Segregated schools in a progressive town

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?


5 thoughts on “Segregated schools in a progressive town

  1. Great post – with important questions about how we take responsibility for this situation.

    While MCCSC claims that we have “neighborhood schools, ” if one looks at the actual current school zones, in many cases they only nominally connect schools with their surrounding neighborhoods. Examples: Templeton’s neighborhoods continue as far west at SR 37, but homes just a few blocks away across Bryan Park on Woodlawn are zoned for Rogers/Binford. Meanwhile, Rogers/Binford includes as far east as Gentry Honors (Smith Road) in its zone.

    There are so many comparable examples within MCCSC that “neighborhood schools” appears to be a polite euphemism for household income than really based on geography. I recommend reading Ellen Brantlinger’s “Dividing Classes: How the Middle Class Negotiates and Rationalizes School Advantage” for a revealing look at the biases that have produced the status quo.

    Rather than perpetuate this segregation, I would like really to see a redistricting effort within MCCSC that prioritizes economic integration–with parallel efforts to encourage the production of mixed-income housing in this community.

  2. Pingback: ‘Separate but equal’ still a bad idea | School Matters

  3. I have to agree. My example; Canterbury Apts and Arlington school. Look at the map and see how the ‘district’ reaches down along a road until it reaches ONLY Canterbury apts., sitting among half a dozen or more other apt. complexes.

  4. Pingback: School boundaries carry on ‘legacy of redlining’ | School Matters

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