Modern Desegregation: New England’s Education Conundrum

Though more than 60 years have passed since the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, many school districts are still effectively segregated by race and ethnicity. They are not explicitly segregated by law; the Brown case found legally segregating public schools to be unconstitutional. Rather, this segregation is perpetuated through the combined effect of housing policy, zoning, law enforcement, and urban planning, and it’s an issue that impacts school districts across the country. Here in Rhode Island, the schools are some of the country’s most segregated: One study out of Northeastern University ranked Providence the ninth most segregated city in the nation for Hispanic students. State-wide, Rhode Island performs even worse than its capital city; a study from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA reported that roughly 2 in 5 Rhode Island Latino students attend 90-100 percent minority schools, making Rhode Island the 6th most segregated state by that measure. According to a recent article in the Providence Journal, one fifth of Rhode Island schools are more than 90 percent white, while 14 percent of schools in the state have student populations with more than 90 percent students of color. The clear racial and ethnic divide presented in these statistics reflects the rampant segregation that permeates Rhode Island’s education landscape.

This segregated system keeps many Rhode Island students of color from receiving an equal education. In Rhode Island, 11 of the 15 lowest-performing elementary schools are intensely segregated, according to an analysis by the Providence Journal. What’s more, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) recently reported that high poverty and high minority schools in the state are most likely to have inexperienced and unqualified teachers, leaders, and support professionals. The RIDE report also highlights the fact that students of color who attend ‘majority minority’ schools are less likely to score ‘proficient’ on state tests; In fact, the state achievement gap between Latino and white students is among the 10 largest in the nation. Everyday, students of color are on average receiving lower quality instruction and overall receiving a lower quality education than their white peers. Clearly, something must be done to mitigate the blatant inequities that arise from a divided education system.

Cities across New England have been trying for decades to address their segregated school systems – mostly through integration – with a mixed degree of success. Integration has repeatedly been shown to have positive educational benefits for both students of color and white students; integrated schools are more likely to prepare students to be engaged, socially aware citizens, and their students tend to enjoy higher incomes and greater access to competitive jobs. The best way to go about integration, however – whether through busing, magnet schools, charter schools, or redrawing districts – is less clear. Rhode Island can learn from the different integration efforts in Boston, Hartford, and Pawtucket as it moves forward to continue to address the problem. Integration is a promising but still limited approach to solving the achievement gap, and as such, Rhode Island should consider piloting a magnet school approach similar to Hartford while also pursuing strategies other than integration to mitigate the racial disparities in its school systems.

The first desegregation effort in the region took place in Boston in 1974, when a district court judge ordered the Boston School Committee to implement a busing program to integrate the city’s intensely segregated schools. Immediately following the ruling, white parents and students alike objected with horribly racist tones not much different from the white backlash to desegregation in the South. Protesters threw stones and directed obscenities at buses full of students of color, and white students even boycotted by not attending integrated schools. As one student of color remarked, “It was like a war zone.” After the immediate backlash, the city’s integration efforts had immense long-term effects on Boston public schools: more affluent white families left the city or sent their kids to private school. Public school enrollment dropped, and racial homogeny increased. Before the busing program, more than half the students enrolled in Boston schools were white; today, only 14 percent of Boston students are white. While the busing policy was perhaps well intended, it ultimately had a detrimental effect on the diversity of the Boston Public Schools and left the city more divided and unequal than before.

In 1996, the court system similarly found that students in Hartford, CT were not receiving an equal and integrated education and ordered state and local policy makers to address the issue. The state responded to the ruling by creating a magnet school program — different from that of Boston mainly because it relies on voluntary integration by white families from the suburbs. In the magnet school system, the city establishes innovative, high quality public schools not too dissimilar from charter schools. The difference between charter schools and magnets schools, however, is that magnet schools prioritize student diversity by attracting white suburban students and local students of color. The idea is that integration can be achieved by bringing white families back into the city rather than busing students of color out of it. To do so, these schools are often themed — focusing on science or arts, for example. Although it has been slow and costly to implement, Hartford’s magnet initiative seems to be working. In 2013, the State Department of Education reported that roughly one half of the city’s schools were now integrated. The magnet schools themselves boast high achievement, reporting virtually no achievement gap between white and Latino students and an achievement gap between white and black students nearly half the state average.

Cities across New England have been trying for decades to address their segregated school systems – mostly through integration – with a mixed degree of success.

Rhode Island has fashioned its own unique approach to address segregation in its schools: mayoral academies. Mayoral academies are essentially charter schools with even more independence from traditional barriers and practices, run by mayor-appointed school boards. This approach is relatively new, with the first mayoral academy — Blackstone Valley Prep — opening in 2009. Blackstone Valley Prep is a network of charter schools that serves two urban districts – Pawtucket and Central Falls – and two suburban districts – Lincoln and Cumberland. In a sense, this structure has essentially created a new 4-town district that includes a diverse student body from a variety of backgrounds. Therefore, the mayoral academy model is able to break from the constraints of traditional districts to draw from a wider range of students. And this method of integration correlates with improved performance; test scores reveal a 6 percent achievement gap between low-income and middle-income students at Blackstone Valley Prep, compared to the statewide gap of 25 percent.

The alternative approaches in Rhode Island and Connecticut are not without controversy, however. Critics in both states argue that because mayoral academies and magnet schools respectively pull per-pupil funding from traditional school districts, they fail to support and even worsen the conditions in already struggling schools and districts. Lawmakers in Rhode Island are hoping to address this by reviewing the education funding formula that determines how much public funding per pupil goes to these alternative schools, but even so, the problem is structural; a charter district will always have to pull funding from traditional public schools for each student that joins, even if the current funding formula is revised. Some critics have also voiced that magnet and charter schools are self-selecting — that is, they pull only the motivated and top-performing students, leaving struggling students in traditional schools. In fact, self-selection may partially explain why magnet schools and mayoral academies report reduced achievement gaps.

There are therefore limitations to school integration. While integrated schools may improve achievement measures for enrolled students, they also detract from the education of students who were not lucky enough to gain admission into an integrated school. As such, integration is only fair if every student has access to desegregated schools, which sadly is not the case. It’s also dangerous to assume that integration can by itself be the one solution that will close the achievement gap between white and students of color. This line of thinking, while unrealistic to begin with, implies a problematic narrative that students of color cannot improve their schooling without the presence of white peers. Integration therefore must not be the only approach that education leaders take to close the achievement gap. As with many other reforms in the complex field of education, multiple measures to address the problem – such as increasing the number of teachers and faculty of color, training teachers to work in a diverse setting, and providing targeted support to struggling students – must be applied simultaneously to address the racial inequities that are engrained in our school systems.

The main criticism of the Rhode Island’s integrated mayoral academies is that mayoral academies take funding from traditional districts, so a magnet school model might benefit the state and help to dispel funding criticism because magnet schools are usually incorporated as part of the traditional district. In fact, Providence already has a school that nearly fits this model — Classical High School. Classical is a test-in public high school operated by the Providence school district that draws students from throughout the city of Providence and surrounding areas. It has been repeatedly ranked as one of the top schools in Rhode Island, and was also classified as the most diverse school in the state. But as a school with exam-based admission, Classical largely serves middle class students of the city who do not experience the barriers that low-income students do.

Providence could learn from its neighboring capital city of Hartford by creating a school within the Providence district that is able to attract a diverse array of students from the surrounding regions and award admission not on exams, but by a more equitable lottery system. This experimental Rhode Island magnet school could be operated by the Providence school district just like Classical High School, while also being open to students of all backgrounds and abilities. That is not to say that Rhode Island should abandon its mayoral academy system or Classical High School. Rather, all of these approaches, each with their own unique benefits and drawbacks, can coexist, since they all have the potential to improve the quality of their students’ education. But again, integration has its limitations, and Rhode Island should also work to improve the quality of every student’s education regardless of school demographics. As such, the best approach to address the racial disparities in education for the state may be to implement multiple approaches at once: to pilot a magnet school while also increasing its focus on improving struggling schools with high percentages of students of color.

The various efforts to desegregate schools in southern New England offer some interesting case studies on what different strategies may work and what may not work. The cases of Boston, Hartford, Pawtucket, and Providence raise many questions about the ability of local school systems to mitigate larger societal problems that extend beyond their immediate control. However, the segregation in these New England cities and the integration efforts it has inspired are more than just an intriguing story; segregated school systems are failing students of color on a daily basis, keeping them from receiving a quality education and competitive job prospects.  The issue is pressing, and the state of Rhode Island must consider more approaches for integrating its schools while also employing other approaches outside of integration to close the achievement gap. There may be no silver bullet to solve the problem, but integration appears to be one of a combination of reforms that, when applied together, may be able to fix our unequal public school systems.

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