Report Documents Persistent Segregation in Schools

Published on
by
The Boston Globe

Report Documents Persistent Segregation in Schools

Area school segregation called rife

by
James Vaznis

Public schools in the Boston and Springfield metropolitan areas are among the most segregated in the country, often isolating black and Latino students in low-performing schools, according to a report released today by Northeastern University.

Of the 100 large metropolitan regions examined, the Springfield area ranked second (behind Los Angeles) for the most segregated schools for Latino students, while the Boston area ranked fourth (behind New York) in that same category, according to the study by faculty at the Institute on Urban Health Research at Northeastern University's Bouvé College of Health Sciences.

Among the most segregated schools for black students, Springfield ranked ninth and Boston ranked 28th.

Nationwide, black students tend to be more highly segregated than their Latino peers, according to one of the report's authors, although in the two Massachusetts regions studied, the degree of segregation is roughly the same for both groups.

Overall, metropolitan areas in the Northeast and Midwest dominated the rankings for the most segregated schools - the repercussions of segregated housing patterns and centuries-old practices of school districts run mostly by individual cities and towns, rather than by counties, the authors said.

That fragmented approach to public education has great consequences for black and Latino students, who often end up at schools with low achievement, less parental involvement, high rates of absenteeism, and low rates of graduation, according to the report.

In Massachusetts, for instance, all 35 schools the state has declared as underperforming are in urban centers with high black and Latino enrollment and high levels of poverty, while none of the schools are in the largely white suburban or rural towns.

"Many people [in the Northeast and Midwest] have the expectation they can buy into a good school district, entitling them to almost a private level of schooling,'' said Nancy McArdle, a coauthor of the report, in a telephone interview. "It's antithetical to the idea of public schools.''

The report, which will be posted on diversitydata.org, is being released amid a push by President Obama to overhaul the nation's worst schools and to open more schools using innovative programs to close a stubborn achievement gap between students of different races, ethnicities, and income levels.

Much of that effort has focused on work between the nation's cities and their respective state education agencies. But the report's authors add another potential and often overlooked partner to that mix: suburban schools, and the resources they could offer.

Among the report's recommendations: allow students in failing schools to transfer to higher-performing schools outside their communities; create a student-assignment system that encompasses multiple school districts; supplement existing school systems with regional schools that mix urban and suburban students; or expand voluntary desegregation programs such as Metco, which enables roughly 3,500 students in Boston and Springfield to attend suburban schools.

The authors also call on state and local leaders to build more affordable housing in the suburbs and reinvest in depressed city neighborhoods to create more demographically diverse communities.

Many of those ideas have the support of some prominent Massachusetts civil rights groups, which have been pushing Boston school officials for several months to consider these approaches as they look to overhaul the way they assign students to schools.

Laura Rotolo, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said it was disappointing that the Boston and Springfield areas ranked so poorly in the study, decades after the cities desegregated their schools and after various pushes by the state to build more affordable housing in the suburbs.

"It just shows the work we need to do,'' Rotolo said. "The schools are extremely segregated, and we have to do something to change that.''

School districts across the nation have been confused about the extent to which they can use race as a factor in assigning students to schools. That's because the US Supreme Court three years ago invalidated voluntary desegregation plans in Seattle and Louisville, Ky.

The ruling suggested race could not be the basis for assigning students to schools, but civil rights activists have said race can still be one of several factors.

Boston schools Superintendent Carol R. Johnson declined to comment on the report's recommendations because she had not seen a copy of the report.

More broadly, though, Johnson said that creating more affordable housing is critical, as is continuing to improve urban schools. She noted that high-performing schools in the city, such as Boston Latin, have attracted suburban families to the city.

"We certainly want to create integrated communities where students can learn to work with students from different backgrounds,'' Johnson said.

A spokeswoman for Springfield schools also declined to comment on the report's recommendations, but said the district is working aggressively to overhaul its schools.

The Northeastern report examined the distribution of students of different races, ethnicities, and income levels in elementary schools across large metropolitan areas, as defined by the federal government.

Areas were then judged on a scale from zero to 100, with the lowest number representing what the report called "no segregation'' and the highest, "total segregation.'' Anything above 60 was considered high.

The values represent the share of students of a particular demographic that would have to move to another school to achieve full integration, mirroring the demographic makeup of that metropolitan region.

Metro Boston, under the federal formula, encompasses much of Eastern Massachusetts and two counties in New Hampshire, creating a landscape where student enrollment is 67.4 percent white, 14.5 percent Latino, 9 percent black, and 6.8 percent Asian.

The Boston area scored 70 for Latino students and for black students. The Springfield area scored 73 for Latino students and 75 for black students.

McArdle said using metropolitan regions instead of individual school districts in the study provided "a better indication of the housing market people choose to live in.''

"The city of Boston doesn't function in isolation of itself,'' said McArdle, who coauthored the report with Northeastern faculty Theresa Osypuk and Dolores Acevedo-Garcia.

The report doesn't offer specific examples of schools in a region to show the divergent demographic mixes. But according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the contrasts are stark.

For instance, at the John F. Kennedy School in Jamaica Plain, which the state declared underperforming this year, 80 percent of the students are Latino.

By contrast, General John Nixon Elementary School in Sudbury, where fifth-graders had the highest English MCAS scores last spring, 88 percent of students are white, according to enrollment data the districts reported to the state last fall.

Even within Boston, demographics can vary widely. Latino students account for 82 percent of enrollment at the William Blackstone School in the South End, while in South Boston, one neighborhood away, whites account for 62 percent of enrollment at the Oliver Hazard Perry School.

"Every parent wants the best for their children,'' McArdle said. "It is very shortsighted to continue to isolate ourselves into specific communities and focus only on our own community and not look more broadly.''

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