When it comes to moving toward school integration, do the facts really matter?
Yes and no. (I know, not the answer anyone wants to hear.) As my GS4A colleague Jeff Linn wrote last week, people acquire attitudes over time. Our thinking does evolve based on our own experiences and on how the people closest to us think about various ideas. It’s complicated.
But rarely do we see a major attitude change, let alone public policy changes, based simply on what the evidence—however abundant—tells us.
But Rochester is not the only place struggling to find a fact-based solution to high poverty schools when people show little inclination to change.
Jeff Hawkes, a reporter for LNP, a daily newspaper in Lancaster, Pa., and Lancaster online, posted an August 28 story that sounds like what we’ve seen in Rochester. (An aside: Hawkes interviewed GS4A co-convenor Lynette Sparks, W. Irondequoit superintendent Jeff Crane and me for a sidebar story on our work here.)
The Lancaster school district is smaller than Rochester’s, but it has the same poverty and racial isolation issues we have.
Hawkes lays out the case for socioeconomic diversity:
“Integrating schools to restore economic balance boosts achievement levels among poor children without negatively impacting other students, researchers say.”
And, he wrote, there is local experience to support those findings going back four decades.
“Poor children at Manheim Township, Hempfield and other schools got an academic boost where they’re outnumbered by more affluent children…Specifically, at the 10 most affluent elementary schools in the suburbs, 60 percent of the disadvantaged children pass the language arts test. But at the 10 highest-poverty schools, all in the city, only 40 percent pass.
“The 20-point gap raises questions for the Lancaster region: what would happen if every school was economically integrated, assuring that poor kids from the city learned with middle-class kids from the suburbs?”
Seven years ago, in 2009, David Rusk, a Washington, D.C.-based urban policy consultant (and author of Cities Without Suburbs and several follow-up books), “recommended Lancaster County rethink its tradition of neighborhood schools. He wrote a 51-page report called ‘Classmates Count’ showing how the segregated nature of Lancaster County’s neighborhoods reinforced educational disadvantage,” Hawkes reported.
” ‘Where a child lives (in Lancaster County) largely shapes his educational opportunities, not because of what the school board does but because of who his classmates are,’ Rusk wrote in a report that the that the county planning commission authorized but never followed up on. In the seven years since Rusk issued his report, the concentration of poverty at most of the city’s schools has only deepened, and poor students continue to fall behind their peers.”
Whatever the merits of integration, it’s a very challenging goal. Hawkes cites Jonathan Betel, who runs a Pennsylvania statewide education advocacy group, as saying that you can’t separate socioeconomic diversity from race.
Because the obstacles to integration in Pennsylvania appear so daunting, Cetel said he prefers to focus on strategies that lift up inner-city children in their neighborhood schools. Makes more sense, he says to build “high performance schools” in the poor neighborhoods the students come from.
Except that it won’t work for the vast majority of kids.
Likewise, Lancaster superintendent Damaris Rau said she and her staff are hoping to overcome the consequences of poverty by using learning strategies intended to “help kids reach their full potential.”
“It might work, but I don’t know,” Rau said, referring to integration. “We have to focus on the here and now. We can’t sit around and hope something like that is going to happen when we have children sitting in front us today.”
It takes years, maybe decades, for legislators and school officials to catch up to the reality that high-poverty schools can never yield the opportunities that more affluent students experience in middle-class schools. It takes even longer for them to believe (as the GS4A parent survey clearly indicates) that today’s parents are more than willing to consider integrated schools that are open to kids from a variety of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.
So no, I don’ think studies will lead directly integration—no matter how compelling the evidence. What we need first and foremost are pioneers—a few school superintendents, boards, principals and innovators who are willing to lead by example. We need folks who will launch an integrated school and let the outcomes and word-of-mouth build support for broader change.