School daze.  Image by NEFATRON licensed under Creative Commons.

The District's traditional public schools are known to be highly segregated, but charter schools are actually even more so–despite the fact that segregation is one of the problems charters were ostensibly created to combat

The numbers bear out the impacts of this racial divide. Despite overall improved test scores this year, DC saw a widening race and income gap in achievement, which studies show is exacerbated by segregation.

What does this mean for the city’s students as charter schools grow in number, and what should we do about it?

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DC’s schools are all racially segregated, but charters are segregated the most

Charter school students currently make up about 46 percent of the student body in DC (with enrollment trending upward), and more than 90 percent of these charter students are black and Latino. Over 80 percent of these students are low-income. 

Some of DC's Pre-K classrooms reflect the city's growing diversity, but this trend doesn’t seem to stick in higher grades. Beginning in kindergarten, white parents with options begin pulling their children into richer, whiter schools. 

Despite the broad claim of “providing choice,” in practice charters seem to be merely providing an alternative to crumbling neighborhood schools primarily populated by poor black and Latino children.

Both nationally and locally charters are becoming increasingly popular, so the debate about whether or not they should exist (or be taxpayer-funded) is effectively over. The questions now are: can charters help fix widening segregation, which they were created to solve in the first place? If so, should they?

During a recent panel discussion on the role of charters in integrating DC, Saba Bireda, a lawyer and member of the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board, reiterated this question to local experts: "Where do diversity and integration fit into charters?

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Charters could do more to integrate

Jenni Niles, Deputy Mayor for Education who founded what is now considered a “diverse by design” charter school called E.L. Haynes, said at the outset there was pushback because intentionally bringing in students across demographics meant there would be less spots for the neediest students. However, she didn't see a better way to close the achievement gap, which studies show widens when schools are highly segregated.

Niles' own team members were skeptical, but she felt her experience as a teacher in diverse classrooms would be a start. She framed the school's mission in terms of a "teaching hospital", where teachers and parents could come together to try new approaches to integrate the student body.

It worked. E.L. Haynes has been successful both in both academics and in its diversity profile. However, Niles is the first to offer a note of caution, saying a "diverse by design" school isn't necessarily better than the homogenous ones seen throughout most of the country, and says we should be careful about considering them as "less than" more diverse schools.

Furthermore, creating a school whose mission is to be more diverse is only a first step; maintaining diversity requires comprehensive and concrete policy changes. For example, transportation plays a big role in whether parents find a particular school accessible or not, so pushing for accessible transit is important aspect of creating high quality and equitable schools.

Another problem is that once a school becomes high-performing, affluent parents and parents with more information often "crowd out" disadvantaged students. To fix this, Bireda suggested a preference for at-risk students and a lottery with geographic boundaries within districts or wards.

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Diverse schools for the sake of diversity won't address what causes segregation

Laura Wilson-Phelan, founder of Kindred, a non-profit that works with parents of different backgrounds to drive equity in their schools and communities, wondered if we were overly focused on diversity without considering what kind of environment best fits the needs of children. She suggested that certain schools may be better able to serve their populations through specialization.

“I think there is a time and place for segregation in a way that is really beneficial to the development of identity,” Wilson-Phelan said, giving the examples of all girls and all boys schools, as well as the Ron Brown Academy. She later clarified, “The relatively new Ron Brown Academy is a school set up just for males of color to give them space to develop identity in an affinity-based setting. Support groups for those who have gone through a common experience or who share a common identity are other examples. By no means am I talking about all-white schools or clubs or any relics of racial segregation.”

However, Bireda challenged the notion that a homogenous learning environment is always necessary for this purpose, pointing out that her own experiences as a black woman in all-white schools actually helped shape her identity. Different children will have different needs, and a one-size-fits-all approach to diversity doesn't work.

Another obstacle is that parents are not equally open to diversity. Niles and Bireda both pointed out that racial minority parents are more willing to send their kids to majority-white schools, whereas the same is not true for white parents–even if that school has good test scores and other indicators of quality education.

Image by Erin used with permission.

If we want better schools, we need to talk about the tough stuff. (Yes, that means race.)

In order to build a more diverse school, Wilson-Phelan says Kindred focused on the deeper issues driving segregation. They created a space where parents could have honest discussions about identity, race, equity, and aspirations for their children. These discussions are hard, she admitted, but "the magic happens" when you bring parents together and allow them to express their concerns without fear. As a result, sometimes more advantaged parents decide to step down to make space for others to take on leadership roles. Other times, these parents decide that a particular diverse school community isn't for them.

Regardless of background, it can seem like an insurmountable task to walk into a PTA meeting where few share your race or cultural upbringing. The fear of any parent is that you might say something wrong or inadvertently offensive. However, that fear stifles conversation, and getting past it may mean we have to confront some uncomfortable truths about ourselves. 

Niles said initially there was no official parent-teachers association at E.L. Haynes, just an informal group mostly comprised of affluent parents who were not representative of the school body's demographics. This group was often reluctant to make decisions for the broader school community, who they suspected may have different experiences, needs, and priorities, and they decided it needed to change. A lot of hard work went into making the group more representative of its students, with Niles herself recruiting a slew of parents who spoke different languages. It wasn't easy or comfortable, but it was successful.

Of course, a more integrated school system is not a silver bullet. Desegregation alone isn't going to fix the opportunity gap or solve systemic racism in education. Nonetheless, finding the courage to have honest conversations about what it means to have a truly diverse school–one where children across socioeconomic and racial backgrounds can thrive–is an important place to start. 

"I just want to create an environment where all students can learn," said Wilson-Phelan. That’s a vision we can all agree on.

This post has been updated to clarify that charter school students currently make up about 46 percent of the student body in DC, and more than 90 percent of these charter school students are black and Latino.