Voices in Education

Can We Foster School Integration in Our Changing Suburban Communities?
America’s suburbs are in the middle of a profound racial/ethnic and socioeconomic transformation. In 1994, I began attending a regional high school alongside students from the suburban school system that is the focus of “Educational Gerrymandering: Race and Attendance Boundaries in a Demographically Changing Suburb” (Siegel-Hawley, Winter 2013 HER). At that time, the district was about 66 percent white and approximately 15 percent of students qualified for free and reduced priced lunch, a measure of relative poverty. Fast forwarding twenty years to the present day, however, highlights a set of stark changes. Henrico County Public Schools (HCPS) is now a majority-minority school district in which poor students account for 41percent of the enrollment. These shifts in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia, are increasingly emblematic of broader national trends.

Rapid demographic change in our suburban schools offers many possibilities for better preparing students for the multiracial and global society they will inhabit. Diverse educational settings that guard against tracking and other mechanisms that separate students within schools can foster important educational and social outcomes for all students. But such opportunities are squandered--and real harms are introduced--when changing suburban districts allow students to become highly segregated between schools in the same system. A large body of social science research shows that segregation remains linked to deeply unequal educational conditions and outcomes.

Several years ago, in the early aftermath of Parents Involved (2007), a U.S. Supreme Court decision that limited the way that school systems could think about race in student assignment, I became aware of a redistricting process underway in HCPS. The district was preparing to redraw the boundaries for all of the system’s high school attendance zones in order to make way for the construction of a new building. When it comes to segregation, the location of schools and the attendance boundaries surrounding them matter a great deal. Both help dictate how students living in various neighborhoods are assigned to schools, thus determining the extent to which residential patterns of segregation will be reflected in school enrollments.

Importantly, while the Parents Involved decision represented a setback for districts committed to voluntary integration strategies, it expressly provided for a consideration of the demographic makeup of neighborhoods during school site selection and redistricting. In other words, districts are allowed to foster school integration by thinking carefully about the racial and/or socioeconomic composition of the neighborhoods served by a particular school.

I decided to explore whether or not HCPS school officials had taken advantage of the increasingly diverse nature of the county when they chose a site for the new high school and reworked the attendance boundaries for district high schools. Would the suburban district choose to promote integration in its schools, I wondered, or would the new boundary lines intensify segregation instead? These thorny questions regularly confront education stakeholders in changing suburban school districts. And how they are answered has absolutely critical implications for the ongoing struggle to live up to Dr. King's vision of a truly integrated society. “Educational Gerrymandering” highlights the challenges of remaining true to that vision, but also offers important possibilities for moving forward.

About the Author: Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, assistant professor in education leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, researches the effects of school segregation and resegregation, with an eye toward exploring whether educational policy can be leveraged to promote a truly integrated society.