The changing face of school integration

Millions more American children are attending school with students of other races, even as many urban schools remain deeply segregated.


First-graders, from left, Ian Gonzales, Cung T. Nawl and Jonathan Morfin attend Riverview School in Glenwood Springs, Colo. Classes for students in kindergarten through third grade are taught in Spanish for half the day. (Nick Cote for The Washington Post)_
SEPTEMBER 12, 2019

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. — The number of children attending U.S. public schools with students of other races has nearly doubled over the past quarter-century, a little-noticed surge that reflects the nation’s shifting demographics, a Washington Post analysis has found.

At the same time, children in most big cities and many suburbs remain locked in deeply segregated districts, with black students more likely to be enrolled in segregated districts than Hispanics or whites, The Post found.

In 2017, 10.8 million children attended highly integrated public schools, up from 5.9 million in 1995, an 83 percent increase that stems largely from rising diversity outside metropolitan areas.

The finding reflects profound demographic change, as Latinos move into small towns and suburbs that once were overwhelmingly white. These places, The Post found, are far more likely to have schools that mirror the new diversity of their communities than their big-city counterparts, which have long been home to a diverse population but have run schools that are profoundly segregated.

While segregation in parts of America has persisted, the number of students affected has inched up only slightly. Out of 46.4 million public school students, about 5.8 million attended schools that were not integrated in 2017.

The change is underway in places like Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley near Aspen. Twenty-five years ago, the valley’s school district was 12 percent Latino. Now, Latinos represent more than half of all kids.

Unlike in big cities such as Denver, on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, white and Latino children in Roaring Fork are not segregated by school. Each building roughly reflects the district as a whole.

“We kept tinkering and working on this,” said Rob Stein, superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District. “We want our schools to look like our community.”

Carbondale is a town in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley, where schools are highly integrated. (Nick Cote for The Washington Post) RIGHT: In Denver, schools have long been segregated. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

During this period of rapid diversification, the overall U.S. public school population increased by 6 percent. The Post analysis included all of the nation’s 13,184 traditional public school districts. Not included are about 5.8 million children who attend private or religious schools, 3 million in public charter schools and those not enrolled in school.

The Post analysis comes as the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has focused attention on the nation’s troubled history of segregated education. Former vice president Joe Biden’s opposition to federally mandated busing of children in the 1970s has drawn scorn from some rivals, and the debate has spurred conversation over how to mitigate the segregation that remains in schools.

The challenge becomes more urgent as the United States approaches a demographic tipping point. Next year, the Census Bureau predicts, whites will no longer constitute a majority of American children. With that shift comes important questions: Can increasing diversity help U.S. schools shed their legacy of segregation, or will children continue to be clustered by race and ethnicity 65 years after the Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education that separate schools are “inherently unequal”?

Integration’s new frontier

Many of the nation’s heavily segregated districts are in the largest cities. Denver schools are typical. They were integrated after a federal court ordered busing in 1973 but resegregated almost immediately after the order was lifted in 1995. Segregation has climbed steadily ever since. Efforts to push for integration in Denver have been halting, even as white families arrive into the gentrifying city.

“We have unequal housing, segregated housing by design and by law,” said Van Schoales, president of A+ Colorado, a research and advocacy group in Denver. “After busing ended, [school] boundary lines were drawn, and they reinforced the existing housing patterns.” That’s partly because families, frustrated by their experience with court-mandated desegregation and busing, demanded neighborhood schools.

Research shows integration benefits children of all races, who learn to appreciate diversity, producing lifelong benefits. It also shows that children of color do better academically and that white students do no worse when they attend diverse schools.

Integration isn’t always possible: Many U.S. school districts don’t have enough diversity to integrate, even if they want to.

Some of that homogeneity is driven by school system boundary lines. Districts face no obligation to educate kids who live outside their borders, and wealthy families often band together in districts.

Schools in Birmingham, Ala., are 91 percent black, for instance, while neighboring Mountain Brook schools are 96 percent white. Students do not cross the line that divides them.

The surprising state of U.S. school integration
Growing diversity across the U.S. is fueling a surge in children attending integrated schools. See where schools are integrating — and where they are not. (Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

To conduct its analysis, The Post used data from the U.S. Education Department to examine how many of the nation’s school systems have sufficient diversity to create integrated schools. In 1995, the first year for which comprehensive data are available, 20 percent of districts — including 45 percent of all public school students — were diverse. To be considered a diverse district, no one race can constitute more than 75 percent of students.

By 2017, the most recent year of data, the number of diverse districts had risen sharply: Nearly 4 in 10 school districts, educating two-thirds of all public school students, had enough diversity to make integration possible, assuming the political will.

But just because a school system is diverse, that doesn’t mean its schools are integrated.

Are diverse districts creating and maintaining diverse schools? Or do all the white kids remain clustered in certain schools, with black and brown students in others, just like when the Rev. Oliver Brown won his lawsuit against the segregated schools of Topeka, Kan., in 1954?

The Post grouped diverse school districts into three categories — highly integrated, somewhat integrated and not integrated — using a measure called the variance ratio, which assesses how frequently students of the same race attend schools together, given the district’s demographics.

In highly integrated districts, individual schools most closely reflect the demographics of the district as a whole. In districts that are not integrated, some schools are dominated by one race and others by another. The somewhat integrated districts are in between.

The number of students in the highly and somewhat integrated groups increased significantly. The rise was especially robust in the most integrated group, with 83 percent more students — a total of 10.8 million — attending these schools than in 1995. The increase in the somewhat integrated group was 67 percent.

In historically diverse districts such as Denver — typically big and midsize cities — segregation was high and grew slightly higher.

But segregation was far lower in districts that grew diverse between 1995 and 2017. These are typically small cities and suburbs that used to be mostly white and where Latinos and, to a lesser extent, African Americans have moved. Experts cite a number of possible explanations, including that whites may harbor less bias and be more willing to live alongside Latinos than they are African Americans.

“Those newly diverse districts are encouraging. The key thing is how do we help them stay integrated and not transition?” said Erica Frankenberg, who directs the Center for Education and Civil Rights at Pennsylvania State University. “That’s a potential opportunity. We don’t have to undo bad patterns that have formed. We just have to keep them stable.”

The location for Riverview School was selected in part because it could easily draw a mix of students. (Nick Cote for The Washington Post)

Integration in the Roaring Fork Valley

The diverging trends are clear in two Colorado school districts, set on either side of the Continental Divide: Roaring Fork and Denver.

Twenty-five years ago, the Roaring Fork Valley was overwhelmingly white. As the ski mecca of Aspen boomed, Latino families began arriving in large numbers, drawn to jobs in construction, hospitality and landscaping. Aspen housing was far too expensive, so many families commute from towns down the valley: Basalt, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs. Together, they make up the Roaring Fork School District.

The valley’s regional hub is Glenwood Springs, set at the juncture of the Roaring Fork and Colorado rivers and named for hot springs thought to possess medicinal powers. It once was a Wild West town known for coal mines, saloons and brothels. Today, there’s a cancer-treatment center, a row of car dealerships, a Walmart and a coffee house serving three types of avocado toast. But this is far from the big city. In springtime, black bears emerge from hibernation to mess with garbage bins. Street parking in the center of town is free.

Rob Stein is the superintendent of the Roaring Fork School District. In 1975, after his family moved to Denver, Stein was bused to Manual High School, in the heart of the city’s historically black community. (Nick Cote for The Washington Post)

Managing the school district is the 59-year-old Stein, who lived through a tumultuous era of school desegregation as a student. When Stein was in eighth grade, his white Jewish family moved into the Denver school district, just as court-ordered desegregation was beginning. In 1975, Stein was bused to Manual High School, in the heart of Denver’s historically black community.

It was a wrenching time for the city, marked by white flight, but not for Stein. “There was a strong social justice orientation in my family, so it was very hard to oppose integration,” Stein said.

After the court order was lifted in 1995, Manual resegregated. Last year, almost no white students attended the school.

Stein has found integration far easier in Roaring Fork. That’s largely because housing in the Roaring Fork Valley is more integrated. Latinos and whites live throughout all three towns.

In Glenwood Springs, a trailer park populated mostly by Latinos sits not far from spacious, newly developed single-family homes. Two apartment buildings sit side by side across from a strip mall on the west side of town — one rents high-end apartments; the other offers federally subsidized affordable units. And the community is small enough that people naturally mix in their daily lives.

“There’s one City Market in the middle of town where everyone shops,” Stein said.

Not every integrated district is actively trying to meld students from different racial and ethnic groups. But there are deliberate efforts to do so in Roaring Fork. In 2016, the district was deciding where to build an elementary school. One option was the west side of Glenwood Springs, a growing area that is home to many low-income Latino families.

Stein feared a school there would quickly segregate, partly because white families would hesitate to cross the Colorado River to send their children into a majority Latino area. Instead, the district opted to build Riverview School on the other side of town, where it could more easily draw a mix of students. Administrators then redrew the boundaries for the district’s elementary schools to balance the student populations.

Eight-year-old Anabelle Torres, left, works with her language partner, 9-year-old Klarissa Lozoya, at Riverview School. “Whenever things get hard in Spanish, she comes help me,” Anabelle said about Klarissa. (Nick Cote for The Washington Post)

At Riverview, classes in kindergarten through third grade are taught half the day in English and half in Spanish, and children are assigned language partners to help each other.

“She’s a Spanish speaker, and I’m the complete opposite,” said Anabelle Torres, 8, gesturing toward her friend Klarissa Lozoya. “Whenever things get hard in Spanish, she comes help me. We partner up, and we help each other.”

Overt tensions are rare, residents say, maybe because the economy is booming and immigrant labor is fueling the growth. Still, some have that unsettling sense the place has changed.

“There used to be two saloons, and old-timers could still spit on the floor,” said Mike Blair, 84, who is white and has lived in the area more than 50 years. “So many people are new; it’s not as comfortable or friendly as it used to be.” Still, he says, the newcomers have not caused problems, and he happily lives in a trailer park with many Latino families. “They are very attentive to their property. It doesn’t become a poor, crowded slum area like people feared.”

Still, three public charter schools in the district are disproportionately white, as are two private schools.

Census data show that 46 percent of all 5- to 17-year-olds living in the district are white, but just 41 percent of students in the traditional public schools are white, suggesting a number of families are opting for alternatives.

At the Carbondale Community charter school, just 21 of its 135 students last year were Latino. (Nick Cote for The Washington Post)

One of the charters, Carbondale Community School, offers classes of 15 students, a school garden, outdoor education and schoolwide “mindful Monday” meetings, where the students form a circle and reaffirm principles such as social justice, responsibility and community. The school’s goal is to develop better global citizens, said Principal Sam Richings-Germain, who is white.

But last year, just 21 of its 135 students were Latino. Students are chosen by lottery, and the principal says she has tried to figure out why more Latinos don’t apply. She wonders if it might be the $525 student fee, although the school waives it for low-income families. Families must transport children to school, which could be another barrier.

“I don’t like people to think of us as a white-flight school,” Richings-Germain said. She said families choose her school based not on race or ethnicity, but because “they are just looking for something different.”

For the past few years, the school has given preference in the lottery for kindergarten to children whose primary home language is not English. At first, it yielded only one or two Latino students, but this past spring, the school received six applications from Latino families. All were admitted for this fall.

As the Latino population has grown, its members have been slow to assert their potential power. Some are in the country illegally and purposefully avoid attention. Some don’t speak English, and that keeps them isolated. Until recently, serving on the part-time town council required taking a day off from work, every other Thursday. The council is entirely white.

One Latina mother told the story of her daughter, who loved volleyball but could not make the varsity team at Glenwood Springs High School. It turns out, most white girls had been playing private club volleyball for years, something the mom didn’t know about and would have had trouble affording. She complained but ultimately let the matter drop.

A few years later, her younger daughter, along with three Latina friends, failed to make the basketball team, even though the mom had spent $600 or $700 on a basketball camp. The mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is living in the United States without authorization, was scared to complain again, but she did.

She challenged the principal, Paul Freeman, to look at recent yearbooks and said it was not until then that Freeman realized there were no Latina athletes on the volleyball or basketball teams. In an interview, Freeman said that he knew about the gaps before then but that looking at the photos reinforced the point.

Freeman sent the mother to Stein, who encouraged her to organize like-minded parents to press for change. The mother is working with a community group called Mountain Voices. “I was quiet for years, scared because of immigration,” she said, adding that she hopes to work with Stein toward equity.

In a separate interview, Stein made clear that, while he will help, it will be up to this mother, and her peers, to press for change. The lesson of busing, he said, is that improvements must be based on relationships, not on policies. They must spring from the community, not be imposed.

“I can’t whack-a-mole every problem,” he said. “It has to be about people coming together and finding their highest priorities.”

Community educator Sade Cooper helps fifth-graders with English at Stedman Elementary School in Denver. The school has grown more diverse in recent years. (Nick Cote for The Washington Post)

In Denver, segregation persists

Manual High, where Rob Stein was bused, is still open, though barely. Enrollment has dwindled to about 300 students. It’s one of many segregated schools that make Denver among the most segregated districts in the nation.

A decade after busing ended, enrollment had fallen, test scores were abysmal, experiments had been tried and failed. The district closed the campus, hoping for a reboot but enraging the community, which was protective of its school. The district hired Stein, who was then principal at an elite private school, to try to execute a turnaround as principal of Manual.

Stein said he was making progress but was also frustrated by various matters and quit in 2010 after three years.

Now, the school again faces jeopardy. After recording low test scores for five years in a row, the school is likely to be subject to state intervention, which could include closure, conversion to a charter school or new management.

Asked to offer his school’s strengths and challenges, Principal Joe Glover mentions just one strength — a recent state championship in basketball. Walking the hallways, he admonishes students to get to class and says he’s working on attendance. Turning the corner, he finds a teacher with good news to report.

Encouraged by teacher Jeny Garst to share his good news, Manual High School junior Andre Jackson tells Principal Joe Glover that his SAT score in math jumped 140 points. (Nick Cote for The Washington Post)

“Tell him how much you improved in math!” teacher Jeny Garst, beaming, urges one of her students as Glover approaches. Andre Jackson, a junior, sheepishly reports that his math SAT score jumped by 140 points, improving to 470 out of a possible 800.

Jackson said he was helped by a change in the schedule. Now, he is in math class every day. It used to be offered only every other day. He’s still short of the school goal of 530 — “but not by much,” Garst says.

Glover, who is white, says he’s not focused on his school’s demographics and is not trying to diversify the school. “We can be successful with the students we have in the building right now,” he said. His concern, he said, is expanding enrollment. “The community wants Manual to be successful.”

Five miles away is Carson Elementary, where 76 percent of students are white. The school has grown so popular with families in its wealthy neighborhood that Carson can accept only a handful of children from outside its boundaries.

“Families are pulling students from private schools to [attend] the Carson school,” said Principal Anne Larkin, who is white. The parent-teacher association raises more than $100,000 a year to pay for an additional teacher, field trips and classroom materials.

The front hallway features a large bin for families to donate used clothing and shoes. In a first-grade classroom, students write riddles describing birds. “This bird can fly backwards,” one boy writes, hinting at a hummingbird.

“I like this school because it’s full of kind people,” said Ava Gardenswartz, a first-grader. She adds another positive: “When our teacher gives us a math test, she makes sure we know the stuff on the math test before the test.”

Math teacher Cynthia Smith helps her third-grade students at Carson Elementary School, where 76 percent of students are white. (Nick Cote for The Washington Post)

The history of segregation in Denver can be traced to how the school board drew campus boundary lines after a federal court in 1995 lifted the busing order. Busing spurred white flight, and powerful Denver residents of all races were calling for a return to neighborhood schools.

“The overwhelming sentiment in the community was, ‘We want our neighborhood schools,’” said Laura Lefkowits, who was on the school board at the time. Because housing was segregated, the results were predictable. “The voices for maintaining some integration, like mine, were very few and far between.”

A particularly tricky question was where to put the boundary between Manual, a traditionally black school, and Denver East High School, viewed as desirable by white families, then and now. One board member noted that if school zones were separated by York Street, which runs north-south, both schools would be more racially balanced. But doing so would have put wealthy white neighborhoods in the Manual territory.

“The rest of the board members laughed at him,” said Alan Gottlieb, who covered the meeting as a reporter for the Denver Post and is now an education consultant.

Instead, the board created an anvil-like shape for Manual’s boundary, surrounded on three sides by neighborhoods that would feed into Denver East. The result was Manual would serve a high-poverty, almost exclusively black and Latino area. Middle-class African Americans, once a significant part of the area, had largely moved away.

Denver’s level of segregation immediately climbed after the busing order was lifted and has been on the rise since. In 2017, Denver was among the nation’s most segregated districts.

Some in Denver contend segregation is exacerbated by rules that give parents considerable choice in selecting schools. White parents are typically wealthier, better educated and better positioned to take advantage of options, experts say. The choice system allows them to flock to disproportionately white schools and was designed, some say, to attract white families to the city.

“One unintended consequence of school choice is, if you don’t have certain means or you are unable to navigate the system of choice, then you don’t really have a choice,” said Allen Smith, Denver’s senior deputy superintendent for equity until June.

In 2017, a city commission called Strengthening Neighborhoods made recommendations for better integrating the schools. They included providing transportation to increase access to schools and changing the way students are assigned to schools. So far, critics say, the ideas have mostly been ignored.

Some say segregation in Denver would be even worse without the system of choice that gives lower-income families access to schools outside their neighborhoods. Tom Boasberg, Denver’s superintendent from 2009 to 2018, pointed to enrollment zones that allow some families to select a school from a larger geographic area as a way to balance each building’s demographics.

“When you look at the data, it’s very clear school choice leads to increases in integration,” Boasberg said.

Not all Denver schools are segregated. Leaders at Denver Green School, just over a mile from Carson Elementary, work to recruit a diverse student body and are helped by the school’s location in a more diverse neighborhood. The school’s focus on project-based learning and environmental concerns has also drawn white families to choose it.

Paraeducator Emily George helps third-grader Rishon Harvey at Denver Green School, which has recruited a diverse student body even as the district overall has remained segregated. (Nick Cote for The Washington Post)

Along the main hallway, “diversity wheels” are on display, where fourth-graders have spelled out aspects of their identity. A wheel created by a girl named Zakia shows a family of five, lists favorites like swimming, reading and ice cream, and declares, “I am Muslim,” and “I speak Arabic,” all surrounding a self-portrait.

Parents who send their children to schools that are more segregated have a range of explanations. At Park Hill Elementary, the student body is nearly three-quarters white and few spots exist for students outside its affluent boundaries. Michelle Scott, president of the parent-teacher association, said she is troubled by the inequities that stem from this concentration of privilege. Her group raises about $200,000 a year to add staff and raise salaries at the school.

“Because we raise so much money and we give so much directly to the building, we have more staff. We have better test scores. We have higher achieving children,” she said. “That’s not fair, I’ll admit it.”

But she also values a neighborhood school, where parents meet one another on the playground, and said she would hesitate to send her children to a school that wasn’t close by. “You should be able to get up and walk your kid to school,” she said.

In 1995, after a federal court order mandating busing was lifted, Manual High School resegregated. Last year, almost no white students attended the school. (Nick Cote for The Washington Post)

The choices they make

A range of factors may explain why newly diverse communities are more integrated than communities that have long had a diversity of students.

It starts with housing. When people live in the same neighborhoods, they are significantly more likely to go to the same schools.

Latinos have never been as segregated from whites as African Americans, experts say, and there is some evidence that white attitudes are less biased regarding Latinos. Urban housing patterns were established at a time when African Americans faced overt discrimination in government housing programs, zoning and mortgage lending. It was under those circumstances that neighborhoods were branded as home to people of one race or another.

But as Latinos arrive in communities, they may encounter more acceptance and a less hostile legal landscape.

“There hasn’t been this idea in the community that, ‘This is where the Latinos live.’ It’s new and in flux,” said William H. Frey, a demographics expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank. “In these small communities, things just aren’t as balkanized as they are in other places.”

In addition, white parents in smaller places who are unhappy about diversity have fewer alternatives. These areas are more isolated, with fewer nearby school districts, making moving more complicated. There are fewer private schools.

And most of these newly diverse areas are still majority white, and whites are sometimes more comfortable with diversity as long as they are still dominant.

“There’s a tipping point at which whites are no longer comfortable, and they’ll start to leave,” said Kori J. Stroub, a research scientist at the Houston Education Research Consortium, a partnership between Rice University and Houston-area school districts.

In these rapidly diversifying communities, parents of all races find themselves with decisions to make.

In Glenwood Springs, the city’s mayor, Jonathan Godes, 41, said he was tempted to enroll his two children in the Carbondale Community School, a charter that is a 12-mile drive to the next town. Godes, who is white, said he is worried so many privileged families were choosing private and charter schools, leaving the traditional schools with an overrepresentation of Latino children.

His neighborhood school, Sopris Elementary, is 45 percent Latino, and 39 percent of students come from families poor enough to qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, according to state data.

“When you see a 10-point difference in math and reading scores, all ideas of public education and neighborhood schools go out the window,” he said.

In the end, he was persuaded by convenience: Sopris is a three-minute walk from home.

“I have been very pleased. Great teachers and awesome administrators,” he said. “My wife and I comment pretty regularly on how stupid it would’ve been to send our kids anywhere else.”

Jonathan Godes, the mayor of Glenwood Springs, walks daughters Nolah, 9, and Addison, 11, to school. Godes said he was tempted to enroll them in a charter school in Carbondale but went with their neighborhood school, which is 45 percent Latino. (Nick Cote for The Washington Post)

Story editing by Stephen Smith. Graphics by Kate Rabinowitz. Graphic editing by Danielle Rindler. Video by Amber Ferguson. Senior video producer: Peter Stevenson. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Frances Moody. Designed by J.C. Reed.