As D.C. Grows More Diverse, Report Shows Public Schools Remain Racially Segregated

Extended Year Story Randle Highlands Elementary

D.C. residents talk about the city’s shifting demographics all the time. Since 2006, the District has become wealthier, whiter and younger. And residents see the changes all around them, particularly in new housing developments and rising rent prices. But these demographic changes are less evident in schools, according to a new report.

D.C. Policy Center, a local non-partisan think-tank, released a reporttoday showing that although schools are becoming more economically diverse, racial and ethnic diversity within schools remains low. Wards 2 and 3 are the least socioeconomically diverse, while Wards 7 and 8 have the least racial and ethnic diversity. The report is based on data from 2014-2017.

“We found that when we overlaid both types of diversity, only eight schools were the most diverse in each category, which was surprising to me,” says Chelsea Coffin, a director at the D.C. Policy Center.

Lack of diversity in schools is nothing new. Like most school districts in the United States, D.C. has a history of policy-driven segregation. But segregation has persisted despite legal changes coming from Bolling v. Sharpe and Brown v. Board of Education — court cases that challenged legal segregation in schools. In addition, most students attend schools close to their homes, and neighborhoods are often demographically homogeneous.

Researchers say they expected more diversity than they found because city policies governing schools have changed over the years. Now, D.C. students have more latitude to move in and out of schools as they please.

“In D.C., we have about 27 percent of students attending their in-boundary school, so we do have the potential for more diversity than is reflected in our housing patterns. This is limited, by travel,” says Coffin. “But I was expecting to see more diversity based on the amount of school choice.”

Why Aren’t School Diversifying?

One reason researchers suspect schools may struggle to bring in diverse populations is because of the pool of students attending public schools. Though the city has a growing population of non-black school-age students, many of them don’t attend public schools.

The public school population in D.C. is 68 percent African American, 18 percent Latino, 10 percent White and 4 percent other, according to 2016-17 school data from the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent. This means that in many cases, for a school to increase its diversity, another school may see its diversity numbers shrink unless more students choose public schools over private ones.

Schools may also have a lack of diversity by design. For example, some schools are created to serve at-risk populations and spend most of their time on outreach to families who need their services. Those schools tend to be less economically and racially integrated.

But one of the main reasons researchers say schools don’t see a lot of diversity is because diversifying schools is not always a priority for districts. Many school leaders who do have diverse schools must intentionally petition policy makers and do outreach in communities to maintain that diversity. That can be a tricky process since it involves petitioning certain groups while discouraging others.

But Coffin of the D.C. Policy Center says just diversifying schools doesn’t always lead to benefitting from that diversity, such as increased financial resources and a higher level of educational attainment.

“You can have a student body that is quite diverse, but that doesn’t tell you about anything that is going on inside of the classrooms, how parents are interacting, and how resources are allocated,” says Coffin.

“I think the next step would be for schools that are seeking diversity or have a diverse student body to think about how to integrate students, parent organizations and work out cultural competency for teachers.”

Coffin says some schools are already starting to do that and expects others will follow.