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Twin Cities-area schools more segregated than ever

Thirty-six years after a federal judge ordered Minneapolis to begin busing students to achieve racial balance, Twin Cities-area schools are more segregated than ever.

First of five parts.

In 1972, segregation in Minneapolis schools was so grave a federal judge ordered the city to begin busing students to achieve racial balance. Thirty-six years and several attempted reforms later, Twin Cities-area schools are more segregated than ever.

Indeed, black children in the Twin Cities are more likely today to attend an all-minority school than they were in 1970, two years after race relations erupted into riots. Of the metro area’s 1,151 schools, 312 – or 27 percent – are schools where a majority of students are nonwhite.

But perhaps the best indicator of future segregation is evident in the elementary schools with very young student populations. In 1992, there were nine segregated elementary schools in the metro area. Today, there are 108.

Further, there were nine schools legally defined as segregated – or “racially identifiable” – in 1999 under a complex state rule issued that year. Today there are 45 in the metro area.

And the trend, as well as the likelihood of serious social consequences, is accelerating, a MinnPost investigation reveals, spreading far beyond an educational system originally designed for a mostly white student population.

A generation ago, segregation was a strictly urban problem. Now it affects more than 40,000 of the metro area’s 200,000 elementary school pupils in dozens of suburban communities stretching from Robbinsdale to Roseville. And it brings far-ranging consequences because most often accompanying racial segregation is its twin sister, poverty, which brings enormous challenges to students and those who teach them.

Map 1: Metro schools where majority of students are nonwhite, 2007-08
Map 2: ‘Racially identifiable’ schools in metro area

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The numbers are startling:
• Almost 30 percent of elementary schools in the Twin Cities metro area – including those in suburbia – have now reached the point where a majority of students are nonwhite and poor, according to University of Minnesota researchers. Nearly 90 percent of those schools are considered “very high poverty” schools (defined as schools where at least 75 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches).

• Fifty-six percent of students of color in the metropolitan area attend “high poverty” elementary schools (where more than 40 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-rate lunches), compared with 10 percent of whites.

On the other hand, many districts, including Minneapolis, have schools that qualify as white enclaves.

Like the aftershocks of an earthquake, segregation and poverty spread beyond the public schools and their students. In the coming years the stakes will be high for society. Educators and sociologists say the worsening situation undermines the promise of public schools: to provide all students an equal education. And it makes it even harder for educators to close the persistent achievement gap between many minority students and their white students.

Numerous studies show that minority students in integrated schools do better in school and later in life. And if the segregation trend continues, the ripple effects will, observers say, strain the metro area economy and its very social fabric in terms of a well-trained workforce, high-paying jobs, housing patterns, social-service costs and more.

Still, as segregation has widened, the political will to address it has waned. So much so that state financial support for the most recent formal integration initiative may be in danger.

Percentage of metro-area students in segregated settings

Source: Institute on Race and Poverty
Source: Institute on Race and Poverty

Today’s complicated situation has developed despite the best efforts of educators, the growing concerns of parents and the wishes of lawmakers and social activists. But the convergence of entrenched social factors and rapidly changing demographics has undone many efforts to fix the system.

Demographic change

A key factor partially powering the segregation trend is a tidal wave of demographic change over the last 20 years. An influx of immigrants from other countries and from other states is rapidly diversifying both urban and suburban districts. Minnesota’s first segregation drama involved Minneapolis’ efforts to integrate its schools with a non-white population of 14 percent. Today, minority students make up 75 percent of school populations in St. Paul and 70 percent in Minneapolis.

Experts see the trends continuing. Projections from the State Demographic Center show Minnesota’s nonwhite population will grow by 35 percent between 2005 and 2015, while the white population will increase only 7 percent. Predictions show the Hispanic population will rise 47 percent.

Challenges come in the wake of change. The problem is so complex it cannot be addressed by any single policy, rule or statute, said Cindy Lavorato, associate professor in St. Thomas University’s School of Education. “Tentacles go in all directions: Poverty, racism, classism. It’s a legacy of slavery.”

“People would like to think that we have integrated housing and communities and things are all hunky-dory. But the truth is, we’re not there yet,” said state Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, who chairs the House Kindergarten through 12 Education Finance Committee.

School choice
In fact, at least one practice seriously complicates integration efforts. Minnesota’s system of school choice gives parents with resources the opportunity to opt out of integration efforts by simply moving their child to another school within or outside the district. Numerous suburban Twin Cities districts, for instance, have tried to create racially balanced schools only to trigger white flight or voter revolt. Further muddying state integration efforts is Meredith v. Jefferson County School Board, a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court decision curtailing districts’ use of race as a factor in assigning students to schools.

A report by a group of education researchers concludes Minnesota’s system hasn’t worked: “While educational choice admittedly can serve some public good, there is reason to be cautious about integration plans that rely heavily on the voluntary decision-making of local school boards and parents. Nearly 10 years ago, Minnesota adopted rules that do just that and the results have been disastrous,” says the report, “A Missed Opportunity: Minnesota’s Failed Experiment With Choice-Based Integration.” (The report was written by Margaret C. Hobday, an assistant professor of legal studies at Hamline University, Geneva Finn, a research fellow at the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School, and Myron Orfield, associate professor of law and director of the institute. )

It’s a conundrum, concluded members of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts at a conference last winter. “No matter what kind of policies or programs you put into place there’s only so much you can do. How do you move forward in that environment?” asked Scott Croonquist, the group’s executive director. “What we really need to decide as a state is, is integration important, or isn’t it?”

Percentage of students attending schools with high poverty rates, 2008

(High poverty schools are those were at least 40 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch rates.)

Source: Institute on Race and Poverty
Source: Institute on Race and Poverty

A different direction
In fact, it’s rare these days to hear anyone talk about desegregation as a worthy goal in and of itself. Instead, policymakers talk about closing the gap in academic achievement between white and minority students. Raising test scores among poor and minority students should take precedence over school integration, counter many school administrators and policymakers on both sides of the aisle.

Because most of Minnesota’s minority students are poor, you can’t have one without the other, counter integration’s proponents.

“Segregation is a really, really bad thing,” argues Orfield. Racially and socially isolated schools destroy children’s lives, he said.

“Good schools are not just about textbooks and learning. A big part of opportunity is being exposed to social networks.” Middle-income schools are rich with opportunities, while a poor school is “a desert of social networks,” Orfield said. Schools with concentrations of poor students don’t just have lower test scores. They report worse statistics concerning student health and much higher rates of in-school violence, as well as higher drop-out rates and lower graduation rates.

In effect, Orfield and other education researchers say, the U.S. Supreme Court was right when it ruled in 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, that when schools are segregated, children of color are at an inherent disadvantage.  Justices said segregation “has a tendency to [retard] the educational and mental development of Negro children and to deprive them of some of the benefits they would receive in a racial[ly] integrated school system.”  

Benefits of desegregating schools

Diversity’s benefits “are not theoretical but real, as major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today’s increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints,” according to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2003.

Minneapolis school board member Chris Stewart, who has a background in workforce development, agrees. “We have a lot more people in poverty and a lot more people of color. They exist in a readiness gap. They’re not a workforce you can just turn to. They’re a workforce we have neglected to prepare. It’s absolutely crucial that we get them up to speed, get them on the launching pads for industries that need them. These are industries that are key to Minnesota’s success.”

Half a century after Brown v. Board of Education made school desegregation the law of the land, educators believe separate can never truly be equal.

“There has never been a time in history when separate has been equal. There has never been a time when segregated schools have worked,” said Stewart.

“If you go back 50, 60 years, you always heard the line that went like this: As long as resources are equal, it’s OK if kids grow up in racial, social and economic isolation. It’s the saddest premise. In 2008, after all the data that has come in to show that separate will never be equal, it’s the saddest premise,” Stewart said.

Among numerous studies, findings in a 1999 report in the Journal of Negro Education  by Roslyn Arlin Mickelson and Damien Heath show that black students in desegregated schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school district, demonstrated higher achievement than black students in segregated schooling.

A ripple effect began in elementary school, according to the study, because the more years a black child was educated in a segregated black school, the lower his or her grades and the less likely that student would be placed in a college-bound track in secondary schooling.   

Mickelson, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, reiterated the academic benefits of integration in 2003, saying, “The more time both black and white students spend in desegregated elementary schools, the higher their standardized test scores in middle and high school, and the higher their track placements in secondary school.”

A growing body of evidence indicates that diverse learning environments maximize opportunities to learn for all, including white students.

High schools with enrollments that are almost entirely white “do not necessarily produce the best academic outcomes for all students. The ideal racial/ethnic mix…is between 61 and 90 percent White or Asian American and between 10 percent and 39 percent Black and Hispanic American,” Mickelson wrote in the Journal of Negro Education. “[Schools] with this mix have the highest academic achievement and the smallest gap between racial/ethnic groups in grades and test scores.”

Scholars say a variety of reasons explain how desegregated education leads to higher achievement: Desegregated schools have better material and human resources, according to Mickelson.

According to a joint legal brief by 553 social scientists filed in the Supreme Court case involving Louisville schools, numerous studies support the beneficial effects of integration on students.
Minority students in integrated schools have higher career aspirations and more confidence they can attain their goals, for instance.  
A 2001 study commissioned for the U.S. National Education Goals Panel pointed out that integrated Defense Department schools have a substantially lower racial achievement gap than most schools, despite the fact that students came from families that were below average in socioeconomic status and parental education.

By many measures, Minnesota has the widest disparity in the country between kids of color and white kids. Minnesota’s four-year, on-time graduation rate for white teens is 80 percent, versus 41 percent of American Indians, 41 percent of African-Americans and 41 percent of Latinos, according to the National Governors Association. (Because it does not count dropouts, the formula Minnesota uses to calculate the graduation rate paints a much rosier picture, but still shows disparities of upward of 20 percent.)

Minnesota graduates fewer of its African-American students than any of 37 states surveyed, according to a study released this summer by Education Week magazine. That’s a 10 percent drop since 2002.

In Minneapolis schools in 2005 – where 73 percent of students were non-white and 68 percent categorized as poor – 55 percent of students earned high school diplomas.

“If we’re serious about closing the achievement gap, we do need to look at integrating our schools,” said Croonquist.

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

Tuesday: Minority populations in suburbs rise — and so do number of segregated schools
Wednesday: The rise of voluntarily segregated schools: new trend, familiar problems
Thursday: State and educators can’t agree on how to spend integration funds
Friday: A better way to integrate schools: by race and class