Racial and socioeconomic integration is a key component of quality education. Integration creates one of the most promising pathways for resource equity and is linked to a host of short- and long-term benefits, from stronger test scores to improved health outcomes in adulthood. Learning with and from people of all walks of life is also an essential experience for encouraging the creativity, empathy, and cultural competence that we need in our citizens and leaders.

But making integrated schools a reality is hard. Segregation in our neighborhoods, our economy, and our social networks all pull in the other direction, and the solutions for beating back this segregation must be tailored to each community. What does it look like, for example, to promote racial integration in a city in which 80 percent of students are low-income? For another example, how can a racially diverse suburban district integrate neighborhood elementary schools without placing a greater burden on their Black and Brown families? Or what can a charter school network that is flooded with applications from upper-middle-class families do to promote diversity?

Since 2020, TCF’s Bridges Collaborative has brought together over sixty organizations from across the country to share best practices and troubleshoot the challenges that face the work of promoting diverse schools and neighborhoods. And the collaboration has borne fruit: Bridges has demonstrated that it is possible to make progress on integration in all kinds of different communities, by many different kinds of organizations and people.

In some communities, school choice policies are the most promising route toward integration, whereas others focus on rezoning schools. In some local contexts, the best solutions require working across or breaking down school district boundaries. Housing groups can also be essential partners in promoting integrated neighborhoods and giving low-income families access to economically mixed communities and schools. Because there’s no one solution to promoting integration, school and housing leaders need spaces to share strategies as they do the hard work of developing solutions that fit their communities’ respective needs.

Because there’s no one solution to promoting integration, school and housing leaders need spaces to share strategies as they do the hard work of developing solutions that fit their communities’ respective needs.

American Institutes for Research (AIR) and The Century Foundation have produced profiles of six different Bridges Collaborative members that illustrate this exciting range of possibilities. With support from the AIR Equity Initiative, a group of staff from across AIR are studying the Bridges Collaborative. Their Bridges Collaborative Continuous Improvement Study seeks to “help understand the conditions associated with school desegregation and integration; describe lessons learned from the lived experiences of Bridges Collaborative members; develop guidance and promising practices for engaging collaborators in future efforts; and inform the capacity-building efforts of The Century Foundation to support the needs of Bridges Collaborative members.” These profiles, which you can read through the links below, are one component of a set of tools and reports that the AIR team is creating to highlight promising practices learned from the Bridges Collaborative’s work and share lessons with researchers, policymakers, and the public.

The six organizations profiled by AIR represent a wide range of contexts: urban and suburban; community organizations, school districts, charter schools, and housing organizations; and serving populations from just a few hundred to hundreds of thousands. Here are some of the key lessons that can be drawn from the collaborative’s work—core lessons that can help communities across diverse contexts.

1. Effective integration programs educate and empower families.

Students and parents should be engaged in designing and improving integration programs to ensure that they are serving them well. For example, Hamden Public Schools began tackling integration by creating an advisory council to bring together students and parents, along with teachers, district staff, school board members, and city council members, to guide the process of diagnosing challenges and developing integration solutions. Similarly, Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership (BRHP), a nonprofit public housing agency, has strengthened the process of helping families with housing vouchers move to more integrated neighborhoods through the creation of a client advisory board that empowers program participants to become leaders and advocates for shaping BRHP’s work, as well as providing input into broader policy issues.

2. Partnering with other organizations increases impact.

Partnerships should increase cohesiveness, opportunity, and resources to more fully support families and advance holistic integration. For example, Baltimore Regional Housing Partnership has partnered with other housing agencies to expand their housing mobility efforts through collective action. Through partnering with Baltimore area public housing agencies and the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, the organizations were able to collectively contribute hundreds of vouchers toward a regional project-based voucher program. At NestQuest Houston, a fair housing organization, partnerships with schools in the neighborhoods where their families live are key to their housing and education stability program. Similarly, Enroll Indy, a school enrollment organization, provides a school finder website and an enrollment specialist, resources which enable families to access personalized information about schools within the unified enrollment system, to better inform their school choices.

3. Developing leadership for diversity requires internal as well as external work.

Forming cohorts of leaders within schools that are supported by school administrators and outside partners provides a model of diverse perspectives, expertise, and sustained support for ongoing diversity and integration initiatives. Citizens of the World Charter Schools (CWCS) developed the Leadership Institute to cultivate emerging and experienced leaders to effectively launch and lead diverse-by-design schools. Throughout this year-long program, fellows participate in convenings, leadership curriculum, check-ins, coaching, and capstone projects. CWCS also partners with university faculty and sector leaders who serve as experts and facilitators in providing the curriculum. To date, graduates have launched seven diverse-by design schools.

Additionally, Miami-Dade County Public Schools Office of Innovation, School Choice and Parental Options (SCPO) implemented an equity improvement cycle to reduce minority group isolation and spur school integration. Through the equity improvement cycle, school communities and stakeholders implement an initiative to address equity-related challenges. Lead teachers engage with SCPO administrators and staff each year to discuss progress and goals and external partners provide technical assistance, professional development, and coaching throughout the cycle. After success with the three pilot schools, the equity improvement cycle expanded to include twenty magnet schools.

Sharing out and discussing examples of integration in action can be a powerful source of knowledge and inspiration for other leaders and communities who are tackling the same work. After school visits and panel discussions during the Bridges Collaborative’s national convening in 2022, Fort Worth ISD leader Mia Hall explained how the experience shaped her view of what could be possible in her district and community: “Before coming to this national convening, I only could aspire or imagine in my head what an inclusive, integrated, high-performing high school would look like…. It’s now no longer an aspiration… it’s now more of a destination. It’s a real place that actually exists that I can now see.” It might not be possible for all leaders to see the work of these Bridges Collaborative members in action first-hand; but from Los Angeles to Miami and many points in between, hopefully these profiles provide some of the same insights and inspiration as they’ve provided to our members.