A few weeks ago, Teach for America drew attention for its announcement that, for the first time ever, fully half of the organization’s incoming teachers are people of color. In addition, almost half of their incoming corps members received Pell Grants, which are reserved for low-income college students.

This is a huge positive step for encouraging teacher diversity. Nationwide, just 17% of teachers are people of color. Increasing the diversity of our teaching force is a crucial goal, especially in a country in which—for the first time this year—a majority of all public school students are students of color.

Unfortunately, education reformers—including Teach for America—have been slower to embrace the goal of diverse, integrated student bodies.

So will Teach for America follow its embrace of teacher diversity with new leadership in encouraging student diversity?

The Segregation Blindspot

Too often, school integration is a blindspot for education reformers. An extensive body of research shows the educational harms of high-poverty learning environments and the benefits of socioeconomic and racial integration. Just as it’s important for students to interact with a diverse set of teachers, it’s beneficial to learn alongside a diverse group of peers.

Sadly, many accept socioeconomically and racially segregated schools as an unchangeable fact. They instead pour their energy into creating “90/90/90” schools: where 90% of students are low-income, 90% are students of color, and 90% are high-achieving.

But school segregation isn’t an intractable problem.

Establishing integration plans that balance students both within and across district lines could significantly decrease the number of majority low-income schools in a number of states, according to 2012 research by Ann Mantil, Anne G. Perkins, and Stephanie Aberger. Virginia could see a 60% reduction in such schools. Nebraska and Colorado aren’t far behind at 58 and 52 percent, respectively.

The researchers conclude that “dramatic reductions in the number of high-poverty schools across the United States are within reach.”

Over 80 school districts across the country already have plans to help balance student populations by socioeconomic status. And a growing number of diverse charter schools have plans to ensure socioeconomically and racially integrated student enrollment.

A New Paradigm

Teach for America’s mission is to grow “the movement of leaders who work to ensure that kids growing up in poverty get an excellent education.” And for many, this means primarily helping 90/90 schools (high-poverty, high minority enrollment) become 90/90/90 schools (adding high achievement).

But school integration is beginning to emerge in the organization’s discussions about the future of American education and Teach for America’s role.

During Teach for America’s 20th anniversary summit in 2011, a discussion on “Segregation in American Schools and Its Impact on the Achievement Gap” drew a large audience. Moderator James Forman Jr., law school professor and founder of maya Angelou Public Charter School, noted, “Folks here had choices about where to go, and 1300 of them came to hear a conversation about segregation and its impact on the achievement gap.”

You can watch the full 80-minute panel discussion below, and it’s well worth the time. The conversation brings up difficult and important questions.

Segregation in American Schools and Its Impact on the Achievement Gap from TFA MKTG on Vimeo.

Russlyn Ali, then Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, was hesitant to talk about modern school segregation in the same breath as de jure segregation of old: “The reasons for [segregation today] look very different than they did in the Brown v. Board era,” she said. Some parents may choose segregated schools. “This is a community issue.”

But Bill Kurtz, CEO of DSST Public Schools—a network of integrated charter schools in Denver, CO, with impressive academic results—pushed back:

I would challenge this movement to change that and say integration is as important if not the most important issue to our country, to our future…Don’t get me wrong, it’s very important to bring great schools to communities that don’t have them…But I also believe that we can accomplish similar goals by creating schools that transcend those communities and bring kids from all different backgrounds together. And we’re proving that in Denver; it can be done.

Kurtz isn’t alone in wanting integration to be a bigger part of education reform conversations.

Heather Harding, formerly Teach for America’s senior vice president of community partnerships, wrote in the organization’s blog:

When we relegate some kids to a singular racial and cultural experience but extol the virtues of our growing global society, we are decidedly not closing the achievement gap.

And Becky O’Neill, communications director at Teach for America, called for Americans “to reintegrate integration into our vision of an outstanding system of public schools.”

These discussions are a promising start.

Teach for America has 11,000 corps members this year, and 64 percent of Teach for America’s more than 37,000 alumni are currently working in education. And those who aren’t are still potential voters, parents, advocates, and donors.

That could mean a lot of new foot soldiers in the fight for integrated schools.

About the Smarter Charter Series

This series highlights ideas for promoting effective charter schools that empower teachers, integrate students, and share lessons with other schools. For more on these ideas, check out A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, by Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter.