What does progress look like in school integration work?
As you likely know by now, we use Justice Thurgood Marshall’s quote as our organizational touchstone:
“Unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever begin to live together.”
But what does this look like in real terms? In the day-to-day? What does it look like to put one foot in front of the other on an entrenched and all-encompassing issue such as school integration and educational justice?
I think about these questions a lot when reflecting on our work to promote the diverse-by-design movement.
Recently the New York Times published a story on school integration efforts in Minneapolis, MN. The article was a clear reminder of just how challenging this work is.
The article correctly surfaces the tension between the district’s push for integration, the uncertain reaction from all sides, and how equity can be tied to funding—noting that green dollars often follow white students. The article is supported by the critical research from our partners at The Century Foundation.
At DCSC, we promote diverse-by-design schools by telling the story of school integration, choice, and excellence. It is not sufficient to simply put children from different backgrounds in side-by-side seats; leaders must design with equity and inclusion throughout every aspect of the school to truly meet the need Justice Marshall demands. Leaders must listen and build trust for all families, especially those who have historically been excluded from seats of influence in excellent schools.
Back in 2019, I got a chance to contribute to what would become this integration plan as an expert witness (talk about the mundane details of the day-to-day!). It was a small role and one in which I observed the work of advancing school integration in the belly of the beast. EdAllies, a local education advocacy organization and the National Charter Schools Alliance, invited me to come to speak on behalf of DCSC. Read here for a more recent article from the 74Million on the latest in this case.
That experience and this story remind me that we need to continue raising awareness about our work and our coalition. We need our voice in the chorus of individuals and organizations who see the real opportunity in this work, like our partners at National Coalition for School Diversity. We need to state (again and again!) the clear and empirical benefits of schools enrolling a diverse student population:
- Academic achievement improves.
- Achievement gaps decrease.
- College attendance increases.
- 21st Century skills sharpen.
It also reminds me of how leaders developing integration plans fall short of prioritizing Black and Brown voices in their design. To read “Integration never comes up” in focus groups of Black community members was a gut punch. Even more, why weren’t education leaders sufficiently addressing priorities expressed among Black community members, such as facility upgrades, protection from harassment and discrimination, and culturally sensitive curriculum? As far as wielding voice and choice amidst systems that disempower Black communities, we need to discuss segregation with this power imbalance in mind. When Black and Brown families select culturally affirming schools, there is more nuance than simply affixing the “school segregation” label to such choices. School choice in the US context has historically deepened segregation and racial inequality, with white affluent families wielding the power to choose elite private schools or move into exclusive neighborhoods formed by discriminatory housing policies. This form of resource hoarding in school segregation is distinct from the choices of Black and Brown families described above, where research shows their needs are largely unmet in traditional systems.
At the same time, the story provides in clear terms a dynamic that will resonate with many progressive white families: to attend a local school or escape to a white enclave (be it public or private, or in the case of Minneapolis, to another district entirely). That anecdote reminded me of the invaluable work of Integrated Schools, which organizes a national grassroots movement of parents who select and champion for integrated schools.
And finally, it makes me wonder what role Link Public Schools (enrolling students in the fall of 2022) can play in offering one more example of what diverse-by-design education is in Minneapolis. Link’s School Design Lead features Danny Brink-Washington, an alumnus from our inaugural UnifiED Fellowship cohort. Danny was among the first to complete our program where founding school leaders connect with one another and with diverse-by-design leaders across our coalition. While not a member yet, we are very optimistic about the future of Link Public Schools.
To see the world that Justice Marshall challenged us to envision, it will take all of us. It will be slow and may, at times, appear to be stalled. But we are part of a growing, dynamic movement. We have experienced moments along the way when we can observe progress, celebrate our partners in this work, and put the next foot in front of our march.