It has been over sixty years since Brown v. Board of Education declared school segregation unconstitutional, but the issue of segregation remains relevant, and in many places, exacerbated. In fact, many school districts remain highly segregated today, and some are even worse off in terms of integration than they were in the 1970s.

Our nation’s capital is a perfect example of a place where school segregation continues to be the reality for the vast majority of students. As of 2014, African American and Latino students made up over 80 percent of D.C public school students, and over 93 percent of D.C charter school students. Both charter and traditional D.C. public schools also experienced double segregation (simultaneous segregation by race and class): across both sectors, low-income students were enrolled in schools where, on average, more than 70 percent of their peers were also low-income, based on 2011 data.

Compared to surrounding areas, D.C appears to be an outlier in its enrollment patterns. In Alexandria and Arlington, Virginia, white students account for nearly half of the public school student body, a stark difference juxtaposed to the current 13 percent of white students present in D.C. district schools and 5.5 percent in D.C. charter schools, despite the fact that the city’s population as a whole is more than one-third white. It appears that white, wealthier students residing in the D.C area are gravitating away from public schools, and are being pulled toward private ones, where white students remain the majority of the student body (60 percent).

When this kind of overt segregation is normalized in our schools, we bare the risk of fostering the development of racial tension and implicit biases in our society. School integration is a transformative way to deter these negative tendencies, and prepare students to think critically in environments that reflect the real world. Furthermore, while school segregation carries burdens on all students, minority and low-income students are specifically vulnerable to the achievement gaps that stem from this marginalization.

The highly segregated nature of D.C. schools is why public school choice has become a potential tool for achieving integration and equity. And in this context, the obligations of D.C. charter schools to take part in this push toward integration have come into question. Charters now serve about 46 percent of public school students in D.C, and due to their more flexible admissions process, they have some tools that could be used to encourage enrollment of an integrated and diverse student body—if they so choose. But currently, D.C. charters have not met the challenge, and in fact are more racially and economically isolated than their traditional counterparts.

What Should Charters Do?

On Tuesday September 19, The Century Foundation hosted a panel with three local education leaders—Saba Bireda, a member of the D.C Public Charter School Board; Laura Wilson Phelan, founder of Kindred; and Jennie Niles, the Deputy Mayor of Education in D.C.—to exchange ideas about the role of charter schools in desegregating the D.C. school system. After a robust discussion about the necessity of school diversity, the panelists recommended actions for moving forward.

All panelists agreed that one attainable goal is simply to keep this dialogue alive. Part of continuing the rhetoric is engaging with people outside of the education community and making the conversation accessible to all who would like to be a part of it. The end goal of this conversation is to make our public schools equitable environments that engage with students from a variety of backgrounds. But to do so, we must acknowledge the systemic barriers that affect our most marginalized students. As Niles said, “How can we keep the conversation on the kids that are struggling the most?” The answer is complex.

First, we must ask ourselves, what kind of diversity would we like to see in our schools, and why does it matter? While there are multiple interpretations of the word diversity, race and class usually rise to the top of the list of factors in definitions focused on achieving equity. Additionally, because the social and economic ramifications of race and class are often inextricably entwined, the reality is that many low-income students are also students of color. Although racial and income diversity are the most commonly considered factors in school integration, there are other important factors, such as immigration status, English-language-learner status, and special needs status, that affect student engagement and contribute to their marginalization in public schools. So while it is vital to strive toward racial and economic diversity, we must not lose sight of the other factors that contribute to a diverse student body.

Going Beyond Improving Enrollment

There is little merit in having the title of a diverse student body if the infrastructure cannot support these very students. As Phelan stated, “It is not enough to bring these diverse set of students together. What is happening within these schools?” Necessities such as transportation, information in different languages, and targeted parental and family outreach can be critical factors affecting student access to certain schools. There must be intentional movement toward cultivating inclusive spaces and an accessible infrastructure for all students. Are teachers prepared to work with students of all cultural backgrounds? Is there aid that provides supplies for low-income students? Are counselors available to students that are having difficulties at home? These are necessary questions to pose when analyzing the health of a diverse school.

After we define diversity and cultivate an inclusive environment, the next needed step is to center the experiences of the most marginalized students; that is, validate these students’ salient identities directly as part of the classroom environment. If there are constant and intentional efforts by faculty to center these experiences, such as through culturally relevant pedagogy, then students will have more opportunities to thrive and feel comfortable in school, allowing them to connect to the material they’re learning, and bolstering their confidence. Fostering an accessible and equitable environment, while centering marginalized students, will uplift students of all backgrounds.

The power of centering otherwise marginalized students is borne out in the case for Stamford public schools in Connecticut. After analyzing the various achievement gaps among black and hispanic students, the county took steps toward equity by de-tracking students; that is, they ended the policy of positioning students in separate classes according to their achievement levels. Once the county centered their black and brown students, it then pursued a policy that ended the tracking of students of all backgrounds. As a result, enrollment into AP courses increased across all racial groups, and racial achievement gaps in math, reading, and writing decreased significantly. From this case study, we can see that paying attention to and centering students on the margins can contribute to the overall success of all students.

The potential for charter schools to serve as a way to remedy school segregation has garnered a great deal of recent interest, particularly in D.C. But if charters are to take up their role in combating segregation, they need to take intentional steps—through their educators, administrators, and managing organizations—in fostering dialogue about school diversity, building infrastructures that can support diverse student bodies, and centering marginalized students experiences. Until we prioritize these steps, D.C’s problem with segregation—both within and outside of schools—is not likely to improve, and students will continue to be victimized.

Photo Credit: US Department of Education.