Recently This American Life did a two part series on school integration. These episodes were the first time I had heard anyone publicly address the issue of school integration in a long time. School integration, while tried and was successful in some places, has been largely abandoned as a school reform strategy. The first episode deals with a black school district outside of St. Louis, not far from Ferguson, that lost its state accreditation. Families in the district, called Normandy, were offered spots in a nearby white district. When white families heard about the Normandy students coming to their district, they protested. White families went into arguments about worrying about their school district losing accreditation and fears of violence when the new children came into their schools. One white woman even said, “this is not about race,” but clearly it was. What else could it be about? Similar arguments were used in Yonkers to keep blacks from moving in to white sections of town in the 1980’s depicted in David Simon’s Show Me A Hero where whites worried about declining property values.
Today we are more segregated than ever, or what some people have called, hyper-segregated. Living separate lives have led to tremendous misunderstandings, resource inequity, and violence. It’s really time to deal with racial fears that prevent us from improving schools and urban life in general.
So, when people ask me what will improve public schools? Or, how do we reform urban schools? I say we will need to deal with racism in order to improve all of our public schools. That sounds overwhelming or perhaps even dismissive, but it is neither. It is a way of saying that we need to think systemically, and to not blame poor communities of color for failed schools. We need to start with ourselves and begin where #Blacklivesmatter activists demand that we do by admitting our role in racial inequity, reconcile, and move from there.
When we think about the suburbs, we think affluence- big houses and lawns, not poverty. But the suburbs are becoming increasingly poor. The Brookings Institute published a report recently that explained how poverty grew by 66% in suburban communities across the country since 2000. They are also increasingly populated by people of color, and before too long whites will be in the minority altogether.
The suburbs did not start out that way, and were founded more as an escape for whites fleeing “urban” people and problems. Starting in the 1980’s, that started to change as people of color started to move to the suburbs in larger numbers and immigrants by-passed cities in favor of suburban communities.
The suburbs did not change to meet this influx of new residents though, leading to serious inequity: unequal access to employment, stable housing, and healthcare. One obvious example is transportation. The suburbs privilege transport by car, low income families who rely on public bus transportation have many more obstacles to accessing services, attending job fairs, going to work or going to school board meetings.
Problems like these do not just require a simple policy shift. They require those with power to share it in order to address the problems that are being created. That will involve spending dollars in a new way. Now that the suburbs are facing problems similar to those of cities, perhaps they can get ahead of the curve. Suburban districts need to build low income housing, health clinics, and new public transportation. Resources may need to be shifted to fund more translation services, social services, and to support bi-lingual programs in schools. These changes won’t come easy but are necessary if there is hope of equity in the ‘burbs.
My new book, The New Reality, coming out in Fall of 2015 will detail how these dynamics are playing out in suburban schools. It contains case studies of middle schools trying to sort out how to meet the needs of the students that they face when the infrastructure of the suburbs does not provide for the students and their families.