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A model for school integration

Students in racially, socioeconomically integrated public schools perform better academically
  • SOURCE: The Century Foundation's socio-economic integration strategies in schools.
  • Race/ethnicity of Morris School District students from New Jersey Department of Education 2014-15 school enrollment file.

Many districts across the country struggle with increasing demographic homogeneity more than 60 years after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.

But the Morris School District in northern New Jersey has been hailed as a model for successful integration, in part due to its community’s affordable housing and teacher training.

Created in 1971 by a state-ordered merger of an urban and a suburban district, Morris has maintained remarkable diversity at a time when other school systems across the nation have become increasingly segregated, the report says.

In the 2014-15 school year, the district, headquartered in Morristown, nearly matched the state demographic profile, with 52 percent white students, 32 percent Hispanic, 11 percent black and 5 percent Asian; 35 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunch.

“With diverse populations, you have to work at it—it’s not like you ever arrive,” Superintendent Mackey Pendergrast says. “From the very beginning of the school district there was a real attempt to integrate the community, and a real focus on dialogue.”

Students attending racially and socioeconomically integrated public schools perform better academically, and have improved critical thinking skills and reduced prejudice.

But segregation in schools is spreading due to increasing neighborhood segregation by race and class, and increased reliance on neighborhood schools, according to the foundation’s report, “A New Wave of Integration.”

Efforts to reverse the trend are also rising, the report says.

Several metropolitan systems—such as in Denver, Newark, Nashville, St. Paul and the District of Columbia—have adopted socioeconomic integration plans since 2013, and Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina has a policy to minimize concentrations of poverty in the community, according to the report.

How to maintain diversity

Part of Morris’ success might lie in its elementary schools. They are grouped by grade level—not geography—following the Princeton Plan, which was created in 1948 to integrate that New Jersey town’s elementary schools.

The center of Morristown—home to many low-income black and Hispanic residents—is an open assignment area. To achieve racial balance, the district buses students from this area to various neighborhood schools.

Maintaining diversity depends on three factors, all revolving around the community, says the century report:

1. a community morally committed to public education

2. a belief that a strong district requires a supportive community and strong family partnerships with schools

3. a belief that benefits of diversity outweigh the negatives

While the merger was ordered by the state education commissioner, local clergy, school board members, fair housing advocates and national social justice groups supported the merger of the K8 Morris Township district with Morristown’s K12 district.

The coalition also fought to enforce the state’s fair housing law to integrate neighborhoods. Pro-merger residents hoped regionalizing the district would save the urban center of Morristown from segregated schools of mainly minority students.

Residents now flock to the district in part for its courses, including broadcasting, culinary arts and music. It also boasts a popular STEM Academy, successful sports teams and an award-winning theater department.

And in the 2015-16 year, half of all Morris High School students who applied to a four-year college were accepted by a competitive institution.

Steps to integration

Courts today are unlikely to order integration, but administrators can resist segregation when a system’s demographics change, says Amy Wells, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College who has written about race and education.

Here are some how-to steps:

  • Advocate for affordable housing.

Districts must start a dialogue with locally elected officials, zoning boards and businesses, Wells says. Government housing officials—which judge districts based on standardized test scores—can learn how its policies impact school assignments, such as when affordable housing projects are steered into a single neighborhood.

Educators can also learn how to advocate for affordable housing in low-poverty areas.

  • Oversee migration patterns.

By tracking enrollment patterns among K1 students, superintendents can catch trends early and maintain diverse buildings before white flight takes hold, says Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

Superintendents can hire a more diverse teaching staff, and train them to work with diverse classrooms.

Districts that try to ensure their school population reflects the community must also combat racialized tracking, inequity in school discipline practices, and financial barriers to extracurricular participation, according to the Century Foundation report.

  • Train teachers to understand different ethnicities and cultures. Programs like Student Team Learning, a set of cooperative learning techniques developed at Johns Hopkins University, can create a positive atmosphere in classrooms, Orfield says. On-site training and workshops at conferences are available.

“Teachers who have grown up in a segregated background,” he says, “don’t just automatically know how to relate effectively with Latino or African-American families.”