How One Teacher Grapples with School Segregation

Throughout February, my fourth and fifth graders have been tackling texts regarding civil rights issues. One such text accurately stated: “Before the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, black and white children couldn’t live, play, or go to school together.” This was followed by a multiple choice question: “When were black and white children able to live, play, and go to school together?” Of course, my bright students quickly underlined the text evidence citing the “correct” answer, the 1960s.

My emphatic affirmation of their answer was short-lived as I looked around my classroom. My students share the same skin color with every one of their school peers but with only 32% of their city and 12% of the country overall. Sure, segregation may have legally ended long before they were born, but my students are still living in a segregated school system—as are the students a few miles north who attend a school that is all white, and the students a few miles west who attend schools that are primarily Latino.

In their neighborhood, my students have little opportunity to live or play with any person of another race, and the only person of another race with whom they go to school is their teacher. In an increasingly diversified and globalized world, educating our students in a racially homogeneous environment puts our students at a disadvantage for social and professional success post-graduation.

And while it’s easy to blame school segregation on neighborhood segregation, researchers have actually found that even in racially and economically mixed neighborhoods, schools are extremely segregated. In fact, school segregation has increased rather than decreased in recent years. In a New York Times article, Elizabeth Harris explains how neighborhood schools in NYC are becoming less diverse as more charter and magnet schools with selective enrollment draw white, affluent families away from the local, traditional buildings.

Increased parental agency may be an American ideal, but we need to start asking what other ideals we are compromising when we offer school choice without guaranteeing the social networks, transportation, time, and culturally responsive teaching practices that make non-traditional options equally attractive to all students and their families.

As I looked around my classroom that day, I contemplated what I should do. Maybe it’s ironic to say that the issue is far from black and white; there’s no easy way to fix this problem. But as a starting point, we can at least acknowledge that there is a problem.

The kids themselves can help. Sensing my silence in response to that worksheet in class, a student timidly raised his hand and asked, “Isn’t the Civil Rights Movement still going on?” I nodded, telling the students, “Yes—so long as we are moving.” And I told them to cross out the multiple-choice question.

To learn more about integrated schools, watch this session from Teach For America’s recent 25th Anniversary Summit about intentionally diverse learning communities.