The Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, D.C., is one of those places that demographers talk about when they celebrate the return of young, affluent – often white – professionals back into the city. Upper-middle class families have been moving in. And many of them have even begun to do what had long been unthinkable in four decades of white flight to the suburbs all across the country: They're enrolling their children in neighborhood public schools.
As this pattern plays out in gentrifying urban communities around Washington and elsewhere, it raises the possibility – albeit a fleeting one – that long-segregated schools in urban American might finally, if uneasily integrate. America's student body is now roughly 50 percent white, 50 percent minority. But by many measures, schools are no more integrated than they were three decades ago. The average white student attends a school where the student body is about 77 percent white. And the vast majority of low-income black children go to schools filled with children who look just like them, setting them up for long odds at educational and life success as researchers have documented them.
"Particularly if you are low-income, particularly if you’re low-income and African American, going to a school that’s a segregated school – where basically everyone else is low-income and minority – is on average a very bad place to be," says Michael Petrilli, an executive vice president of the Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., speaking this week at the American Planning Association's annual conference. "Those students do worse academically. They do worse on lots of other kinds of outcomes as well."
Much evidence suggests that it would be good for these children to have middle-class and upper-income white peers settle into some of the desks around to them. But gentrifying public schools could easily follow the same path many fear in the neighborhoods beyond their doors.
"My big concern that I see in D.C. – and that I see starting to happen in other cities, too – is that we’re going to miss out on this historic opportunity to create diverse schools," Petrilli says. "We have neighborhoods changing, becoming more diverse as upper-middle-class families move in and they stay. And as a result, these neighborhood schools are becoming more diverse. What I worry is going to happen in some cases, without smart school placement policies, is that as those neighborhoods flip, those neighborhood schools are going to flip, too."
A black school within five or six years could easily become a white one.
That prospect suggests that cities and school districts have a narrow window to figure out how to leverage the arrival of affluent families willing to bet on public schools before this newfound diversity in their classrooms disappears. The challenge requires, as Petrilli puts it, smart school placement policies (and the input of urban planners seldom included in school district decisions). Most cities haven't yet figured out what those policies might look like, or are currently trying to sort that out. The school districts in Seattle, San Francisco, Louisville, Raleigh, New York City and Boston have all been working on this question lately, rethinking how they assign children to schools and what "school choice" should mean.
Boston is planning next year to adopt a new school assignment policy. The district currently buses 70 percent of K-5 children to school despite the fact that about 90 percent of them live within a mile of an elementary school. As a result, the city spends 10 percent of its school budget simply driving children around.
In the search for smart school placement policies, Boston's outdated system is clearly not it. This is the algorithm the district currently uses to assign a kindergartner to a school, based on her parents' top choices (bear with us in scrolling down):
That algorithm factors in the "walkzone" where children live (a neighborhood classification in Boston's long-running school assignment system). But other than that, distance to a school as a criteria in this algorithm doesn't really matter. The result is that children spend their after-school hours riding the bus, neighborhoods that might otherwise coalesce around the school as a civic center don't do that, the city spends vast resources on transportation instead of education, and minority low-income children wind up busing across town to other schools full of minority, low-income children.
If school systems could figure out how to create diverse schools amid gentrification, that might also enable what Jennifer Stillman, the author of Gentrification and Schools, calls the missing piece in most gentrifying neighborhoods: "meaningful social interaction" between a neighborhood's new arrivals and its existing residents. These two groups are likely to go to different restaurants, different churches, even different grocery stores.
"But schools, to me, are the one place in the community that really are the anchors of the neighborhoods where meaningful social interaction can happen," Stillman says. Integrate schools, in other words, and that might help better integrate the neighborhoods around them.
Of course, it's not enough to put all of these children inside a schoolhouse together. Teachers then have to figure out how to accommodate learners from vastly different backgrounds – and we know that children of different socioeconomic status enter even preschool on unequal footing – without simply separating some kids into "gifted" programs.
"Imagine what that looks like in a diverse school," Petrilli says. "You now have a school that on paper is integrated, but you walk inside the doors, and it looks quite segregated."
There's no basic algorithm for how to do all of this. But demographic trends suggest that urban school districts now have a rare opportunity to try to get this right.