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A better way to integrate schools: by race and class

In the more than four decades the United States has been trying to desegregate its schools, studies suggest that the single most effective way to close the achievement gap and prepare all children for success in the global marketplace is to integrat

Hue Yang found success at Hopkins North Junior High School.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Hue Yang found success at Hopkins North Junior High School.

Last of five parts.

As Minnesota has watched its numbers of students of color climb dramatically over the past two decades and their academic achievement lag in increasingly segregated schools, one question begs to be answered:  Is there a better way to educate our children?  

For more than 50 years — since the historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court — most Americans have thought integrating their schools revolved solely around race.

Yet more than four decades of studies suggest that the most effective way to close the achievement gap and prepare all children for success in the global marketplace is to integrate schools along both racial and class lines. It’s also an approach that Minnesota is particularly well suited to implement.

There’s no doubt poverty travels alongside racial segregation in Twin Cities area schools. Here, children of color are most often also poor, a connection easily demonstrated by desegregation scholar Myron Orfield when he sits at his computer to pull up a map showing hundreds of elementary schools in the Twin Cities metro area.

Myron Orfield
Myron Orfield

A few clicks of his mouse bring map overlays that demonstrate, with few exceptions, that the schools with the most nonwhite students are also the poorest.

When Orfield, director of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School, first began studying national and state demographic data two decades ago, discussions about school integration in Minnesota, like the rest of the nation, centered exclusively on the maps defined by students’ race. But that was before several U.S. Supreme Court decisions and a pile of academic research. 

Today, most integration proponents, including Orfield’s brother, UCLA education professor Gary Orfield, say the road to better educating children lies in balancing school populations not only by race but also by factors such as the child’s household income and parental educational attainment. Because of the correlation of race and poverty in Minnesota, an economically integrated school here would be balanced by race as well.
Other scholars, too, have reported findings showing a correlation between class and learning, beginning in 1966 when Congress asked James S. Coleman, a Johns Hopkins sociologist, to investigate why black students lagged far behind white students. Coleman found it was not substandard schools with inadequate budgets that led to the learning gap between whites and blacks, but socio-economic status, i.e. poverty. Significant concentrations of poor kids in a school, he said, resulted in lower academic achievement, with these contributing factors: students’ family background, teachers’ communications skills and a student’s view of his environment and future.

Middle-class vs. low-income schools
Among those corroborating Coleman’s work is Christopher Jencks. In the 1970s, the Harvard sociologist looked again at Coleman’s data. His determination: poor black sixth-graders in middle-class schools were 20 months ahead of poor black sixth-graders in low-income schools. 

In 2006, University of Wisconsin economist Douglas N. Harris determined that schools having a student body of at least half middle class perform much better than schools where a majority of students are poor. Harris’ analysis showed that if more than half of students were low-income, only 1.1 percent of schools performed at a “high level” as measured by national achievement standards. But if the schools were majority middle-class, 24.2 percent of schools reached that performance level.   

A concentration of middle-class children leads to fewer behavioral problems, better teachers and more resources, according to separate research by Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation. 

There’s a caveat, stresses Ronald Ferguson, an economist at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He says high-quality instruction is a must and poor kids who are struggling academically must be dispersed evenly throughout classrooms.  

Agreeing there is value in looking at learning through a prism of poverty, Steve Kelley, former chair of the Senate Education Committee, says, “I’ve become convinced that the dominant problem is poverty, not so much race. Poverty is more strongly correlated with the achievement gap than race is,” and is a significant learning impediment.

Further, peer effects are significant, said Kelley, now at the University of Minnesota heading the Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy, which focuses on improving math and science education.

DFL Rep. Carlos Mariani, St. Paul, who chairs the House E-12 Education Committee, stresses the special needs of minority students. He supports a broad, holistic effort to narrow the learning chasm, incorporating social, medical and mental health services as well as parenting classes into the education delivery system.

Key court ruling
In fact, basing school attendance solely on race is illegal. In June 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court in Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education handed down a decision barring districts from assigning students to popular magnet schools  solely on the basis of race. The decision forced restructuring of school desegregation plans in communities across the nation, though legal scholars and education policymakers are still debating the ramifications of the opinion.
The decision affected one of the integration plans deemed among the most successful in the country — that of Louisville, Ky., where a metro-wide district managed to keep African-American enrollment at almost every school between 15 percent and 50 percent.

Justice Anthony Kennedy cast the deciding vote and authored a separate opinion stating that districts could be race-conscious but they needed to determine attendance boundaries and formulate policies based on a range of socioeconomic factors.

Viewed through the lens of this decision, Myron Orfield’s maps suggest that a metro-wide policy on school integration and including socioeconomic status could create more equity.  

“There is a more advanced legal structure here to deal with metro-wide issues than anywhere else. Portland is close. The [Twin Cities] Met Council has the ability to approve every new school built in the suburbs. The Minnesota Legislature said: ‘do this’ in the 1990s,” Orfield said, referring to lawmakers’ direction to the former state Board of Education in the mid-1990s.

After several years of politicking, the Legislature directed the state Department of  Education to draft what would eventually become the state’s current voluntary desegregation rule, which did away with the requirement that school districts balance schools by race.

Mandated integration was replaced with voluntary efforts. Districts were instructed to try to entice students into programs designed to foster diversity, which led to magnet schools, suburban integration district and other efforts.

Ten years later, many believe that the voluntary desegregation plan — a method of replacing the stick with a carrot — hasn’t worked well.  School choice gives anxious white parents a quick escape from a district whose integration policies they don’t like, while inner-city schools have become so heavily minority that Minneapolis and St. Paul administrators say they can’t hope to achieve racial balance.

“Voluntary deseg programs help a number of kids, but don’t break the patterns of social and racial segregation” Orfield said.

“If school districts would cooperate with one another it would be different,” Orfield said. “But, when Edina markets itself to rich white kids leaving [diverse] Richfield, it’s not cooperating with Richfield. Open enrollment that encourages more segregated schools is not a good idea. Open enrollment at the present leads to more segregation.”

Success in Twin Cities area
Yet there are 16 places in the country where there is socioeconomic integration, Orfield said, and they all have something in common: “They’re doing well so there is less incentive to leave and no place to go.” These communities either have a metro-wide school district or lack suburbs to which white families can flee to avoid integration.

In the Twin Cities, white flight turns out to be a very real issue for district officials who strive to integrate upper and middle-class, majority white schools.

There are, however, some Twin Cities suburban districts that have welcomed significant numbers of poor, minority students through a program reflecting some success.

The Choice Is Yours, an integration collaboration established between Minneapolis schools and eight suburban districts and mandated as part of a legal settlement, is a diversification approach bringing children together across racial and class lines.

It’s been “a good program by making sure city school district boundaries don’t limit efforts to provide for integrated schools. Really, the goal is to give integrated educational opportunities to kids of color in Minneapolis schools,” said Kelley, the former legislator.   

The plan “should be seen as one component of a multi-dimensional education policy” aimed at providing an excellent education to all students, concluded education researcher Neil Kraus, from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, in a paper he presented this summer to the American Political Science Association.

Hopkins — made up of about 30 percent students of color with about one-quarter of its kids qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, the government’s indicator of lower socioeconomic status families — is one of The Choice Is Yours districts. It hosts 286 students from the cross-district program.

Hopkins officials are focused on equity and  “very committed to raising the achievement of all learners,” said Diane Schimelpfenig, Hopkins’ director of teaching and learning.

To that end, the district has implemented equity teams in its schools to work out strategies for eliminating achievement gaps between students. Officials have set up other programs, including AVID, a national program focused on academically promising high school students who are poor. Expanded this year, the program is demonstrating some success, Schimelpfenig said.

One child’s story
The story of a Hmong boy whose family came to the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand illustrates how Hopkins is working with nonwhite students.

Three years ago, terrified of bullies and frustrated that he wasn’t learning English fast enough in an English-language program for Hmong students at Jordan Park elementary in North Minneapolis, Hue Yang and his family didn’t know where to turn.

A chance encounter led him to Jay Clark, who works for the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota. And Clark, a community problem-solver, introduced the boy and his family to the idea of attending Hopkins North Junior High School through The Choice Is Yours, a program for low-income Minneapolis students.

Yang’s first year as a seventh-grader in the suburban school was a challenge. “Hue was the only one in the school who spoke Hmong and everybody else was about twice as tall. But ultimately he excelled, toughing it out and getting ‘A’s,” Clark said.

The next year, when the Minneapolis school for Hmong youngsters relocated, Yang recruited 20 of his friends for the Hopkins North program at the Minnetonka school.

“What we learned from North Minneapolis families, what they told us they loved about our school, was that their children were learning to speak English at a rapid pace and they were getting an excellent education,” said Hopkins North Junior High principal Pat Schmidt. Small English language classes enabled faster learning, she said.

The Hmong-Thai students are happy and doing well academically, agrees Yia Yang from the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, though he has helped iron out some misunderstandings related to culture differences. Now, to help head off problems, the district has a staff member who speaks Hmong and English check in monthly with families. 

Most of these transplanted Hmong students have stayed and thrived, Schmidt said, though she did not offer substantiating data. 

Yet academic research seems to verify that both poor nonwhite and white kids do better academically when they go to school with middle-class kids. The dynamic effect of a socio-economically balanced school is “one of the most consistent findings in research on education,” wrote Susan Eaton, a research director at Harvard Law School, and Gary Orfield in their book “Dismantling Desegregation.”

Such findings help explain why class-based programs in the Jefferson County, Ky., school system — which includes Louisville — and in Wake County, N.C., (Raleigh) are the focus of educators’ attention nationwide, including Myron Orfield’s.  

School officials in Jefferson County, for instance, developed class-plus-race maps to help them draw school attendance areas. The maps define areas of “low opportunity,” as measured by census data showing where adults with low income and lower levels of education live.

Whether the program is successful will depend on other factors as well, including quality teaching, challenging classes, involved parents and the influence of more verbal, better-behaved peers,  according to Kahlenberg, who wrote about the advantages middle-class students bring with them into the classroom  in his book “All Together Now.”

Myron Orfield, for one, is convinced Louisville and Raleigh are far-sighted and right in their educational approach. They are growing, “cohesive, business-oriented, less segregated, happy, well-off places, stronger cities with stronger work forces,” he said. He sees their approach, or something similar, as the solution to the learning gap and segregation in Minnesota schools.

Cynthia Boyd writes on education, health, social issues and other topics. She can be reached at cboyd [at] minnpost [dot] com. Beth Hawkins writes about criminal justice, schools and other topics. She can be reached at bhawkins [at] minnpost [dot] com.