fostering tolerant adults and good citizens, as diverse schools can help prevent bias and counter stereotypes. Unfortunately, school diversity is the exception, not the norm. In 2011, for example, over 40 percent of African-American students attended hyper-segregated schools, with 90 percent or more of their peers being Black or Latino. What’s more, over half of these schools have a poverty rate over 90 percent. So now that diversity is a priority for the Obama administration, how do we actually get more diverse public schools? The answer is complicated. There are a number of policies at the state, district and school levels that lead to the creation of diverse-by-design schools. Here’s a brief overview of some of the most common approaches:
Incentives for diverse districts and schools: New York state, for example, has grants available for district and school programs that increase school diversity.
Allowing for charter school lotteries weighted for diversity: Right now, four states permit charter schools to weight their lotteries to create diverse student bodies.
Redrawing attendance boundaries: Some districts, like La Crosse, Wisconsin, re-zone school attendance boundaries in order to integrate schools.
Creating school enrollment guidelines: Berkeley, California, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, among others, have school enrollment policies that ensure that each district school is socioeconomically diverse.
Interdistrict integration programs: Urban-suburban programs give students living in the city the opportunity to attend schools in surrounding suburbs.
Magnet school admissions: Districts like Hartford, Connecticut, have created magnet school policies that increase school diversity.
Intentional location: Schools like Capital City Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., choose facilities located at the intersection of multiple neighborhoods of varied income levels.
Weighted lotteries: Some charter schools reserve a percentage of seats in their schools for low-income students in order to achieve economic and racial diversity.
Recruitment: Diverse-by-design charter schools often recruit students from specific neighborhoods.
Curricular design: Successful diverse charter schools have strong curricula that appeal to families of all backgrounds.
If President Obama’s $120 million budget item for Stronger Together diversity grants passes, we will likely see more of these policies and programs popping up across the country. Perhaps this would give us reason to believe that we are in the midst of a new wave of school integration.
Halli Bayer is an attorney and former middle school English teacher. Since she left the classroom, she has been working in public education law, policy and funding. Halli lives in Los Angeles, California.