For over sixty years, the United States has been trying to racially desegregate its schools, and for over sixty years, it has been consistently failing. In fact, the progress that was made in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision has actually been scaled back with school integration rates worsening over time. It therefore makes sense that we’re still talking about school diversity sixty-two years later. America is only getting more diverse with every school year, and our schools are simply not keeping up.

The American educational system continues to educate kids unequally, due to ill-distributed funding, poorly designed attendance zones, and a general low priority placed on enhancing diversity. Research shows a strong correlation between classroom diversity and high academic achievement and cognitive advantages. A new report from Rutgers researchers Paul Tractenberg, Allison Roda, and Ryan Coughlan, “Remedying School Segregation: How New Jersey’s Morris School District Chose to Make Diversity Work,” showcases a unique New Jersey district that acted to prevent school inequities and took decisive legal action to “make diversity work.”

Two Court Cases, Only One Success Story

The desegregation of schools established by the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling did not achieve national success, due to the federal Supreme Court’s apathetic enforcement outside the South. Apathy, however, was not an option in the state-level version of Brown. The 1971 Jenkins v. Township of Morris School District case—which forced the integration of two school districts, that of Morris Township (then largely white, economically stable) and Morristown (then minority-majority, child poverty rate over 20 percent)—made no exceptions by stating racial balance was a nonnegotiable priority and that “school district borders were not an impediment to that right of students and obligation of the state.” While the two court cases had similar intents, the 1971 Jenkins case managed to have very different results on local school demographics and produced one of the most successful examples of active integration nationwide—the Morris School District (MSD).

What It Means to “Make Diversity Work”

The lasting effects of Jenkins are a testament to the dedication of a community to have faith in the power of diversity. At the time of the ruling, there were some local parties who feared a merger of the two districts would result in “white flight,” leaving Morristown High to be comprised of largely black students and causing the potential creation of a separate high school in Morris Township. Those parties were soon proved wrong by the overwhelmingly positive effects of putting low-income and minority students side by side with their counterparts in the same classroom, such as breaking down stereotypes and boundaries between groups. The report authors conducted a focus group within MSD, during which students themselves admitted the edge they feel over non-diverse schools. One respondent commented, “I feel like since we go to this school, we have a better grip on the segregation that occurs. If we were to go to Mendham, those kids would be blatantly racist without even realizing it.” A second student replied, “It is real life. Our town, the racial diversity, that’s actual life.”

Although some observers attribute MSD’s success to the “right time, right people, right place,” there were several concerted efforts undertaken by local influencers. New Jersey commissioner of education, Carl Marburger, stood his ground in favor of the controversial merger, even when he was up for reelection. The surrounding community also did their part to foster integration, including local resident Beatrice Jenkins who lent her name to the lawsuit. Advocacy groups including fair housing advocates, the NAACP, the Urban League, school board members, educators, and the clergy also dedicated their support to see the merger through to success. “If it takes a village to raise a child, it must take at least a village to author a transformational success story such as this one,” say the report’s authors.

After conducting interviews with district administrators, teachers, school board members, parents, and students, authors of “Remedying School Segregation” found that MSD’s success lies in:

  1. The Morristown and Morris Township community’s moral commitment to public education and the collective benefits of diversity
  2. The community members’ belief that a supportive community and strong family partnerships with schools is necessary for a successful district
  3. Although the district’s response to some of the challenges that school diversity imposes on the schools has been slow and uneven over the years, respondents believe that the positives outweigh the negatives

MSD through the Years

Today, MSD’s 2014–15 demographic profile is 52 percent white students, 11 percent black, 32 percent Hispanic, and 5 percent Asian. This distribution is very closely correlated to the New Jersey state profile of 47 percent white, 16 percent black, 26 percent Hispanic, and 9 percent Asian. Not only is the district an accurate representation of how the state looks—a good preparation tool for life after high school—but it offers an expanded learning platform. That is, being surrounded by peers from different socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds who offer varying opinions and share a range of experiences can be an enlightening environment in itself.

Perhaps the most effective approach MSD has taken to make diversity work is taking into account the fact that populations are not static. There was a definite demographic shift in the schools following the merger, and even today there continues to be an evolving minority population. Data shows that between 1970 and 2010, the Hispanic and Latino, Spanish-speaking population has increased by 2648.8 percent. Instead of letting these new families become isolated, educators devised solutions such as hiring more bilingual staff—including a social worker and translator—to prevent English language-learner (ELL) students from falling behind and to help engage Spanish-speaking parents who might feel isolated. Morris educators at the time of the merger and in decades following have gone above and beyond to remain committed to making diversity work, even when some students struggled to adapt.

The birth of a new school district can be difficult, and when it is explicitly in the name of integration, it can be faced with severe opposition. However, the Morris case study is evidence that beginnings of such districts are always the most difficult. Today, families make a conscious decision to move to this area of New Jersey because of what they have heard about the Morris School District. As explained by many MSD parents, it is increasingly important for some parents to raise kids in an environment that “reflects the real world.” Morris School District teaches that successful desegregation requires much more than just a legal decision—it requires all hands on deck within a community.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia.