Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Has Denver Found the Magic Sauce for School Diversity and Equal Access for Low Income Students?

Social science has long demonstrated the various harms that students suffer as a result of attending high poverty schools.  Some of those are obvious ones regarding access to resources like teachers, but also include peer-to-peer effects.  Students learn a tremendous amount from one another, and students in low-income schools tend to be deprived of important peer-to-peer influences.  These resources and influences are so central to an adequate education that I have argued that denying students equal access to middle-income environments violates their constitutional right to education under state law. 

At the same time, all students, regardless of wealth, benefit academically and socially from exposure to diversity.  In other words, middle-income white students have a lot to learn from low-income minorities as well.  Thus, Rob Garda argues white parents must recognize and pursue these benefits.  Otherwise, they are disadvantaging their children as well.  He aptly points out that the way to ensure integration is to focus on the interest convergence between these communities.  

[He] describ[es] the interest-convergence theory and how white interests explain the course and content of the Supreme Court’s desegregation and affirmative action jurisprudence. Multiracial schools will not be created or endure unless white parents believe it to be in their children’s best interests. [He] next describes the extreme racial segregation in schools today and how white children are the most racially isolated students. This isolation contributes to the unconscious and automatic racial bias that infects everyone and will impair white children’s ability to successfully navigate the multicultural marketplace. Integrated schools, however, can de-bias white children and teach them cross-cultural competence, a skill they will need to effectively participate in a market with increasingly multicultural customers, co-workers and global business partners. 

These benefits are so compelling that a group of the nation's leading education scholars recently filed an amicus brief before the Minnesota Supreme Court arguing that a diverse educational environment falls within the meaning of an adequate education.

Denver just announced a new school assignment policy that, on its face, seems to find the interest convergence Garda references.  Denver is responding to the calls of parents at high-performing schools for more diverse learning environments.  It seeks to achieve this goal by make socio-economic status an explicit priority in admission to these schools.  The devil is, of course, in the detail and it matters tremendously how many seats in these high performing schools Denver will open, but this is a crucially important step regardless.  The press release offers this explanation:

Denver Public Schools (DPS) Superintendent Tom Boasberg shared how the school district will help schools continue to increase diversity while still meeting the needs of their communities. DPS is now giving priority seating at select high-performing schools to students who qualify for free- and reduced-price lunch (FRL) during the district’s SchoolChoice process.

“Research shows that at whatever income level, all students benefit from being in diverse schools – that is true both academically and socially,” said Superintendent Tom Boasberg. “We hear from students and families about how much they value being members of a diverse community. They want to make sure their classrooms and their learning experiences are ones that they’re sharing and learning from students all across Denver who represent the racial, ethnic and economic diversity that is a strength of our city.”

In 2016, with the goal of providing more integrated schools, DPS began a pilot program at some high-performing, low-poverty schools to prioritize enrollment for students eligible for FRL, an indicator of poverty. In these schools, students living within the boundary still have priority; outside the boundary, the priority goes to low-income students. After receiving positive feedback from the community through DPS’ Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative, more schools have expressed interest in participating in this pilot program.

“This is our first year as a school community, and we welcome the chance to offer seats in our school to students who need it the most,” said Inspire Elementary Principal Marisol Enriquez. “We have a commitment to equity and we believe it’s important for our students to grow surrounded by diversity.”

As the city continues to grow and housing prices increase, many parts of Denver are undergoing major shifts in demographics. This is resulting in significant changes in housing patterns and a major reduction in many neighborhoods of school-aged children. Diverse neighborhoods are struggling to balance the challenges of gentrification with the rich cultural histories of these communities. DPS’ priority seating effort maintains the school district’s enrollment priorities and promotes vibrant neighborhoods.

Racial Integration and Diversity | Permalink


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