21st Century School Segregation: The Power of Neighborhood Schools

My first two years of teaching, I commuted to work—45 minutes one way, an hour and a half the other. My gas bill was insane and I was constantly stressed out from the traffic. I wanted to move closer to my school, but didn’t really want to live in Kent. Although I loved the staff and the students, I knew I wanted to eventually work in a more urban school. Commuting was the norm for most teachers in our building, and a majority of my colleagues drove in from surrounding cities. We’d joke about the benefits of living out of district—time to plan in the car or going to a bar without worrying about running into parents. But, I always felt the drawbacks outweighed the benefits. I was so exhausted I didn’t feel like I was doing my best teaching. I barely attended after-school activities like dances, football games or musicals. I felt like I wasn’t supporting my students enough and only had a surface level understanding the community’s values.

Deep down, I knew that living so far away from where I taught was counter to my belief system. I grew up as the kind of missionary kid that actually lived in the village my parents worked in. My parents home schooled us so that they could integrate their ministries into our daily lives (that meant at age 8 I was helping deliver babies in the prenatal clinic my mom built in the garage). This is why, after two years at Kentridge High School, I eagerly accepted a job in Clover Park School District just ten minutes from my house. Now, I teach at Lincoln, eat my way up and down 38th street (shout out to Vien Dong, Zocalo, and Dragon Crawsfish!), shop at Cappy’s and the 72nd Fred Meyer, and live on the Eastside of Tacoma. I love it.

I believe in neighborhood schools.

I believe in living and teaching in my neighborhood school.

A strong neighborhood school has the potential to change lives. It can be community-oriented, a center of support for families. It’s the community listening as Clover Park HS seniors describe how they tried to change the world through their senior project. It’s Abe’s Golden Acres providing one ton of food for the Eastside of Tacoma during the summer. It’s the SOMA church donating toiletries and snacks for the Football team. It’s The Grand Cinema sponsoring a Film Club after school. Successful neighborhood schools are thriving hubs that facilitate strong community-school partnerships that promote real world learning experiences for students.

I find myself extremely excited about neighborhood schools that are an integral part of their community and that reflect the racial and cultural makeup of that neighborhood. But the nature of intersectionality prevents me from ignoring the overlapping venn diagrams where race and class meet school and housing policies. Because anyone who doesn’t live under a mushroom can see that the neighborhood school reflects the people living in the ‘hood. So we end up with whiter or browner schools directly reflective of historical housing practices (redlining) and current housing “choice” (aka white families fleeing the urban core).

As a result, our segregated neighborhood schools reveal an increased concentration of the have and have-nots. In my mind, the real issue is the concentration of poverty that accompanies the neighborhood.

One thing I’ve always appreciated about many high-performing charters is that they are neighborhood schools. Many public charters are serving a traditionally marginalized, high poverty population. Programs like KIPP or Greendot are a response to long neglected neighborhoods and communities. And their students are thriving. The anti-charter crowd forgets that segregation already existed in these communities and that the charters went into rejected communities, targeted children that many believe couldn’t learn, and said they were valuable and could achieve. Charters schools don’t promote school segregation. They offer a solution (note: I did not say the solution).

So What?

If we want great public schools for all students then we need to be honest with ourselves about our current conditions. We need to recognize that the current housing and school policies work together for the betterment of some schools and neighborhoods and not others, and with that understanding we can do better. We need to prioritize. Is school choice most important? Does the demographic makeup of the student population really matter? Do we fight to desegregate our schools? Do we work to decentralize concentrated poverty? Do we invest in making amazing neighborhood schools regardless of the makeup of the neighborhood? All of the above?

Now What?

There is so much more to be said or explored. But for now, I want to end with a thought from Korbett Mosesly on my initial post.

“What if we started from the premise that culturally affinity neighborhoods are ok. It is the racial mismatch in educational leadership/teacher and their students that may be an issue if there is a lack of open dialogue and understanding. It’s a lack of equity in resources to provide fully funded educational programs that is an issue. It’s a concentration of intergenerational poverty and a lack of people be willing to have hard conversations about systems of oppression.”

Let’s continue to have those hard conversations.

3 thoughts on “21st Century School Segregation: The Power of Neighborhood Schools

  1. Sean Riley

    Hope, as always, your posts make me think. I don’t have an elegant (or even probably coherent reply) but I do have a few thoughts.

    1) I believe the Stronger Together initiative will happen, and I think it will happen under Hillary (knock on wood). If I remember right, there are 4 $25 million dollar grants and 10 $2 million dollar grants. The “mini” grants are to help districts plan what it could look like to better integrate schools. I really hope a school district in WA goes for one of those. Frankly, I don’t think SPS is near ready sadly. But I do wonder about Tacoma.

    2) In my experience, the challenge with neighborhood schools is, “What if there is no neighborhood?” SeaTac has really high transiency and fewer services than say S. Seattle. It’s a food desert. Many families there viewed it (or hoped it would be) a jumping off point to another place. In that case, it was hard to build the cohesiveness that it sounds like you have in Tacoma. On top of that, it’s one of the most diverse zip codes around and it lacks much of the city history that a Seattle or Tacoma has that develops traditions. We tried–and sometimes succeeded–at creating a place that felt grounding, but it was very hard work, and we were a staff who didn’t live in SeaTac, similar to you not living in Kent. One thing that I think is very true at all Seattle secondary schools is a real sense of this is our history and who we are, and that helps create a a strong sense of identity. It’s very hard to do that in places that are more in flux.

    3) There would have to be significant political will around this (Louisville did it) but a massive problem in King County is levies. a) Seattle passes them and because home values are so high, we generate lots of money. b) Many other places in King County don’t pass them AND home values are less, so when they are passed, there’s not a ton of money. This money could be distributed much more equitably to schools. At least if Seattle is not going to integrate, it can share some of the wealth to create a better educational experience across the county. (This is impossible until the legislature better funds education.)

    Anyway, some random thoughts. I am doing a writing exchange program next school year with my students and a group in S. King County a la Narrative 4. Though I don’t know the answers to your several really good qeustions, I do know it’s really important to get different kinds of kids interacting.

    Keep doing the good work.

  2. Mark Gardner

    I think it would be interesting to compare urban population centers (with the kinds of cultural/community/income clustering that can sometimes precipitate the de facto segregation) against smaller, suburban or rural communities where there are not options for anything other than the neighborhood school. I grew up in the blank spot on the map of Oregon…in my whole county there were three towns (populations of roughly 700, 1300, 6000, plus scattered others, as well as the south half of a federal Indian Reservation) and everyone fed into two high schools about 15/20 miles of farmland apart from one another. Each community…separated by miles of empty space, has a single elementary (or primary/intermediate in two separate buildings), so every kid of a given age within the community is in the same building. There is only one listed private school in the whole county and it serves fewer than 30 kids K-12. There aren’t options. You go to your neighborhood elementary school, and then either your neighborhood high school (if you live in one of the two bigger towns) or get bussed there…or drop out. The next closest school district is an easy 30 miles away, and thus not really an option either.

    These kinds of communities have always intrigued me, not only because I am the product of one. This is the lens (one of the lenses) I’m looking through as I follow your thinking about 21st century segregation.

  3. Jasmine Lawrence

    Dear Hope,

    Last week I started reading this blog because for one of my grad classes I have to follow an educational blog. I read posts from Mark Gardner and now you are the second writer from this blog that I am reading. From Mark I learned that this blog is mostly about the school districts in Washington, however from reading this post I feel like you are describing NYC. I teach in the South Bronx about 45 minutes from where I live in Manhattan. I take the train to school, so I don’t waste any gas money (I don’t even know how to drive, but my father is teaching me).

    My school is a 6-12 grade school and most of the students in the middle school stay until 12 grade. I understand how you feel when you said that you it was counter to your belief that you do not live in the neighborhood where you work. I know that my students feel that I do not relate to them. My students think that I have not gone through the same experiences as them. Many times students have said to me, ” Ms. you sound like a white girl. Where are you from.” When I tell them that I have lived in NYC all my life they are shocked.

    One day I gave a speech to my students on how I do not want them to think that I always lived the high life ( or that I am living it right now). Both my parents were immigrants, so like many of them I am a first generation American. My parents did not live with each other, so I lived in a single family household, but visited my father on the weekends. I know saying this probably did not matter to them , but I wanted to show them that we have many things in common. But of course there are many things that I have not experienced in my life that my students experience in their short life time.

    NYC public schools are very segregated and I saw this when I was interviewing for schools. A school in a gentrified neighborhood in WillIamsburg, Brooklyn had many resources, while a school in Canarise in Brooklyn did not have the resources. One way that I think NYC tries to help with the segregated issue is with the application process to middle and high school. For example, when you are in 5th and 8th grade in NYC you must go through the application process of applying to middle and high school consecutively. Students apply from the hundreds of middle and high schools. Some of them are specialized high school like Bronx Science or Stuyvesant or high school that have a special interest like the Facing History School. In the better schools, you have to take a test and or interview like Manhattan Village Academy (my high school) in the affluent neighborhood of Chelsea. I think that this is one way students escape failing neighborhood schools.

    As you mentioned, charter schools are another way that students escape failing neighborhood schools. My sister works at one of the largest and most controversial charter school systems in NYC, Success Academy. Originally called Harlem Success because they started in Harlem, these schools have taken over NYC. They are best known for achieving the achievement gap of African American and Latino scholars.

    You pose many great questions in the article and had great links in the article, especially about the historical housing practices in the country. The Supreme Court needs to wake up and see that de jure segregation is taking place and our students are suffering. If we want better schools, our neighborhood needs to be better, students need access to better healthcare and adult education classes need to be offered.


    The above link is a great article about the problems that we have in NYC.

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