Hugs after a matinee performance of Annie at Stuart-Hobson Middle School. Image by Jim Havard used with permission.

Gentrification is actually boosting diversity in DC’s public schools, a new study suggests. While many white parents are still sending their kids away to schools outside of their neighborhood or enrolling them in private institutions, the study shows an increasing number are choosing public schools over charters. However, care must be taken to ensure that traditionally disadvantaged students benefit from the increased diversity.

After decades of white and middle-class flight from the cities to suburban areas, cities across the country are experiencing rapid racial and socioeconomic demographic shifts, including DC. These demographic changes have prompted local governments and developers to reinvest in previously ignored urban neighborhoods, leading to improvements in housing, public services, and other amenities.

As gentrification brings physical and demographic changes to urban neighborhoods, a growing body of research has begun to explore its effects. A new study from The Civil Rights Project at UCLA indicates that gentrification-related demographic change could reduce racial and socioeconomic segregation in urban public schools.

Heading to school in DC. Image by sglazerman licensed under Creative Commons.

Here's how researchers linked neighborhood and school change

The study examined the effects of gentrification on racial and socioeconomic diversity in public schools in DC’s fastest gentrifying neighborhoods. The word “gentrification” can have a lot of meanings, but the authors specifically looked at changes in the proportion of white residents to understand whether and how gentrification influences racial and socioeconomic diversity.

Drawing on data from the US Census Bureau, the researchers identified 11 census tracts where the proportion of white residents grew by at least 25 percentage points between 2000 and 2015. By 2015, these census tracts had a combined median income of over $94,000 and almost half of their 34,000 residents were white.

To examine school-level demographic changes, the researchers identified 67 schools within a one-mile radius of the center of each of the 11 rapidly gentrifying census tracts. The study compares school demographics in 2000, 2007, and 2014.

Image by Erin used with permission.

School enrollment trends in gentrifying communities

The study found several surprising results. White students comprise a small share of the population enrolled in traditional public schools and charter schools in the District. However:

  1. Between 2000 and 2014, public schools in both gentrifying and non-gentrifying neighborhoods saw small increases in the proportion of white students enrolled. Public schools in gentrifying areas had a higher increase in the proportion of white students enrolled between 2000 and 2014.
     
  2. Nonetheless, despite those small increases the proportion of white students enrolled in public schools in gentrifying areas does not yet match the proportion of white school age children (i.e., ages 5-17) living in gentrifying areas. This suggests that white parents in these areas send their children to schools outside of their neighborhoods or enroll them in private schools.
     
  3. The share of white students in both gentrifying and non-gentrifying neighborhoods is higher in traditional public schools than in charter schools. This was surprising to Kfir Mordechay, a research associate at The Civil Rights Project and one of the study’s co-authors. In contrast, previous research suggests that charter schools may allow gentrifiers to opt out of traditional public schools but delay a complete exit from the public school system.

Despite DC’s large charter market, white parents appear less likely to choose charter schools in gentrifying and non-gentrifying areas, underscoring the importance of understanding how gentrification influences school enrollment patterns in a range of contexts.

Image by Erin used with permission.

Minimizing displacement and exclusion

Gentrification is not without challenges, and previous research has documented how the process may contribute to the physical and political marginalization of longtime residents, particularly lower-income residents and residents of color. While the study’s findings suggest that racially and economically integrated schools is a beneficial product of gentrification, the process must be managed in ways that minimize residential displacement and other forms of exclusion.

According to Dr. Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project, it's not enough to let gentrification play out on its own. "You have to have housing policies that enable people to stay [in their communities]." 

The researchers offer several policy recommendations that are grounded in the relationships among housing, communities, and schools. For neighborhoods, commitment to affordable housing and residential assistance programs at the federal and municipal levels has the potential to create economic and social opportunities for families who might otherwise be priced out by changes to housing markets in gentrifying communities.

For schools and districts, policymakers and practitioners can support policies that support racial and socioeconomic diversity while also expanding educational opportunities for all students.

Magnet schools with specialized academic offerings have the potential to encourage new parents to choose public schools while also providing new learning experiences for lower-income students and students of color. Magnet programs, however, must be designed in ways that secure equitable access to these schools and that support racial and socioeconomic diversity.

Given existing levels of racial segregation in the city’s charter schools, policies that encourage diversity may also support increased school integration in gentrifying communities.

Image by kittivanilli licensed under Creative Commons.

What comes next?

Mordechay recognizes that the process and outcomes of gentrification are locally dependent and that future research must examine the phenomenon in a variety of settings. In addition to understanding how gentrification affects school diversity, he sees exploring how school leaders respond to changing demographics as a potential next phase for research.

Gentrification is a complex phenomenon, and The Civil Rights Project’s study highlights a potential benefit of neighborhood change. Nonetheless, the process must be managed in ways that ensure that all residents benefit from the social and economic investments to urban neighborhoods.

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Alisha Butler is a graduate student in education policy, focusing on the effects of gentrification on public schools. She lives in Washington, DC and enjoys running long distances.