Many of the families living in Jersey City take pride in the fact that the city is remarkably diverse. Looking at 2010 Census data, for example, you can see that all but one of its voting wards have no racial/ethnic group making up more than half the population. So when Learning Community Charter School (LCCS) first opened its doors in the fall 1997, its early supporters anticipated that even its unweighted lottery would result in an equally diverse student body.
And at the start, this held true—the general makeup was about a third white, a third African American, and a third Hispanic or other race/ethnicity.
As my colleagues Richard D. Kahlenberg and Halley Potter point out in their book, A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charter Schools and Public Education, charter schools like LCCS have enormous potential in creating diverse, integrated student bodies:
As schools of choice, they are not as constrained by residential segregation as are most public schools. And as schools created from scratch, with particular visions, they have the potential to draw interest from diverse income, racial, and ethnic groups.
And as Kahlenberg and Potter also show, such a mix not only can encourage students to be more welcoming and functional in an increasingly diverse world, but also can deliver positive academic results as well.
In this vein, the founders of LCCS saw its integrated student body as a mark of success.
A Blow to Diversity
In 2006, however, the New Jersey Department of Education informed the school that it could no longer use state funds for student transportation and must instead default to the practices of the schools in the surrounding district, which did not provide buses as they served smaller local communities. This decision by the state undermined LCCS’s mission, as the founders had meant it to be accessible by families throughout the city.
The effect of the canceled bus service on diversity was immediate. The racial and ethnic balance at LCCS began to shift toward the whiter demographic of the surrounding neighborhood.
Source: National Center for Education Statistics.
The LCCS Board of Trustees Goes Long
The reaction by the board of trustees was of the mountain/Muhammad variety—it started looking for a new location.
Recognizing the potential for declining diversity, and realizing that it current location allowed for no new expansion—families on the waiting list each year numbered in the hundreds—it decided to seek a new space that would better suit its mission.
In 2009, LCCS acquired a new facility closer to the geographic center of Jersey City and to the majority of its student body, and large enough to allow the school to expand. Since any new seats would be filled through straight-up lottery, an increase in applications from families near the new location had the potential to boost diversity in enrollments for the following year.
To further improve diversity, the school board and administration also initiated an outreach program to publicize the move and seek applicants from nearby families. Just about any and every avenue was used to announce its new location—local reporters, bulletin boards, social events, community groups, flyers, alumni lists, and special events. Even before opening in the new location, LCCS had almost weekly open houses and tours for prospective new families wanting to see what the school was like.
The good news is that, just like diversity’s departure when buses were canceled, its return after the move was equally dramatic.
While the first year in the new building showed little change demographically from the previous one, the subsequent years saw a marked increase in diversity. (Even with the larger building, though, the school still has more applicants than it can handle.)
A change in New Jersey’s policy on the funding of public school bus transportation could help support efforts to improve diversity, in charter schools and traditional public magnet schools alike. Absent that, however, achieving and maintaining diversity may sometimes take heroic initiatives.
The intentional relocation by LCCS was the result of a conscious effort by school governance to preserve the diversity that was part of the school’s mission. It serves as an example of how charters can use their flexibility to be model schools for the twenty-first century.