What School Integration Teaches Kids (and Adults, Too)

Jay Matthews reports on a fascinating school integration debate in suburban Fairfax County, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. Teenagers in the affluent, predominantly white neighborhood of Wakefield Chapel are currently zoned to attend the unusually diverse Annandale High School, which is 49 percent low-income and about one-third Latino, 29 percent white, 23 percent Asian, and 15 percent black. The high school has a well-regarded International Baccalaureate program and scores highly on the Washington Post's Challenge Index, a ranking of how effective high schools across the country are at enrolling all students–not just those from privileged families–in college-level courses. 

But Annandale High is now overcrowded, and Fairfax's response has been to rezone the wealthy Wakefield Chapel neighborhood to Woodson High, which is two-thirds white and just 6 percent low-income. 

This decision has opened up an interesting rift in the neighborhood. Parents of younger kids –those currently attending whiter, wealthier elementary and middle schools–are in favor of the switch to Woodson. They assume that their own already-privileged children will get more out of a high school experience learning alongside similar peers. But current Annandale High students and parents who live in Wakefield Chapel oppose the move, saying Annandale's diversity, school spirit, and challenging curriculum have shaped their lives in positive ways. In an online petition, they also mention that Wakefield Chapel parents are active volunteers at Annandale, and that rezoning those families to another high school would negatively impact the entire Annandale student body, especially low-income kids whose own parents aren't able to get involved at school. 

Dozens of Annandale High families are actively opposing this rezoning, even though current students would all be allowed to finish their high school careers at the school. These parents and teens believe that keeping Annadale integrated is the right civic decision, the best policy for future generations.

This local dust-up is noteworthy because as the number of truly integrated schools, like Annandale, dwindles across the country–in large part due to the end of court-mandated busing and desegregation orders–the number of Americans with personal experience of the benefits of school integration also shrinks. But those benefits are real and life-long.

For a discussion of the academic benefits of integrated schools, click here. What I want to do today is discuss some of the less tangible social, psychological, and even political benefits.

As I know from personal experience, integrated schools present a mess of contradictions. Academic tracking within them can make it difficult for higher and lower-income students to form friendships. Students of color who excel can experience negative social pressure from peers, and must face-down "stereotype threat"–the negative assumptions of teachers and administrators who have become accustomed to correlating race and class with academic performance.  

But as Columbia University sociologist Amy Stuart-Wells demonstrates in her book Both Sides Now, graduates of integrated high schools, regardless of their own race and class, tend to value their school experience highly, worrying that their own children may not benefit from the same access to diversity. Such graduates tend to speak of their high school experiences as life-changing and worldview-defining. Stuart-Wells and her co-authors write:

…virtually all of the graudates we interviewed said that attending desegregated public schools dispelled their fears of people of other races, taught them to embrace racial and cultural differences, and showed them the humanness of individuals across racial lines. In comparing themselves to peers and spouses who did not have similar integrative experiences, they are quick to note how much more comfortable they feel in multiracial settings or in places where they are a minority. They told us that while their years attending racially and ethnically diverse public schools were not always easy or tension-free, they were highly valuable preparation for an increasingly complex and global society.

At the same time, many of the graudates, especially blacks and Latinos, found their desegregated schooling experience dispiriting, becaue it too often underscored how separate and unequal their lives were outside school.

Of course, there's a certain amount of self-congratulation here; graduates of integrated schools are eager to portray themselves as uniquely savvy and tolerant people, perhaps because their school communitities were built around persuasive rhetoric about the importance of diversity. (I know mine was.) And to be sure, growing up in an integrated neighborhood, a multiracial family, or attending an integrated church would give a child many of the same benefits. 

But as the students of Annandale High School have learned, it is a rare and positive thing when families come together across lines of race, class, and neighborhood to invest in a shared school community. When I returned to my own alma mater, Ossining High, in 2007 to write about the benefits and drawbacks of integration, I found  some remarkable developments. Most notably, a foundation started by upper-middle class white parents in the district was raising money almost exclusively for academic and social programming targeting the district's at-risk black and Latino youth. 

In America in 2011, such examples of shared public responsibility and investment are increasingly rare. Here's hoping that Annandale High School remains integrated.

2 thoughts on “What School Integration Teaches Kids (and Adults, Too)

  1. Angelique Lapeyre Vialou

    As someone part of a community group striving mightily for an integrated school in our neighborhood, I also cheer that Annandale remains integrated.

    Reply
  2. gonats5

    Once again, the big picture is being covered up by all this talk of diversity and integration. The school is or soon will be overcrowded by almost 500 students.

    I am one of the affected group here. I will be more than happy to stay in Annandale High School if the school population is somehow reduced.

    BTW – the school will still be integrated no matter the outcome. The school will still be diverse, and, contrary to some parents’ opinions, the school will still thrive without them.

    Reply

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