The Wake County Public School System in North Carolina — once hailed as a district with "no bad schools" — is using a community economic health measure as a new guide for achieving a more socioeconomically balanced school district.
Schools in communities far exceeding county averages on indicators, such as the percentage of households on food stamps or the percentage of families spending 30% or more on housing, would be considered socioeconomically “unhealthy” and targeted for integration strategies. But whether that would include reassigning students to different schools or creating enrollment incentives such as after-school programs has yet to be decided.
The plan, explained WCPSS school board Chair Keith Sutton, is an effort to refocus the district on equity following a period of rapid enrollment growth that increased the number of schools with concentrations of students in poverty or students from affluent families.
“We became more focused on managing growth than managing diversity,” Sutton said, adding before the recession, the district, located in the Research Triangle region, was adding roughly 6,000 students a year — about the size of an average North Carolina school district.
“We could barely build schools fast enough. We were redrawing lines and shuffling students every year.”
The district’s integration efforts in the 2000s are highlighted in a recent study that found the combination of policies the district used — including strategically locating magnet programs in majority-minority schools and reassigning students to different schools — significantly reduced segregation for black students who would have attended a majority-minority school if a residence-based assignment plan had been used.
The aim was to have schools in which no more than 40% of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch and no more than 25% were performing below grade level.
While the plan did not reduce overall segregation in WCPSS, it changed contexts for students in which the average black student attended a school that was 38% white, compared to 14% before the plan was put in place, wrote the authors, led by Deven Carlson of the University of Oklahoma and including Matthew Lenard, a Harvard University doctoral candidate who formerly oversaw data strategy efforts for the district.
But some members of the community opposed the student assignment and busing policies used to integrate schools. Republicans who took control of the school board during that time argued the combination of strategies was a form of “social engineering,” Sutton said. He added that currently, magnet programs alone are not enough to keep schools from resegregating.
‘A complex mixture’ of concerns
The board’s plan comes as a recent report from Harvard University shows while parents of all backgrounds, races and political beliefs say they prefer integrated schools, districts in which parents have more choice over where their children attend school have grown more segregated.
“Our research, along with other research, also suggests that while parents value integration, a complex mixture of legitimate concerns about school quality and various unacknowledged racial and class biases appear to deter many parents,” wrote Eric Torres and Richard Weissbourd, who surveyed 2,644 parents from urban, suburban and rural areas across the U.S. and conducted phone interviews and focus groups as part of Harvard’s Making Caring Common project.
In his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, President Donald Trump is also expected to advocate for school choice at a time of increasing debate over whether options such as charter schools and voucher programs are leading to more segregated schools.
Socioeconomic integration models have been growing as a way to give poor and minority students exposure to peers from different racial and family backgrounds — and often higher achievement levels. In a recent FutureEd article, however, Sarah Cordes, an assistant professor at Temple University, wrote while the goals of such integration models are “admirable,” the research on whether they lead to improved academic performance for students from low-income families is still mixed.
She noted a 2005 study on WCPSS’ reassignment plan, which concluded improved academic performance was due to students attending school with higher-achieving peers, not because those peers came from a higher socioeconomic status.
“Policymakers ought to pay more attention to how they are affecting the distribution of achievement within peer groups,” the researchers wrote.
‘Learning and growing together’
In their report on parents’ responses, Torres and Weissbourd urge white, advantaged parents to consider whether an integrated school will meet their child’s needs — the same belief Courtney Everts Mykytyn, who died in January, shared when she founded Integrated Schools, a parent-led organization now expanded to 19 cities. They also encourage parents to visit integrated schools before making a decision.
Natalie Elicker, a parent in New Haven, Connecticut, described her recent experience of looking beyond school rating websites when deciding where to send her daughter to kindergarten.
“Visiting a school drives this point home, because you see children who are loved and supported by educators and staff, learning and growing together,” she wrote in an op-ed. “Children are not data; schools are children; schools are not data.”
Torres and Weissbourd also urge parents of color to choose integrated schools. But they suggest community and district leaders have the biggest role to play in designing “strong integrated schools” and school assignment policies that lead to less segregation. “Political and community leaders will need to be aggressive, persistent and strategic to counter the many forces pushing parents to segregate their children,” they wrote.
That’s what WCPSS is trying to do. But the district now has almost 200 schools, compared to 120 when the earlier integration plan was in place. Enrollment continues to grow by about 4,000 students a year, and the growth of charter schools has also given parents more options.
Reinstituting the same strategies “would be much more difficult to manage,” Sutton said, adding he wants to avoid a situation in which the most disadvantaged children are the ones being reassigned the most often.
Using ‘multiple policy levers’
Limiting reassignments among more advantaged families allowed the program to remain politically acceptable, Carlson and co-authors wrote.
While it’s unclear what strategies the district will ultimately implement, the researchers wrote a broader lesson from the district’s past efforts is education leaders might have to use “multiple policy levers” in order to achieve the balance they're trying to reach.
They add focusing on overall segregation “may mask” the impact on the most isolated student subgroups.
They also agree with Cordes that, so far, there is little evidence socioeconomic integration affects student outcomes. But, they wrote, “the prospect of socioeconomic-based school assignment policies becoming more widespread puts a premium on gaining a better understanding of their operations and effects.”