Voices in Education

The Politics of Creating Diverse Schools
Binford Middle School, a regal, grey-stone building, taking up a full city block, stands in the middle of Richmond, Virginia’s historic Fan neighborhood. This past fall, I found myself seated uncomfortably in one of the school’s built-in wooden auditorium seats for the second time in under a year—with twenty-five years between the more recent occasions and the last.

The circumstances drawing me to Binford’s auditorium over time were different but tied together by school integration. I visited the auditorium regularly as a white student in the early ’90s, when Binford was a highly sought-after model school that drew in racially and economically diverse families from around the city.

Decades later, in 2018, as part of research for A Single Garment, a new book on creating intentionally diverse schools, I found myself listening to Binford’s principal pitch the school’s arts integration program to a large group of well-heeled, mostly white families who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods. Binford’s enrollment had declined sharply in the years leading up to the pitch, in part because assigned families were choosing other public (and private) middle schools in the area. At the end of the principal’s remarks, families buzzed out of the room, chatting excitedly about Binford, a school that reflected the demographics of the urban school system (about 70 percent black, 20 percent white and 10 percent students identifying with other racial/ethnic groups) and the effective blend of art and academic content in a student showcase.

Then, on a warm October evening in 2019, there I was in Binford’s auditorium again, observing vitriolic public feedback from a virtually all-white audience on proposals to change attendance boundaries—the lines that determine which neighborhoods are assigned to which schools—in ways that created more diverse schools. The room vibrated with tension.

Here’s a small sampling of the dialogue from the 2018 and 2019 events at Binford so that you can feel for yourself the different emotions the two evenings elicited.

Principal Melissa Rickey, at the 2018 arts integration open house, said, “We think that school should be joyful. We also believe that it should look like the city.” Her words capped an evening of intertwined student diversity, creativity, and academics on display via gigantic, rap-battling paper-mache historical figures, spoken word identity poems, and student videos reimagining Richmond’s Confederate monuments, among other projects.

Contrast the above with a snippet from the 2019 school rezoning meeting for the western chunk of Richmond, where a longtime white resident commented, to loud applause: “There used to be crime elements at [school name] . . . then we saw normal, middle class instruction . . . one of the things we have to look at, it’s not necessarily diversity, it’s the socioeconomic problems we have.” Similarly biased and classist sentiments have been expressed elsewhere during school rezoning processes. But there were other perspectives, too: “Our schools are functionally segregated,” said a different white community member. “We do believe diversity is beneficial to all children . . . there are different methods we can use and there are concerns about how to do it.” And then a statement from yet another white Fan resident that pulls it all together:
No one in this room would say they don’t support integration. Redrawing [attendance] lines doesn’t do it though. Just because you draw a line doesn’t mean that everyone will go . . . [Binford] is a success. Six years ago, there were 207 kids in a building that holds 500. No kids from the [Fan] neighborhood were coming to the school . . . [the change] wasn’t because we drew lines, it was because of a turnaround arts program and a rockstar principal . . . do we take a big government approach or do we do it this way?
In short, many speakers at Binford’s rezoning meeting were experiencing a disconnect between thinking diverse schools were important and supporting policy to make them a reality. Meeting participants struggled to agree on the source of the problem, and found redrawing attendance boundaries an inappropriate solution, despite the fact that research and law tell us that redrawing those lines is an opportunity to reduce segregation.

A new upsurge in polling data on school integration offers some broader context for what I heard in Richmond. Overall, 53 percent of Americans say the federal government should take steps to reduce racial segregation in schools. Marked variations by race are apparent, though: 43 percent of white respondents thought the federal government should intervene to reduce racial segregation compared to 78 percent of black and 76 percent of Hispanic respondents, according to a Gallup poll released in the fall of 2019. When asked if it was important that children of different races go to school together, about 81 percent of families, on average, agreed, according to a separate Harvard-based poll from the same time period. Support was roughly even across geography (e.g., urban, suburban, rural), political parties, race, and gender. And there were signs that support for racially diverse schools was rising in today’s divisive political climate.

And yet. While the overwhelming majority of parents say they want a racially diverse school, the share of families who would prefer a racially diverse school if it meant a longer commute dropped to 25 percent, based on a 2017 Phi Delta Kappan survey. So what unfolded during the Richmond revisions to school attendance boundaries captured the attitudinal dilemma almost perfectly. We value racially diverse schools in theory—a sea change in public opinion since Brown v. Board of Education, to be sure—but we wrestle with what we’re willing to do to achieve them in practice.

I’ve been thinking through this dilemma more often than not in the months since the October 2019 feedback session at Binford. Given contemporary legal pressures that make voluntary, rather than court-ordered, school integration necessary in most communities, what kinds of strategies can garner enough political will to nudge the needle over toward more diverse schools? What would a both/and approach mean for schools like Binford (e.g., can we redraw attendance boundaries to nurture diversity and implement specialized programming)? What does voluntary integration look like in changing communities, as cities gentrify and suburbs diversify? How can local, state, and federal governments incentivize integration through policy and funding? Fundamentally, how can we better communicate the research on school integration to the vast majority of families who may value school diversity on some abstract level, but who may not understand how invaluable it is for the lives of individual students and to the health of society in general? I don’t claim for a second that A Single Garment contains all of the answers to these questions, but it does take them up carefully, drawing on integration stories from four schools to demonstrate the possibilities and challenges of our present moment.

About the Author: Genevieve Siegel‐Hawley is an associate professor in educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University. She is the author of A Single Garment: Creating Intentionally Diverse Schools That Benefit All Children (Harvard Education Press, 2020).