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DC’s racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic demographics are changing, but are these demographic changes reflected in DC’s public schools? A new report from the DC Policy Center reveals perhaps surprising patterns of diversity in the city’s schools: while more than half of DCPS and public charter schools serve students from just one racial or ethnic group, students are much more likely to attend schools that are economically diverse.

The DC Policy Center’s report, one of a series papers written about school diversity, offers a snapshot of racial, ethnic, and economic diversity across the city. As DC’s population grows and gentrification—and other forms of neighborhood change—alters the composition of neighborhoods, researchers, policymakers, and advocates alike have sought to understand whether these changes could lead to more diversity in the city’s public schools.

Measuring racial, ethnic, and economic diversity in DC

Racial, ethnic, and economic diversity can be measured in a number of ways, such as equal representation of groups in a school or the relationship between a school’s demographics and the demographics of its catchment area. DC’s local context makes using some of these metrics challenging.

A measure of racial and ethnic diversity based on equal representation of all groups, for example, is less helpful for DC because White and Latinx students comprise a much smaller proportion of the public school population than African American students. Further, the availability of school choice options means that students often travel outside of their catchment area to attend schools, which means that measures that consider the demographics of the surrounding area may not capture diversity in public schools.

According to Chelsea Coffin, the report’s author, “There is a potential for schools to have more diversity than our neighborhoods.”

The analysis relies on measures of diversity based on students’ exposure to other groups based on race, ethnicity, and economic status. For race and ethnicity, Coffin identified the group that comprised the plurality of students in a school and then summed the percentages of all other groups (i.e., African American, Latinx, White, and other students) to develop a racial and ethnic diversity score.

The analysis used a similar measure for economic diversity: first, Coffin identified whether students who are at-risk or not at-risk comprise the plurality of students in the school. The identification of at-risk students uses proxy measures that consider whether students receive benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, are homeless, are involved in the foster care system, or who more than a year behind in high school.

Coffin acknowledges the limitations of using an at-risk measure as a proxy for economic diversity since it’s not purely an income measure. “We chose the at-risk measure because it was the best available data of students by income. I would love to see more nuanced data on students,” she said.

A snapshot of diversity in DC’s schools

The study found lower levels of racial and ethnic diversity across all public schools relative to the city’s population of school-age children. However, DCPS and public charter schools were more likely to serve students from diverse economic backgrounds. In addition:

  1. Compared with the composition of DC’s student body, students tend to attend schools with less racial and ethnic diversity. At half of all public schools, 90% of students attend schools that serve just one racial or ethnic group. At these schools, African American students comprise the largest share of the student population.
  2. DCPS schools tend to be more racially diverse than public charter schools. But, the analysis suggests that racial and ethnic diversity may increase as the number of at-risk students who attend the school decreases.
  3. Schools that are more racially diverse—many of which are located in Wards 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6—tend to have populations where White or Latinx students comprise the plurality of the student body.
  4. There is limited overlap in racial, ethnic, and economic diversity. The analysis identified only eight schools across the city with high levels of diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, and income.
  5. While schools in Wards 7 and 8 have lower levels of racial and ethnic diversity, the study found that economic diversity in more than half of these schools has increased.

Coffin found the findings about economic diversity in Wards 7 and 8 among the most surprising findings of the analysis. “Something you don’t hear about is economic variation in schools that are majority African American in DC. Some of the schools were extremely economic diverse. You hear about east of the river as being a monolith, but it really isn’t.”

Schools with growing racial and ethnic diversity were spread throughout the city, but a larger share of the schools with growing diversity were located in Ward 2 and Ward 4. The researchers suggest that school-diversity in Ward 4, in particular, were linked to changing demographics as the proportion of African American under the age of 18 decreased between 2014 and 2016.

Coffin cautions that the smaller proportion of African American children in this ward does not necessarily mean that this ward is losing this population, but rather is gaining a larger share of Latinx students. Indeed, as GGWash’s Alex Baca and Nick Finio found, the share of the city’s Latinx population in mid-city and parts of the northeast quadrant has increased since the 1980s.

As schools grow, they need to be thoughtful about diversity

Coffin hopes to revisit the analysis in the future to understand whether and how schools change as DC’s neighborhood demographics change over time. For Coffin, the report’s findings have important implications at the school level: “As schools seek diversity, as the school population changes, those schools will need to think about how to maintain diversity in their buildings.”

But, diversity is about more than getting students of different racial, ethnic, and economic backgrounds in the building.

As Coffin explained, “Getting the right mix of students in a building doesn’t necessarily mean that classes are integrated or that you’re getting the benefits of diverse schools. A city-wide policy involves thinking about how to make sure that students are integrated into their schools.”

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.