Photo by University of the Fraser Valley on Flickr.

This is part 3 of a series on education in DC. See part 1 and part 2.

Many younger parents who do hope to send their kids to public schools have cited the greater diversity in public schools as a major motivating factor. But current trends suggest that having a public school that’s both high-performing and diverse at the same time doesn’t last for long.

School isn’t only about learning math, science, English and social studies, but about learning to get along with other people. Greater diversity provides a richer range of life experience. Wilson High parent Matt Frumin said in an email about his kids’ experience:

While academics are obviously essential (and students at Wilson get rich academic experiences), kids learn both inside and outside of the classroom and one important aspect of a school is to build a sense of community among kids of different backgrounds.

Creating a community that crosses racial and class lines is no small feat and nobody would claim that Wilson has completely succeeded in that effort, but it is at least a place where everybody is present and there is an ongoing effort to do so. If we are ever going to overcome our divisions, we need to do just that — try. And, if we don’t do it in our schools, the odds of doing it at later stages of life can only diminish.

Social scientists no doubt can offer measurements of how education in a setting of diversity enhances learning, but for us, the proof is in our kids. Their mix of friends and acquaintances. Their ease with people from different backgrounds. Their excitement about the culture and various cultures at their school. They clearly savor and take pride in their experience and have learned very important things from it.

Candice Santomauro wrote in about sending her white child to a school that was otherwise entirely African-American:

Every day after school, as she’d happily bound into my office, blond hair streaming, confident, I’d ask the obligatory, “How was school today?” although what I really wanted to ask was, “Are you OK with being the only white kid?” She seemed either not to notice or not to care. Having grown up myself in an ethnically, culturally, and socio-economically diverse Los Angeles suburb, I hoped she would have a similar experience. I wasn’t sure though, if this was pushing it a bit. Finally after a few weeks, I had to ask. She responded, “Mom, we’re all just kids.” Oh, right. Out of the mouths of babes.

In previous parts, we talked about how the peer group can influence a student’s performance. For lower-performing kids, going to school with others who perform better can make a positive difference. Teachers might set higher standards and push kids to achieve more, and their peers would encourage success instead of mock or bully those who work hard.

Therefore, besides the value wealthier parents might find in sending their kids to a diverse school, lower-income kids benefit from the arrangement as well.

Is diversity ephemeral?

Look at the trends in DC public schools, however, and diversity doesn’t look so likely.

In the most high-performing schools in the wealthiest neighborhoods, public schools are becoming “good enough” that many parents want to send their kids there, but that means no more spots for out-of-boundary kids.

Mary Cheh has introduced a bill to redraw the school boundaries. That will almost surely shrink the boundary of popular schools like Deal Middle School. Wilson High’s enormous boundary, which covers almost all of DC west of 16th Street and even much of Southwest, will probably get smaller as well.

The boundary isn’t the only factor determining who goes to a school. DCPS also has a system of “feeder” schools, where all kids from elementary school can go to the same middle school, and so on for high school. It’s possible some elementary schools will stop feeding Deal; Bancroft in Mount Pleasant and Shepherd in Shepherd Park are geographically most distant of Deal’s feeders. But this would only exacerbate the segregation if Ward 3 middle and high schools become primarily places to educate Ward 3 residents.

Current high school boundaries. Image by the author using Google Maps and data from OCTO. (Markers show the center of each zone, not the location of the school.)

Hardy Middle School in Georgetown is still very diverse racially, but not as much on income; some have charged that the former principal was deliberately trying not to attract local families, but also trying to weed out poor children. There are many schools on the cusp of drawing residents who might otherwise move or send kids to private school, often in gentrifying neighborhoods.

Diversity also often seems short-lived. At Ross Elementary in Dupont Circle, for instance, the school is about one-third white, one-third black, and one-third Hispanic, but that doesn’t mean every class is an even mix; the younger grades are far whiter, the older grades far less, as the school’s rising reputation drew more of the local residents and their kids. Incoming classes, with no space for out-of-boundary kids, are the least diverse.

As for charters, we already can see that charter schools almost entirely serve people from the eastern side of the District. This makes sense, as some charter programs like KIPP have demonstrated greater success with lower-income kids than other approaches. But is the end of this road one where wards 7 and 8 have no neighborhood schools at all, just charters?

Do we want a world where DCPS is a system that caters only to upper-income neighborhoods, and a totally separate charter system serves DC’s poorer neighborhoods? Where some schools are entirely filled with students from well-off families and other schools only serve the poor, where despite going to school in a very diverse city, few children actually interact with anyone from a different background?

How important do you think diversity is in schools? Should DC try to foster greater diversity?

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.