The Monroe County, Ind., school board thought it was doing the right thing nearly 20 years ago by approving a redistricting plan that clustered many of the community’s neediest children in a single elementary school.
But times have changed, and maybe it’s time to revisit that decision.
The 1997 redistricting did a number of things, but the biggest was moving students from a large public housing complex to Fairview Elementary, which was already a high-poverty school. The plan prioritized “neighborhood schools.” The housing complex was near Fairview, so that was where the kids would go.
My two younger children were Fairview students at the time, and along with most teachers and parents, I thought the plan made sense. Fairview was a good school, with dedicated staff and engaged families. Those kids needed to be taught somewhere.
But the decision failed to anticipate a couple of trends. One is the way schools with high poverty have been increasingly labeled and stigmatized as “failing.” The other is the way parents with means have been able to use school choice to opt out of neighborhood schools.
At Fairview, 71 percent of Fairview students qualified for free school lunch after redistricting. Today the figure is 84 percent. That’s in spite of the fact that neighborhoods near the school have gentrified. And in spite of the Artful Learning the school board approved in hopes of retaining middle-class families.
Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, and we entered a new era of school accountability. Publicly reported test scores and, eventually, school grades bolstered the idea that Fairview was a “bad” school. Some middle-class families in the neighborhood transferred their kids to private schools or a local charter school. Or they simply moved when their children reached school age.
A recent San Francisco Chronicle story describes how school choice in that city has produced a public education system that is segregated by race and class. Sounds familiar:
“But in one of the nation’s most liberal cities, where people say they prize diversity, parents mostly choose schools where the other children look like their own,” the story says. “That has led to one-third of the district’s elementary schools becoming racially isolated, composed of at least 60 percent of students of one race.”
Anyone who reads the local paper knows that, for the past three years, Fairview has received a grade of F from the state. Well, grades don’t say much about a school’s effectiveness. And I’m optimistic that, given time and stable leadership, those test scores will improve.
But the question isn’t whether Fairview can bounce back. The question is why a supposedly progressive community would use the institution of public education to isolate children by social class. “Separate but equal” shouldn’t be our goal in the 21st century.
Facing up to this quandary won’t be easy. But shouldn’t we try?