By the numbers

Memphis school segregation worse than 50 years ago

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot/Chalkbeat
Students at the 2017 ribbon cutting for Aspire East Academy's new building in Memphis, one of six schools that are all black and Hispanic students.

Schools in Memphis have become increasingly segregated over the last 50 years, according to a Chalkbeat analysis.

A little more than half of Memphis schools are highly segregated, in which 90 percent or more of students are black. That’s up from about 40 percent in 1971 when a Memphis judge used those statistics to call for a plan to end school segregation.

Add in Hispanic children, whose share of the student population has dramatically increased since then, and more than 80 percent of schools are highly segregated.

 

Share of highly segregated Memphis schools

Note: The racial demographic data of Memphis schools comes from the Tennessee Department of Education for Shelby County Schools and Achievement School District for the 2016-17 school year.

And without a re-entry of white families into the city’s school system and massive policy changes, the segregation will only worsen, say academics who have traced Memphis African-American and education history.

The numbers in Chalkbeat’s analysis, like the 1971 ruling by Judge Robert McRae Jr. that ushered in an unpopular busing plan that failed to achieve integration as white families fled the city, do not include private or suburban schools.

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
Judge Robert McRae Jr., who oversaw desegregation orders in Memphis.

According to Marcus Pohlmann, author of “Opportunity Lost,” which chronicles Memphis education history, the two largest events that created the “obvious resegregation” of schools in Tennessee’s largest district were: white families fleeing public schools in masse after desegregation orders went into effect in the 1970s; and the creation of six suburban districts in 2014, which dismantled the historic merger of the mostly black and poor city school system with a largely white and affluent county district.

“Any hope of maybe tweaking the boundaries of this large countywide school system to reduce that to a degree, disappeared,” Pohlmann said.

Memphis is hardly alone in this trend. Federal data shows the share of schools with high percentages of poor and black or Hispanic students grew from 9 to 16 percent between 2000 and 2014. Those students often had fewer college preparatory classes and had higher rates of being held back in ninth grade. And after school districts dismantled assignment systems meant to spur integration as court orders were lifted, researchers found black and Hispanic students began dropping out at higher rates.

But unlike other cities, Memphis can’t claim a resurgence in segregated schools, says Daniel Kiel, a University of Memphis professor who has researched local school segregation.

“It’s hard to say schools resegregated when they never stopped being segregated in any meaningful way,” he told Chalkbeat.

As the nation prepares to commemorate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and his fight for equality on the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Memphis, Chalkbeat’s analysis of segregation in schools show how little has changed.

“I cannot see how the Negro will be totally liberated from the crushing weight of poor education, squalid housing and economic strangulation until he is integrated, with power, into every level of American life,” he said in his last book in 1967, “Where do we go from here: Chaos or Community?”

Charles McKinney, the chair of Africana studies at Rhodes College, said the demographic comparison is “a confirmation of what we already know.”

“Some of the primary indicators of poverty and inequality are largely unmoved over the course of the last 50 years,” he said. “This should not be a surprise. Anyone who acts surprised now, just isn’t paying attention.”

The shift in student demographics of Memphis schools over the last half-century —from 46 to 7 percent white — is one of the most revealing changes. Black students increased from 54 to 79 percent of Memphis schools.

Memphis student racial makeup

Despite the stark differences, there are fewer schools now that are all black and none that are all white. In 1971, there were 29 schools that were all black and 18 that were all white. Now, just three Memphis schools are all black and none are all white, according to state data. Six are all black and Hispanic students.

About 7,700 more black students attend highly segregated schools now, though as a percentage of black students, that is slightly lower than in 1971. Add in Hispanic students and that number jumps to 16,112 more students of color in highly segregated schools.

Black students attending highly segregated schools

After several iterations of a desegregation plan in Memphis that included busing students to schools to mix up their racial demographics, thousands of white students fled the city school system and numerous private schools opened to absorb them.

Memphis City Schools attempted to entice white families to stay in the district by launching “optional schools” in the 1970s where students test into more rigorous, specialized programs. Though that measure found nominal success in retaining black middle-class and some white families, McKinney said the concept defeats the purpose of true integration. He cited programs like Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, which became an all-optional school in 2014 and East High School, which by phasing in its optional program displaces neighborhood children to other schools.

“We’ve created a formula that literally states that school quality is predicated on the removal of the kids who most need access to quality education,” he said. “That’s absurd.”

To reduce segregation in Memphis schools, Kiel said it would take both an enormous amount of will from white families to integrate Memphis schools and policy changes to dismantle the fragmented educational landscape the city has today.

“Tweaks of policies that are not accompanied by an underlying belief in the rationale for those policies — that has undercut the goals of the policies in the first place,” he said. “That’s not a failure of the policies, that’s a failure of the people’s will.”

McKinney agreed with a sentiment trumpeted by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who while visiting Memphis last week said the Bluff City is a “perfectly sad place” to talk about how school segregation worsens.

“If you say you are really concerned about enduring segregation in Memphis and Shelby County, you’re the primary driver of that segregation,” he said. “So, how are you going to disinvest in segregation? You have to make a course correction.”

If trends of school segregation continue, the whole city is negatively impacted, Pohlmann said.

“Whites are less likely to be concerned with poorer predominantly black schools. Citywide social relations are damaged, especially making it harder to breakdown stereotypes,” he said.

“As long as we allow this level of economic inequality in society, things like race and class segregation in the schools are just almost inevitable.”

universal choice

Denver’s window for choosing schools opens Tuesday

PHOTO: Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sophia Camacena sits with classmates in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy in Denver on Aug. 15, 2018.

The one-month window for Denver families to list their top school choices for next school year starts Tuesday and runs through Feb. 15.

Denver Public Schools expects to inform families of their school placement results in late March.

Denver Public Schools has a universal school choice system that allows families to use a single online form to request to attend any district-run or charter school in the city. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run. This year, 60 of Denver’s 213 schools are charters.

While many school districts nationwide have a contentious relationship with charter schools, Denver is known for its collaboration with them, which includes the universal enrollment system. That collaboration has been the subject of criticism from parents, teachers, and community members who see the independent schools as siphoning students and resources from district-run schools.

The 93,000-student school district especially encourages families with children going into the so-called transition grades of kindergarten, sixth, and ninth grade to fill out a choice form. Families list their top five school choices, and the district uses a lottery system to assign students.

Schools can set their own enrollment priorities. Many district-run schools give high priority to students who live within their boundary and to siblings of current students, for example.

The district also has 15 “enrollment zones,” which are expanded boundaries with several schools in them. Students who live in zones are guaranteed a spot at one of the schools in the zone but not necessarily the school closest to them.

Denver has used zones as a way to increase school integration. Many neighborhoods in Denver are segregated by race and income, and the district’s reasoning is that widening boundaries provides the opportunity for a more diverse school population.

But a 2016 district analysis found that enlarging middle school boundaries had not decreased school segregation as much as district officials hoped it would.

The district also has a school integration pilot program that gives students from low-income families priority to enroll at schools that serve mostly students from affluent families. The results have been modest, and district officials are exploring ways to expand the impact.

how we got here

I’m a white teacher who chose a high-poverty school for my daughter. Here’s why.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat

When I read Saratu Ghartey’s story last fall that beautifully and honestly captured her experience touring, searching for, and finally selecting a “good” preschool for her son, I recognized myself. I, too, have been consumed by tours and distraught by the inequity among schools across districts — for years as an educator and now as a parent, too.

I spent the first decade of my career teaching at Title I schools that served mostly black and brown students, many from immigrant families. The first was an ambitious small high school with unrealized dreams of inspiring community organizing, and the other a more established 6-12 progressive school nestled in an affluent Brooklyn neighborhood. Regardless of location, neither school was sought after by middle-class white families.

Some of my students came resistant, unconvinced that they had anything to gain from a white lady like myself. And in the beginning, their doubts won me over. So I sought out mentors, drowned myself in teacher books, and eventually learned how to lead with a stern, intentional, witty kind of love. I committed myself to crafting curriculum that was culturally relevant, to helping students see the ways that their stories, their histories, their voices mattered.

I was often disheartened by the apathy I saw, kids more interested in their cell phones than the texts I had presumptively selected. Often when I pushed disengaged students, I found that their minds were on a sick loved one, an anniversary of a death, a shooting in their building, the chronic discomfort of a shelter. My lesson was white noise floating above the soundtrack of their trauma. And, as teens do, they formed community around their traumas, taking on each other’s burdens so that the load would be dispersed. This meant that many of my students were often distracted, and I often found myself drained and ill-equipped to give each student’s crisis proper attention.

And yet, I was also energized by my students’ willingness to re-engage each day. Teenagers, though often grouchy, are refreshingly optimistic. Their resilience, brilliance, humor, and belief in possibilities fueled me. They were not hamstrung by crises, and some went on to win writing contests and earn competitive scholarships at prestigious colleges. I loved them fiercely, and we always made space for laughter. My colleagues were among the most dedicated, innovative humans I have met and they helped transform the lives of their students.

Because of these experiences, I am one of the white parents Ghartey describes: I have chosen to enroll my white daughter in a high poverty, mostly black and Latinx school because this school embraces and values the children of our neighborhood. Ghartey asserts that the stakes for her black son are too high to make this choice, and unfortunately, the stakes are different indeed. Though I worry that class and cultural differences may leave my daughter feeling out of the loop and efforts to fit in may present as cultural appropriation, I, unlike Ghartey, do not fear that assimilating to her school culture will lead my daughter to become entangled in the criminal justice system. Authorities will never view her skin color as inherently threatening.

So I share my own experiences more for families like mine, grappling with whether the benefits of a diverse school outweigh the perceived costs. I know that they do, for all students — a perspective informed in part by having worked for the past year at a more economically diverse school where addressing students’ socio-emotional needs is more manageable because fewer students live in poverty.

The students at my current school often produce more, take their thinking further, and perform better on state tests not because I have magically become a better teacher or because they have greater aptitude — it is because a majority of them come from middle-class homes. A majority of them trust that school will help them succeed (as it helped their parents) and enter the classroom with their personal needs satisfied. Their investment fuels an atmosphere where learning is the main focus.

This dynamic allows me as a teacher to dedicate more time to students whose skills are lagging or who need additional emotional support to deepen their thinking. Last year, one of my students lived in temporary housing and entered with a vendetta against books. I was able to give him the extra attention he needed — access to headphones, a laptop, a school Audible account, new books by the brilliant and relatable Jason Reynolds — and this reader jumped three grade levels by June. I could do that because the majority of the other students in his class could make progress with greater independence.

In another class, I was able to offer individualized attention to a student whose home language was Montenegrin, and whose struggles with English syntax barred her from comprehending grade-level texts. In collaboration with our dynamic special educator and speech teacher, I helped this student gain confidence and make progress. We discovered midway through the year that another student, whose parents were embroiled in a divorce, was contemplating suicide. Because his crisis was not competing with many others, we were able to get him the immediate attention, support, and resources he needed.

I also witnessed the powerful benefits classroom diversity had on my white, middle-class students. One boy learned through his interactions with a Latinx classmate who lived in public housing that the phrase “all lives matter” was offensive, and a girl found inspiration in a black peer who boldly shared her critical insights with peers but who privately struggled with writing mechanics. In his final evaluation of the class, a white student, who flaunted his wealth and openly ridiculed his less affluent peers, reflected that his experience that year taught him how to listen more to people and be kinder. “You never know what someone is going through,” he wrote.

This isn’t just the beauty of a diverse school — this is the reason public schools exist. When we pool our resources and allow everyone to access to rich, joyful learning and high expectations, we allow public schools to be the great equalizers that they ought to be. Yet, in a city where we have the unique opportunity to bring kids of various backgrounds together through school, we usually decline. When middle class parents flock en masse to specific schools, they deplete others of the opportunity to realize public education’s equalizing potential. And even as individual families make difficult choices to integrate schools, the system remains hypersegregated.

As I weigh K-5 options for my daughter, I am not immune to that sinking feeling that my daughter is going to miss out if I don’t fight for entry into the schools that get all the buzz. I’m drawn to more progressive options outside of our neighborhood where children learn more through exploration, teachers have the luxury to draw out their natural creativity and curiosity to deepen learning, where success on the state test feels more like an afterthought than the driving mission.

PHOTO: Contributed by Stumpf
Alie Stumpf and her family

Yet these schools are already oversaturated with white upper to middle class kids — demographics that stand in stark contrast to our beloved neighborhood. As Ghartey wrote, many families of color choose schools with a more traditional approach when possible. I could also throw our hat in the ring at the “unicorn” school and others like it. But I think the unspoken requirement to beg for admission into a public school disqualifies the institution from truly being for the people.

As I consider these possibilities, I recall what journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones said at a recent event I attended for parents and advocates seeking a less segregated school system: “If you make the choice only for your child, you’re choosing to sacrifice someone else’s.” I know true equity means giving up privilege so that others may also enjoy it. It means making myself vulnerable to the “rocks” Ghartey mentions that are inevitable whenever a community changes. It means that my daughter’s classrooms may not look as flashy as the most coveted elementary schools because her teachers are using their prep periods to respond to the social-emotional needs of their students. It may mean that some of her peers come to school distracted, or that the presence of the state test looms over too much of the work they do.

But let’s get real: my daughter will carry her whiteness and its privileges into this setting and will be just fine; the rocks for her are never going to be as sharp as they are for Ghartey’s family. Throughout most of history, we’ve left it to black families to be the pioneers of integration. It’s long past time for white families to step up in New York City.

And they should because it’s best for us, too, on the merits: at an economically and racially diverse school, my daughter will grow up as part of a vibrant, resilient community, among classmates who live both a few blocks away and a whole world apart, broadening her perspective and enfolding her in a real neighborhood. The attractions of diversity played a big role in my and my husband’s decision to settle in the city rather than the suburbs. But that’s only window-dressing if we don’t insist that this diversity be reflected inside schools and not just outside them.

Though I am hopeful about Chancellor Richard Carranza’s initiatives to increase school diversity, I think school integration will only be achieved when white families like mine commit to integrated schools in their own neighborhoods. It may take hard work — more PTA involvement, more fundraisers, more listening and understanding — but most things worth having do.

Alie Stumpf has been teaching reading and writing in New York City public schools since 2006. She lives in Brooklyn and currently teaches sixth-grade humanities in Manhattan.