Is Racial and Economic Diversity in Schools Important?

Is Racial and Economic Diversity in Schools Important?

Find all our Student Opinion questions here.

Do you think that diversity in the classroom is important? Do you think there are learning or social benefits to being in a diverse school?

In “Where Civility Is a Motto, a School Integration Fight Turns Bitter,” Dana Goldstein writes about Columbia, a planned community in Maryland that was founded on the principles of “color blindness,” civility, and racial and socioeconomic inclusion. The community is now in the midst of a heated debate about a proposal from the superintendent of schools, Michael J. Martirano. The article states:

The plan, announced by Dr. Martirano in August, would transfer 7,400 of the district’s 58,000 students to different schools in an effort to chip away at an uncomfortable truth: Some of the county’s campuses have become havens for rich students, while others serve large numbers of children whose families are struggling.

Dr. Martirano’s plan, which he called Equity in Action, would also alter the racial makeup of some schools, given that the majority of poor students in the county are black or Hispanic.

A growing body of research suggests that bringing students of disparate races and social classes together can boost children’s test scores and help them develop empathy. This year, all the leading Democratic presidential candidates have proposed desegregation strategies, a seismic shift after decades in which politicians from both parties played down the impact of the racial and class segregation that persists in American education.

Some of those against the plan have taken an overtly racist stance:

One piece of hate mail opposing the proposal said, “Blacks destroy school systems and schools.” Another said, “Certain families and communities do not have strong values in healthy family structure, high expectation on education, or firm beliefs in raising kids with good characters.”

Another opposed group, the Howard County Families for Education Improvement, has said it its opposition is not about race, and instead has focused more on the possible experiences of other people’s children:

Longer commutes to school, they argued, would mean less time for students to do homework and to sleep. Some children would be severed from friends they had made in earlier grades. Low-income parents with inflexible jobs would be hit the hardest, and would not be able to get involved in their children’s schools.

Much of the debate revolves around two high schools: Wilde Lake, where 46 percent of students come from low-income families, and River Hill, where fewer than 5 percent of families are low-income. There is also a racial difference between the two schools: At Wilde Lake, 45 percent of students are black and 13 percent are Hispanic, and at River Hill High, only 7 percent of students are black and fewer than 5 percent are Hispanic.

Ms. Goldstein writes about how some students at Wilde Lake view the debate:

On a recent afternoon, six Wilde Lake students gathered in the parking lot of a shopping center near the school, outside an organic supermarket and a Starbucks.

Some of the students had seen parents from other neighborhoods marching nearby, demanding that their own children not attend Wilde Lake. They had heard about the racist letters.

“I feel sorry for the people who think like that,” said Alisa Drake, 16.

The article continues:

Many of the Wilde Lake students agreed with Alisa: They had heard bad things said about their school, things that they, too, had sometimes believed before they enrolled.

Alisa rattled off the stereotypes: “It’s a ghetto school. The test scores are not good. They’re all good at sports because they are black.”

Wilde Lake offers 25 Advanced Placement classes, including multivariate calculus, French and studio art. Graduates land at a range of colleges, students said, from Howard Community College to the honors program at the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University.

Average standardized test scores are indeed lower at Wilde Lake than at River Hill — not surprising for a school where nearly half the students come from low-income families. But Alisa said she would not want to go anywhere else. Wilde Lake teachers made her, a black student, feel comfortable in her gifted and talented and A.P. classes, she said.

Alisa supports the redistricting proposal, which she said could help “change the narrative” about Wilde Lake and the students who go there.

However, not all students at Wilde Lake feel the same way as Alisa. Amaiya Sancho, a junior, did not think that most of her classmates would be supportive of River Hill students being bused to Wilde Lake:

She wrestled with the pros and cons of the plan. “Diversity is something that is important to me,” she said. “But I don’t want people in our school who feel like they don’t want to be around a group of kids because of the way they look or how much money they have.”

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • How would you describe the two sides of the debate? What is important to Howard County Families for Education Improvement and the parents who have spoken out against the proposal? What are their fears about integration? What is the argument from those in favor of the plan, like Dr. Martirano or Alisa Drake? What do they think are some of the benefits of integration?

  • Do you think that school districts should prioritize having a racially and socioeconomically diverse student body? How important do you think this goal is? Should school districts follow a redistricting plan like the one proposed in Howard County? Or, do you think there are other ways to make schools more diverse?

  • What do you notice at your school? Is there racial, economic or linguist diversity among the student body? How important are these factors to you and your family?

  • Students at Wilde Lake High School mention stereotypes that outsiders have about their school. Are there stereotypes that people have about the students at your school? Why do those stereotypes exist and where do they originate? Do you have stereotypes about the students at schools around you? Where do those beliefs come from? Do you think that, as Alisa suggests, being around peers from different backgrounds can change people’s perceptions?

  • Amaiya Sancho said she was worried that wealthier students might not want to be around Wilde Lake students because of their socioeconomic status. What do you think about her concern? Have you ever felt like an outsider because of something in your appearance or how people perceive you? Do you think there are things that students, teachers and schools can do to ensure students are able to get along and connect across differences?