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Offer Choices; Stop Segregating by Race & Class

While education conversations buzz nationally with talk about white students becoming the minority in U.S. public schools this fall, many urban educators keep thinking, "White students have not been the majority in my school for a long time."

Ray Salazar

In many urban districts, minority students still attend schools with mostly minority students. In New York, a 2010 study found more than half of New York's black and Latino students were in schools with a white enrollment of less than 10 percent. According to New York's enrollment data, since 2006, white student enrollment hovered around 15 percent. In Chicago, since the late 1980s, white students made up only 8 percent to 13 percent of the district's population. However, while the percentage of white students in Chicago's public schools remains low, their enrollment in the city's top schools, is comparable to or higher than minority students'—sometimes over 30 percent.

The headlines of decreasing white student enrollment solidify what I consistently criticize in education reporting recently: Education journalism, many times, is pseudo-news.

In January, Education Week reported that Illinois would be one of a dozen states where minority students outnumber whites. Yet, for the last five years at least, black and Hispanic students in the Chicago public schools made up over 80 percent of the student population.

As the demographic stories flood our newsfeed this school year, policymakers and educators must remember that, despite this national shift, schools in urban districts remain segregated by class and race. The decrease in white student enrollment does not signal increased diversity in urban schools or greater opportunity for low-income, minority students.

To truly improve the education opportunities for low-income, minority students—who make up the largest population in urban areas—policymakers need to stop assigning students to schools based on home addresses. If families choose to, they should be able to apply by lottery to attend any neighborhood school in their district with open seats.

When districts require students to attend the school in their attendance area, a family's relocation, for whatever reason, likely results in a school transfer. In 2005, near-poor students had a mobility rate of 45 percent and poor students 55 percent, according to publications by the National Housing Conference and Center for Housing Policy. In 2009, when unemployment rates doubled to 10 percent, this mobility rate probably increased. In Chicago, mobility rates of students are estimated at 19 percent.

When students can have access to schools closer to a parent's job, a caretaker's home, a safer neighborhood, or a school easily accessible to public transportation, low-income students stand a better chance of stability—at least in school. Relationships between staff, students, and families solidify. Connections among students become profound.

Neighborhoods often change quickly in urban areas, forcing families to relocate. When schools remain strict about attendance boundaries, students must unfortunately transfer and struggle to re-establish themselves in a new context with each move.

Abundant gentrification in urban areas, after all, contributes to this unstable student enrollment. On Chicago's North side neighborhood of Humboldt Park, in what used to be a predominately low-income Latino community, the teen population dropped by 62 percent between 2000 and 2010. In 2010, Clemente's ZIP code of 60622 had about 1,700 teens. In 2000, 4,500 potential high school students lived there. Condos in the neighborhood high school attendance boundaries create few residential options for low-income and middle-class families when the median home sale price is now around $299,000.

For my children, the neighborhood school across the street was not an option, in large part, because we don't have a caretaker who can pick them up at dismissal. Through a lottery, we enrolled at a charter school with a schedule that is a better match for our work schedule. We're gratified with the educational experiences our 4th and 1st graders receive.

We don't know what we'll do for high school. The neighborhood public high school my children should attend based on our address (Hubbard High School) has tightly enrolled about 1,600 students for decades (I graduated from there; I taught there). According to data released by Chicago Public Radio, over 2,000 students live in the school's attendance area. Families in our 60629 ZIP code must look for other high school options because of the long-time overlooked overcrowding in our area.

If district leaders erase attendance boundaries, schools also have the opportunity to redefine themselves as places that offer a specific educational experience. Neighborhood schools currently have the pressure of having to provide all-encompassing educational programs with diminishing funding. It's an impossible challenge. This forces a school's mission statement to remain eloquent in theory, but ordinary in practice. Overwhelmed schools end up simply "providing an education." Any school can claim to do that.

Schools need the opportunity to define themselves with education programs that provide students with focused, well-supported experiences that remove the pressure of having to do it all. More importantly, low-income, minority families deserve the right to decide where their children should go to school.

Ray Salazar is an English teacher in the Chicago public schools and writes about education and Latino issues at The White Rhino on ChicagoNow.com.  Follow him @WhiteRhinoRay.

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