Last week, I attended a panel hosted by The Century Foundation that discussed the role of charter schools in the fight for integration. Before the panel started, the moderator asked the attendees, “Who believes that integration should be a priority for schools?” I raised my hand. But by the middle of the discussion, my stance on the question had changed.
The debate around integration is often centered on schools and what they can do to attract a diverse student population. But this conversation overlooks an important piece of the puzzle—parents. In the era of school choice, parents ultimately decide which schools their children attend and thus, drive the integration (or segregation) of schools. When we think about facilitating integration by appealing to a certain demographic of prospective families, then we recognize that who schools are trying to attract matters. In other words, the “direction” of integration matters.
There is a difference between trying to attract white and affluent families into minority schools and trying to bring minority families into white, affluent schools. In the case of the latter, the burden of integration often rests on students’ ability to meet a certain set of academic and social standards. In the case of the former, the school has to change to meet the needs of a different demographic. But what does it take for a school of color to make more space for white and affluent families?
I believe it is vital that charters serving minority populations hire a diverse teaching staff with which the students can identify, utilize culturally relevant curricula and create a school culture that liberates students from the often oppressive environments that surround them. However, culturally responsive schools that serve mainly black, brown and low income students, tend to attract a similar demographic of prospective families. On top of that, I have witnessed that the dominant presence of minority populations in schools seems to turn white, affluent families away. Therefore, a school with an environment that affirms and supports its students’ identities might inadvertently keep its population more segregated.
Integration doesn’t occur organically; a school must work to attract the demographic that it is lacking. Schools that serve mainly minority students would likely have to make changes in order to attract more white and affluent families. If making integration a priority comes at the cost of providing minority students with the resources, knowledge and role models they need to thrive, then integration is not my priority.
School integration means so much more than serving a diverse student population. Integration also includes hiring diverse staff members, forming diverse board of directors and utilizing culturally diverse curricula. In the bigger picture of education reform, integration also requires diverse policy makers, superintendents and community leaders.
I absolutely support school integration and believe in the positive outcomes of a diverse student population. However, I don’t believe that integration should be a priority for schools that serve minority students if it comes at the cost of dishonoring their community.