Lessons on Integration From Around the Country
As SFUSD redesigns our elementary school assignment policy, one of our primary goals is to create integrated elementary schools that provide students with the opportunity to experience the rich diversity of our city. In our last blog post, we explored the benefits of integrated schools.
In this post, we will highlight a few school districts that have had success integrating their schools so that we can draw inspiration and insight from their plans. These exemplar districts have sustained ongoing commitments to integration, and have achieved inspiring successes at improving racial equity and educational quality for all children.
Our neighbors just across the Bay in Berkeley have a long and proud history of voluntary, community-supported desegregation in their elementary schools. For over fifty years, Berkeley Unified School District has maintained innovative desegregation plans. The current plan allows for controlled choice within attendance zones that were strategically drawn to overcome residential segregation by encompassing both the predominantly white and affluent Berkeley Hills and predominantly non-white and less wealthy flatland neighborhoods.
Each student is assigned a diversity score based on their immediate neighborhood demographics (race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and parents’ education levels) which follows students into the school assignment process.
Families can apply for any elementary school in their attendance zone, and the district assigns students using both family preference and the child’s diversity score so that each elementary school’s overall diversity score is roughly the same as the overall attendance zone. This controlled choice approach allows families to express their preferences but ensures that those preferences do not undermine the district’s overall diversity goals. Not every student gets their first choice school, which requires a community-wide understanding and agreement that the Berkeley public schools are invested in enhancing educational opportunities for all students, while also trying to accommodate individual families’ preferences.
Our neighbor’s success with its controlled choice plan and intentionally drawn attendance zones offer us proof that desegregation can succeed here in the Bay Area. Berkeley sustains integrated schools by offering families the freedom to choose among a small number of intentionally diverse schools; San Francisco - with our small geographic area and extraordinary diversity - has the opportunity to do the same.
Jefferson County, Kentucky
Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) covers Louisville, Kentucky and its surrounding suburbs - a rare urban-suburban school district. This regional scope allows the district to achieve integration even though the region is very geographically segregated, with a large Black population in Louisville proper, and large white populations in the suburbs.
Similar to Berkeley’s desegregation plan, JCPS uses controlled choice and diversity scores to give families input into their child’s school assignment while also maintaining school diversity. JCPS, like Berkeley, has large attendance zones that have been drawn to maximize diversity within each zone, and families can apply for schools within the zone.
This controlled choice plan is a hit: though not every family gets assigned their first choice school, a recent study showed that 90% of kindergarten parents were happy with their child’s school assignment and educational experience.
District-provided transportation is a key feature that makes this program work in such a large urban-suburban district. JCPS and its community have a long tradition of busing as the way to ensure that residential segregation does not lead to school segregation; in 2016, 69,000 students rode buses to school. Though commuting to schools in other neighborhoods is not anyone’s favorite part of the system, the Jefferson County community supports the plan nonetheless.
Another integral component of JCPS’s enduring success has been the commitment and participation of Jefferson County families from every racial and socioeconomic background. If any group had not embraced the plan - affluent families moving away or leaving for private schools, for instance - the whole plan would have failed. Without participation and support from the large majority of the community (around 90% of families express support for the plan), even the most well-designed plan could not succeed.
Though JCPS is different from SFUSD in many ways, its commitment to and success with desegregation prove what’s possible when an entire community rallies around a common goal. The San Francisco community - with our shared values of diversity, equity, and social justice - can also work together to integrate our schools.
Cambridge has a long and stable commitment to desegregation going back to the 1980s, and it uses the now-familiar controlled choice model to achieve those goals.
Unlike Berkeley and Jefferson County, which use race in their formulation of diversity scores, Cambridge has responded to the changing legal landscape for desegregation by using socioeconomic status as its only diversity consideration in student assignment. Unfortunately, literally centuries of racist policies and practices have made Black and brown families much more likely to be low-income than their white peers, so Cambridge’s socioeconomic diversity plan also achieves racial diversity.
This plan has not only integrated Cambridge’s schools, but has also led to strong academic outcomes for all students, and attracted new families to the district. Graduation rates for all racial and socioeconomic groups are higher in Cambridge than in demographically-similar, segregated districts. Public school enrollment is also steadily increasing each year as more and more families choose public over private.
Of course, Cambridge is an opportunity-rich city that is home to Harvard and MIT, but the excellent results for students of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds should excite us here in San Francisco, another opportunity-rich city that has a chance to share those opportunities with all our students in our new student assignment plan.
Springfield is another interesting case of a city committed to desegregation, but unlike the other cities in this post, Springfield offers very little family choice in its plan to achieve its diversity goals. Instead, it simply draws intentionally diverse attendance boundaries and assigns students to their attendance area school.
This sounds a lot like the neighborhood school model that many of us are familiar with; however, Springfield’s zones are intentionally drawn to maximize diversity, even if that means that some students have to travel a little further to get to school.
Another interesting feature of Springfield’s student assignment plan is that its attendance zones are redrawn every four or five years in order to keep up with changing neighborhood demographics. This nimble response to white flight, gentrification, and other residential trends allows the district to pursue its diversity goals even as Springfield changes.
San Francisco is a dynamic, changing city, and Springfield provides us an example of how to remain focused on desegregation even as our neighborhoods change.
While none of these case studies are perfect replicas of San Francisco and our unique diversity, geography, and history, taken together, they each offer interesting and inspiring ideas of how to integrate our schools. Some common themes that might serve us here in San Francisco include:
- Community support: Though the school districts have used innovative approaches to desegregate and achieve diversity, they have only succeeded because the community has embraced the plan and rallied around the goals.
- “We Over Me”: Of course every family wants their child to go to their favorite school, but in these four communities, families have decided that the community goal of school integration is even more important than the individual value of choice.
- Crucially, this shift in focus from “me” to “we” is not a zero sum game where some families have to “lose” for others to “win.” Embracing school as a shared public good ends up benefiting the entire community, including families that do not receive their first choice school.
- Sticking with it: These districts did not achieve integration overnight; in fact, each of them is still grappling with both persistent and new challenges in their pursuit of educational equity. However, these communities seem to understand that it took decades of policy and practice to create our segregated neighborhoods and schools, and it stands to reason that it will take hard work to reverse this terrible legacy. As we create a new student assignment system in SFUSD, we can anticipate that it won’t be perfect right away and that it will take continuous effort and engagement to make any system work.
Our city has the incredible advantages of racial and socioeconomic diversity, and our community deeply values diversity, equity, and social justice. Our new student assignment plan provides us with a unique opportunity to live these values and integrate our city’s schools.
This is the fifth of five posts in SFUSD’s Student Assignment Blog.
The Student Assignment Blog is written and edited by Reed Levitt (SFUSD Communications Intern & Master of Public Policy Candidate, Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley) and Henry O’Connell (Student Assignment Project Manager, SFUSD).
This page was last updated on July 26, 2021