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CCE staff and partner reflections on our collaborative work to create schools where learning is engaging and rewarding, and every student is set up for success.

Then and Now: What We Can Do to Advance Racial Equity Post Brown vs. Board of Education

Sixty-five years ago, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in the case of Brown vs. Board of Education. Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the Court’s decision, stating that “…in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place.” It was a seminal moment in public education at the onset of the Civil Rights era.

Subsequent studies have found that students of color and low-income students in integrated schools have better academic outcomes, are less likely to drop out of school, more likely to enroll in college, and less likely to be incarcerated than their peers in segregated schools, while student outcomes for White students remain about the same. Students of all races in integrated schools express less racial bias and stereotyping, and are more likely to live in integrated settings later in life.

Sixty-five years later, are we still making progress?

According to multiple studies, we are re-segregating. Rapidly. Today, more than 40% of Black and Latinx students attend “intensely segregated schools” in which more than 90% of students are of color. Half of all public school students are enrolled in schools in which 75% or more of students are of the same race.

This resurgence toward re-segregation is fueled by a number of factors. Courts have ruled that race-based school desegregation programs are unconstitutional. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is promoting increasing charter schools and school vouchers. Over-reliance on standardized testing excludes skills such as appreciation of diversity and capacity to solve problems, reason, communicate, and collaborate with others.

As noted by Rucker Johnson, a professor at the University of California Berkeley, “Segregation is not only the isolation of schoolchildren from one another; it is the hoarding of opportunity.” School segregation is driven by district policies in which Black and Latinx students are denied a quality education, such as disproportionately high rates of suspension and exclusion, and disproportionately low enrollment in advanced educational opportunities.

In these times in which the Trump administration openly advocates for policies to support nativism and privatizing public education, we must advocate for integration and embrace the growing diversity within our schools and our country, appreciating that diversity helps students in varied ways.

The question is how do we get there? I offer a few thoughts:

Implement district-wide socioeconomic student assignment plans, as an alternative to race-based student assignment plans, to ensure equitable enrollment of low-income students. Within a nation embedded with structural racism, a disproportionate percentage of students of color are low-income. While socioeconomic student assignment plans do not guarantee racial integration, examples such as Wake County have resulted in substantially reducing “…racial segregation for students who would have attended majority-minority schools under a residence-based assignment policy.” (Carlson, Bell, Lenard, 2019)

Expand school district boundaries to include contiguous, yet racially divergent, districts. Some urban school districts have such high percentages of students of color that racial integration is difficult if not impossible to achieve. Yet, in some states, school district boundaries include counties which create possibilities for greater integration. Rather than county-sized districts, it would also be possible to create a smaller district by clustering two or three cities/towns within a school district.

Embed schools within the communities, cultures, and languages they serve. Students learn best and families are most engaged when they see their culture, language, community, and prior experiences reflected and embedded in the culture and curriculum of the school.

Eliminate district and school policies that segregate students by race. Academic leveling (such as tracking or ability grouping) has historically resulted in Black, Latinx, and English Learner students being placed in low-level courses. Academically challenging programs, such as Advanced Placement courses, or schools with entrance requirements usually have low access for students of color. Here in Boston, Black and Latinx students (73% of district enrollment) only make up 21% of the enrollment in the district’s elite Boston Latin School. On the other hand, special education programs historically enroll higher percentages of Black, Latinx, and English Learner students, and these same groups of students are suspended from school at rates significantly higher than their White peers. Together, these policies create a two-tiered system that segregates White students from Black, Latinx, and English Learner students, guaranteeing many students of color will not receive the quality of education they deserve.

Recruit and retain educators that reflect the demographics of enrolled students and families. Studies have demonstrated that academic outcomes improve when students of color have at least one teacher of color, and that these higher academic outcomes are sustained in future school years. We need to redouble our efforts at recruiting and retaining educators of color into the teaching profession.

Engage all educators in cultural competency professional development. We must deliberately create schools that embed cultural competence within the formal and informal curriculum and school culture. A 2015 study by the Center for Collaborative Education and the Annenberg Institute for School Reform focused on four Boston public schools in which Black and Latinx male students achieved incrementally better than peers in other district schools. Researchers found every school lacked a systemic focus on cultural responsiveness; researchers posited this was the reason why these schools were only doing incrementally better for male students of color, despite having hallmark characteristics of high performing schools.

We need to engage in intentional efforts to break the cycle of re-segregation and create integrated schools that create inclusive and equitable cultures and policies. Without these efforts, the achievement gap by race, income, and language will continue, as will the rise of prejudice, racism, and hate, threatening our very democracy. Diverse, integrated schools will improve students’ learning, well-being, and place in their communities.

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