This post was also published by The Huffington Post.
I grew up in a two parent, white, middle class household. I'm a third generation college graduate. My parents are educated professionals and they were able to involve themselves in my education. They entered my name into the magnet school lottery more than once. I never got in, but in retrospect, I’m glad I never won that raffle.
Not because Wake County’s magnet schools aren’t incredible (they are). And not because I don’t believe in magnet schools. I believe that when magnet schools serve their intended purpose - to encourage affluent parents to send their children to high performing schools located in poor areas and vice versa - the programs are a brilliant way to increase school diversity. Of course there are some cases where magnet schools pervert the intended outcome, but I diverge...
I’m glad I never got into the magnet schools because now I can share my experiences with people who might be nervous to send their children to schools with poor children. People who bought homes in areas with a socioeconomic buffer. People who worry that bus rides will be too long or think that the district will be unstable.
I attended my assigned school from kindergarten through twelfth grade in a district that bussed students to ensure no school exceeded 40% free and reduced lunch. In other words, the school board mandated each school be socioeconomically representative of the larger district. Some of the schools I attended were closest to my home and some weren't.
At each school, I received a high quality education. My teachers fanned the flames of my natural curiosity. In kindergarten, I was asked to show off my reading prowess on the morning news. In middle school, I competed as a “Mathlete.” In high school, I aced every single math problem on the SAT. From kindergarten through twelfth grade I received a top-notch, enriching arts education complete with field trips and community partnerships. I never worried about my safety.
I graduated among the top of my class. I got into every college I applied to and was offered several scholarships. I was more than well prepared for college, and continued to receive grants and scholarships once I was there. I exhibit my artwork and publish my writing. To top it all off, I have my dream job.
Enough about me. To make a long story short, I think I turned out pretty good.
Am I just an outlier? What does the research say?
Studies show affluent students are not academically negatively impacted by attending diverse schools. In fact, many studies purport that affluent students actually benefit from diverse environments. Sherrilyn Ifill, NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund president, wants to reframe the way we remember Brown vs. Board of Education. She explains, “We should remember that lawyers for the black students in Brown presented strong evidence of the damaging effects of segregation on white children, too.” Ifill continues:
“Studies show that white students develop better critical thinking and problem-solving skills in a diverse environment. Diverse learning environments also prepare white and non-white children to work in the diverse workplaces they will encounter as adults in 21st century America. Currently, U.S. employers reportedly spend up to $300 million a year on "diversity training" to help their unprepared employees learn the critical skills needed to succeed in diverse work environments.”
So while I don’t believe that my education suffered as a result of attending school with low-income students, I know for certain that as a student in integrated schools, I learned lessons much more important than any content found on a test.
And the benefits for low-income students are simply inarguable. Nikole Hannah-Jones, New York Times investigative reporter, found that although there are dozens of programs designed to help low-income students succeed academically, integrating schools is the only thing that actually works.
All perspectives contain bias. My bias is of a privileged student who thrived in diverse schools. I never knew anything different until I moved away from home. In fact, college was the first time that I realized that other students in North Carolina had very different educational experiences. College was the first time I heard perspectives like “where I’m from, we keep our poor people on the other side of the train tracks.”
And it wasn’t until I started my first teaching job that I understood that my K-12 educational experience was a bright spot in a sea of segregated school districts. The students I taught were so isolated from other socioeconomic classes that many didn’t even know they were poor or what opportunities simply were not available to them. That school district operated with neighborhood schools which are hugely popular with many families. As a teacher, neighborhood schools meant going to work each morning prepared for heartbreak. Instruction was interrupted many times a day in and out of the classroom by fights, fires, theft, chaos, bullying, lock downs, harassment, etc. Unacceptable acts of bullying and violence had to be ignored to handle even more pressing issues. Students were treated more like prisoners than people - with the genuine intention of keeping them safe. Morale was low, teacher turnover was high, and student opportunities were almost nonexistent.
I was horrified.
I hope that all districts can find a way to garner community support for diverse schools - as that support ultimately determines the success of integration.
And sure, even in diverse schools we still have a long way to go to reduce the achievement gap and make sure upper level classes are as diverse as the larger school. However, research shows that having diverse schools in the first place is the only way to get there.
So please, join me in demanding that our local school boards promote diversity in our schools. Otherwise, your children and my students will miss out on significant, life-changing opportunities.