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New book calls for a regional, cooperative approach to addressing school segregation

In a new book, “When the Fences Come Down: Twenty-First-Century Lessons from Metropolitan School Desegregation,” Virginia Commonwealth University professor Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, Ph.D., explores what happens when communities take a regional approach to addressing persistent school segregation rather than focusing only on improving schools by raising academic standards, holding teachers and students accountable through test performance and promoting private-sector competition.

Drawing on school and housing data for Richmond, Virginia; Louisville, Kentucky; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina; and Chattanooga, Tennessee, between 1990 and 2010, the book has implications for communities across the country, and aims to spark a conversation about school integration in the 21st century, as well as the important links between school and housing policy.

Siegel-Hawley, a professor in the VCU School of Education, is an expert on school segregation and re-segregation in U.S. metropolitan areas, as well as on strategies for promoting inclusive school communities and policy options for a truly integrated society. She recently discussed her new book, which will be released Monday.

How would you sum up the central argument of your new book?

I think there are three big takeaways for readers. One is that we can’t truly address segregation and unequal educational opportunity without also addressing how the boundary lines between school districts divide students. Most school segregation today happens because kids of different races are enrolled in separate school systems, not just separate schools in the same system. Given that reality, we really need to start thinking about opportunity and schools on a more regional scale.

The second thing is that when metropolitan communities do commit to erasing or cooperating across city and suburban boundaries, significant progress on both school and housing integration is absolutely within reach.

Last — and this is really important — “When the Fences Come Down” makes the case that schools shouldn’t have to go it alone in trying to combat segregation. We live in an increasingly diverse and incredibly unequal society, and we need to create much stronger connections between sectors like education, housing, employment and transportation in order to confront metropolitan injustices.

Your book shows that, as a society, we are allowing school-district boundaries to divide students and opportunities along racial and economic lines. What are the consequences of this?

The basic answer is that separate schools are still unequal schools. They are unequal in many different and important ways. From teacher salaries, qualifications and stability, to peer groups and social networks, all the way to funding, facilities, technology, curricula and instructional practices, students and schools facing double segregation by race and poverty struggle against the harmful impacts of isolation. At the same time, students attending overwhelmingly white and wealthy schools are at a really significant disadvantage when it comes to being prepared to live and work in a multiracial society.

More than anything else, segregation cuts communities off from one another. The lack of connection makes it easy to turn our backs on our neighbors and fosters a sense of, “well, that’s not my problem — those aren’t my kids.” But the reality is that we live in an increasingly interdependent world and a rapidly diversifying nation. Last fall, for the first time, students of color made up the majority of first graders walking through the doors of U.S. schools. If we continue to isolate our rising racial majority in inferior schools, we’ll have to live with not only the moral consequences of that segregation, but also the economic consequences.

In terms of why school district boundaries matter so much, it’s important to understand that our country is still dealing with the fallout from a pivotal 1974 Supreme Court decision, called Milliken v. Bradley. The justices, four of whom had recently been appointed by President Nixon, heard a case dealing with a city-suburban desegregation remedy for Detroit. Black students accounted for close to 70 percent of the city enrollment at the time. Just over the boundary line, many of the surrounding suburbs were more than 80 percent white. In the end, the new conservative majority made it very difficult for courts to order school desegregation across district boundary lines.

The title, “When the Fences Come Down,” actually comes from Justice Thurgood Marshall’s dissent in the Milliken case. He wrote, “We deal here with the right of all of our children, whatever their race, to an equal start in life and to an equal opportunity to reach their full potential as citizens. Those children who have been denied that right in the past deserve better than to see fences thrown up to deny them that right in the future.” The book tells the story of three Southern communities that took down the fences between city and suburban school systems — through different means — and shows what happened as a result. But it also zeroes in on Richmond, which is representative of many metros around the country, to illustrate the impact of leaving the boundaries, and the segregation, intact.

You’ve suggested that most metropolitan communities fail to confront the realities of racial and economic boundaries, focusing instead on improving schools via higher academic standards and by holding students and teachers accountable through testing. What sort of approach would you advocate?

The past several decades have been dominated by education policy that seriously misdiagnoses the causes of opportunity and achievement gaps. Raising standards, introducing accountability through high-stakes testing, expanding market-based school choice, assailing teachers and their unions — these are policies that flow from a sense that low expectations, lack of oversight and competition, and bloated bureaucracies fuel unequal educational opportunity. For the most part, we’ve seen little sustained progress in closing gaps under the current policy paradigm.

Reforms of the civil rights era understood the problem of unequal educational opportunity very differently though, relying on policies that directly tackled poverty and segregation. We’ve lost sight of the gains made during that time period and have fallen back on attempts to make separate schools more equal. But the reality is that those attempts rarely, if ever, work on any sort of large scale. Separate but equal policies ignore a half-century of research showing that who you go to school with — your peers — matters more than any other factor within schools. So if we’re serious about school reform, we need to be thinking about ways to bring students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds together in schools and classrooms. And, like I said before, in order to achieve comprehensive desegregation today, that’s going to have to involve strategizing about how to overcome school district boundary lines.

There are some very recent and hopeful signals from the federal government that we might be once again moving toward the civil rights era recognition that confronting segregation is also the key to confronting educational inequality. The Department of Education has just asked applicants for its Investing in Innovation grants to focus squarely on diversity, even as it requested more funding for magnet schools, a longstanding desegregation strategy, in the 2017 budget. With its Stronger Together proposal, the Obama Administration also requested $120 million in 2017 funding for a new planning and implementation grant focused on promoting voluntary school integration efforts — which can be regional in scope. All of this has been accompanied by the increased use of the bully pulpit to underscore how valuable integration is for kids. The 2016 election will be pivotal in terms of whether or not we continue this incredibly important momentum.

In what ways does addressing these divisions improve students’ education?

Here’s the critical thing that people need to understand: diverse schools benefit all students. The benefits linked to racially and economically diverse schools run the gamut from academic to civic to social. They are also very much linked to 21st-century learning skills.

On the academic side, students in diverse schools and classrooms demonstrate stronger critical thinking. Through dialogue and group projects, especially in English and social studies classes, they get lots of practice stepping into their classmates’ different shoes. That helps nurture flexible thinking and problem-solving. We’ve got some interesting research from the business sector demonstrating that diverse groups come up with better, more creative solutions to complex problems — thanks to the unique perspectives, experiences and expertise that everyone brings to the table. The benefits here connect to the civic advantages of diverse schools: Learning how to work and dialogue in a diverse setting is crucial for sustaining a healthy, pluralistic democracy.

More narrowly, studies show that desegregation is connected to important test score gains for underrepresented students of color and does not negatively impact scores for white students. Controlling for factors like socioeconomic status, a federal report released last fall indicated that white students attending highly segregated black schools fared just as well as white students in segregated white schools on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often referred to as “the nation’s report card.”

In terms of social benefits, attending diverse schools, especially when children are young, reduces prejudice and stereotyping. Children in diverse schools are more likely to have friends from different racial backgrounds, which chips away at the tendency to generalize in negative ways about other groups. As events in Baltimore, Ferguson, Charleston and beyond remind us, racial bias is still tightly bound up in the fabric of our society — with life and death consequences. It’s impossible to downplay the significance of school desegregation as a way to confront prejudice before it takes root.

A word of caution though: Getting a racially and economically diverse group of children through the school door together is only a first step. Walking into the same classrooms together is a fundamental second one. Too often diverse schools are divided into separate and unequal experiences for kids. That’s why it’s vitally important for leaders to guard against tracking and racial disparities in discipline and gifted and talented and Special Education identification — among other common inequities within schools. Otherwise you run the risk of exacerbating prejudices as students try to make meaning of why kids are sorted or treated differently.

What advice would you give to policymakers interested in tackling the school-district boundaries dividing us along racial and economic lines?

The first thing I would say is to think creatively. District and municipal boundary lines have been constructed as a part of a political process and can be shifted or undone through a different one. We travel across those boundaries all the time to work, shop, eat and play. So what are we going to do to help students learn across them?

Leveraging school choice to bring kids together across district lines is particularly promising. To be effective, to make sure that all kids actually have a choice, you’ve got to do outreach so that everyone knows about it, you’ve got to provide transportation so that they can get to it and you’ve got to set goals around diversity. Diversity doesn’t usually happen in any sustained way without being intentional. The child or family also should be in the position of choosing the school because they are interested in it, rather than the other way around, which is what you see in some programs with competitive admissions. There’s a promising new regional school effort underway in Richmond that is working to incorporate many of these elements. Regional magnet schools in Connecticut are another example, and so is the controlled choice plan that operates across Louisville’s city-suburban school district.

The final third of the book is dedicated to discussing all of the different possible solutions in a detailed way — I just think it’s so important for people to know that we have plenty of options if we commit to taking positive action. As a society, we’ve put an awful lot of effort into keeping children apart. It stands to reason that we can bring them together through a different set of efforts.

What sort of conversation do you hope your book sparks?

I went to visit an elementary school in Mississippi a few months ago where the leadership had posted these guidelines for conversation volume all over the hallways. They went from silence is golden (no talking), to spy talk (whispering), to formal normal (regular conversation), to loud crowd (presenting voice). In Richmond, thanks to the sustained commitment of a small — but growing — number of stakeholders, the conversation about regional school desegregation, or educational regionalism as I call it in the book, is probably somewhere between spy talk and formal normal. That’s definitely better than silence but far from commanding the attention of a loud crowd. I hope that “When the Fences Come Down” helps turn the volume of our local conversation up, and that it adds a little bit to the momentum building nationally. And I hope that it not only helps grow and enrich our dialogue about school integration in the 21st century, but also about the important links between school and housing policy.

What sort of methodology did you use to research this topic?

I looked carefully at school and housing segregation over time in four Southern communities with various school district boundary line arrangements and school desegregation histories. Three of those communities — Charlotte, North Carolina; Louisville, Kentucky; and Chattanooga, Tennessee — have city-suburban school districts that formed under different and really interesting circumstances. The fourth, Richmond, left city-suburban school district boundaries in place. Using lots of maps and a couple of different measures of school and housing segregation, I show what’s possible when communities work across school district boundaries to desegregate. Louisville, Charlotte and Chattanooga all displayed significant progress on school and housing segregation during the years they committed to comprehensive, city-suburban school desegregation plans. Of course, the consequences of doing nothing about those lines also became pretty clear with the case of Richmond.

As Richmond was among the four school districts you studied, could you tell me a bit about what you found there?

Richmond is such a heartbreaking example of how something groundbreaking and constructive can slip just out of reach — something that would have really altered the way that equal educational opportunity is distributed across our community today.

So back in 1972, the merger of Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico school systems for the purpose of desegregation was on the table. District Judge Robert Merhige ordered city-suburban consolidation and the case made its way up through the court system right around the same time the more widely known Milliken case was moving through. But the Bradley v. Richmond decision is a footnote in most national accounts of desegregation. That’s because the Supreme Court tied 4-4 after one of the justices recused himself since he had served on the Richmond School Board. Without setting any national precedent, that meant that the Fourth Circuit’s decision to block consolidation stood.

You know, my experiences growing up in Richmond Public Schools helped shape my interest in inequities between city and suburban schools. I learned about the Bradley case in high school, just as I was trying to make sense of the wide disparities I encountered at the regional Governor’s School I attended. That really set me on the path toward this study, which contrasts the outcomes of Richmond’s failed consolidation with similar places that actually did consolidate their city-suburban districts in order to meaningfully desegregate students.

Your new book appears to be interested in having a real impact in the community. Is that important to you, as a researcher and faculty member in the VCU School of Education?

Absolutely. Becoming a faculty member at VCU meant that I had the opportunity to come home to work with and continue to learn from the community that raised me. I love this city and region and want to be a part of making it stronger and fairer for everyone.