chalk talk

Race and education in Nashville: Author Ansley Erickson on the hidden policy choices that sustain inequality

PHOTO: Special Collections at the Nashville Public Library
Grace McKinley escorts her daughter Linda Gail and a friend to Fehr Elementary School in Nashville in September 1957 amid Nashvillians protesting desegregation of the city's schools.

In her new book Making the Unequal Metropolis, Ansley Erickson describes the desegregation and subsequent resegregation of Nashville’s public schools, carefully tracing the path of today’s educational inequalities to their roots.

Ansley Erickson
PHOTO: Columbia University
Ansley Erickson

Erickson, a Georgia native and professor of history at Columbia University’s Teachers College, describes how the city did better than most districts across America in achieving “statistical desegregation,” or getting black and white students to attend school with one another. But having white and black students in the same building is not enough, Erickson argues. The inequalities from the Jim Crow era were carried over into the city’s desegregated schools in different forms: black students bore the brunt of the district’s ambitious busing program and often faced inferior academic instruction once they reached their integrated school.

Today, many Nashville schools have resegregated, although black students in Nashville are joined in their high-poverty schools by an increasing number of immigrants and refugees — groups not present during the initial battle over racial equality in schooling.

Erickson’s book is not a warning against desegregation. Far from it. Instead, she hopes that communities will look toward growing research that suggests desegregation is necessary for equitable schooling. And she hopes that they will use Nashville’s story as a guide on how to get it right — and what pitfalls to avoid.

Chalkbeat talked with Erickson about what test scores do and don’t say about equality, school choice, how Nashville’s schools resegregated, and how they might desegregate again.

Why did you choose to focus on Nashville?

My husband’s job brought us to Nashville for one year (in 2003). I was a high school teacher in New York City, and I taught in the South Bronx, and before that in Central Harlem. Both of the schools I taught in were segregated by race and class. Before moving to Nashville, I started doing some reading about the city in the Harvard Civil Rights Reports (now at UCLA.) They listed Nashville as one of the more desegregated school systems historically. I was interested in Nashville’s story because it seemed so strikingly different than (the segregation) I saw in the Bronx. I had a small grant to do some documentary video work, so I did a lot of the interviews with Nashville residents who had various experiences with the beginning of busing. Once I finished it, I realized I had more fundamental historical questions I hadn’t been able to answer. I knew this would be the project I returned to in my doctoral work.

Until relatively recently, Nashville was considered a best-case scenario for school desegregation, and yet many of its schools have since resegregated. What caused resegregation to happen so swiftly in the late 1990s and early 2000s, even in cities considered socially progressive?

Until 1998, the school system had achieved greater levels of what I call statistical desegregation —  because I want to recognize that desegregation isn’t a sufficient measure for full equality — at levels higher than almost any other American school system. Starting in the early 1990s, a group of local community advocates — more fairly described as a group of local business and civic leaders — began to explore what could be done to end court supervision. Mayor Phil Bredesen was a big part of this conversation. So was the Chamber of Commerce. There was a view that … the state of Nashville schools … was hampering economic growth. And the rhetoric was that (schools would improve) if they lifted the court order. The impetus was largely from white elites, but there was also frustration and dwindling satisfaction in desegregation from many African-Americans in Nashville. And so those two parties worked together to end the desegregation phase. The deal they cut was to return to neighborhood schools, and those schools quickly became very resegregated.

In the years of peak desegregation, test scores for black students reached historic heights. White students also saw improvements in scores, or at worse, their scores stayed the same. Desegregation therefore was successful in beginning to close the oft-discussed achievement gap. And yet, inequalities still persisted. What is lost in almost exclusively framing of discussions about education in terms of achievement? How can we add nuance to these conversations?

First off, from our very test-score focused moment, it’s quite striking to think of desegregation as an achievement gap-closing mechanism. In the big narrative we have of desegregation as a failure, it’s important that we see national data supporting the fact that the achievement gap closed.

"Desegregation ... had benefits that aren't going to be captured in tests."

In terms of examples of inequalities that persisted even as test scores rose, one of Nashville’s stories is the return to vocational education at the same time busing begins. Historically, (vocational education) has been more of a site for perpetuating racial and class inequality than a challenge to those inequalities. In Nashville, that pattern continued. As high schools got more diverse racially, students were channeled into unequal tracking. I heard stories from students and teachers that adults in schools made judgments about where they thought kids were going to end up, and that those judgments restricted opportunities they had in schools.

Desegregation also had benefits that aren’t going to be captured in tests. And some of those benefits relate to the fundamental questions about how kids see the world, whether they have the opportunity to be in neighborhoods new to them and in conversations with people who have different experiences of the world. For a couple of decades, lots of kids in Nashville had those kinds of experiences.

You take great pain to differentiate statistical desegregation, in which schools demographically are desegregated, from true integration, where students truly receive equal educational opportunities. What needs to happen for the latter to happen?

That is in some ways the question of 21st-century education. The lack of quality desegregation (in the past) can point to ways we can do more today. What does it mean for diverse schools to support and recognize the multiple communities their students come from? Desegregation in Nashville did not do that, by closing elementary schools in black Nashville and reasserting that white suburban Nashville communities had more of a claim on neighborhood schools than black communities did. Any numbers of ways adults interact with kids and parents needs to consciously and intently value the communities from which students come. I think when you look at the desegregation story, you see the absence of that, although you do see some instances in Nashville history, like holding PTO meetings not just at the school but in neighborhoods that serve the school. I’m sure there are efforts under way in this direction in Nashville already. They’re crucial and they need to be intentional.

Another broader way to think about this comes back to the way we think about vocational education. Certainly, in the ’80s and ’90s, there were huge disparities in the labor market by race. Schools run the risk of reproducing inequalities existing in that labor market. A robust vision of diverse but equitable schools would have to be one in which either classes that focus on preparing students for work are quite directly targeting inequality in the labor market, or aren’t just preparing students for work, but preparing them to be citizens. That might be a better pathway in education.

In many ways, Nashville illustrates the falseness of the dichotomy at the center of education politics right now: that schools can be the engine to lift children from poverty, and that with enough dedication, the challenges faced by poor children of color in other facets of society are no excuse for low achievement; or that schools can’t solve anything, because the rest of society is so messed up. What does Nashville’s story say about either side of this dichotomy?

It doesn’t work to suggest that schools alone can address every issue they face in terms of student poverty, student mobility, any number of things. But (Nashville shows that) it’s also incomplete to suggest schools play no role in addressing these challenges because historically they have at times encouraged opportunities for kids, and at times they’ve limited opportunity for kids, via tracking, via segregation, even via desegregation. What schools do really matters, but what they do will never be enough.

A lot of the alleged opposition to busing, particularly from white families, though they were least affected, was literally the time students spent on the bus. Today in Nashville, school choice means many students — perhaps especially white students in certain parts of Nashville — don’t go to their neighborhood schools, and instead, attend schools across the city. Schools in Nashville’s most “diverse” neighborhoods are still segregated. What does this mean? Can choice be harnessed to desegregate schools?

The whole concept of the neighborhood school is one that’s important to understand as much more of an imagined thing than a real thing. It’s almost always used to advocate for a particular kind of neighborhood privilege. When folks argued for a return to neighborhood schools, often what they were implicitly or explicitly calling for was fewer African-American students. At the same time, there were African-American voices starting in the ’80s and through the ’90s who were aware of the historic separation of their schools and their communities (and wanted to change that). So they encouraged neighborhood schools, and that encouraged resegregation.

"Choice in many contexts has operated to exacerbate resegregation ..."

The American story of school desegregation happened in a period where “urban” was associated with black. That ended up making it easy for white people to resist segregation in terms of resisting places. People could say, ‘I’m fine with desegregation, but I don’t want my kid to travel to that neighborhood.’ From the perspective of 2016, it’s really striking how the cultural associations with urban spaces have changed. We have ample segregation, but if you look at a (gentrifying neighborhood), which was historically black, they’re now (becoming white and middle class). In some contexts, those are exactly the communities that would have argued for neighborhood schools. Choice in many contexts has operated to exacerbate resegregation, and that works in a whole host of ways. One of those might be to facilitate white, middle-class folks from placing students in local school.

There are lots of potential challenges to the reinvestment in urban spaces. For folks interested in desegregation, it’s important to notice that desegregation happened when the idea was schools should be in suburbs. With the new embrace of urban spaces, it’s interesting to think about opportunities for desegregation now.


Editor’s Note: Periodically, Chalkbeat conducts our Chalk Talk interviews with a leader, innovator, influential thinker or hero across Tennessee’s education community. We invite our readers to contact Chalkbeat with your suggestions for future subjects.

pushing integration

New York City must move faster to combat school segregation, lawmakers say

PHOTO: IntegratNYC4Me
New York City students called for school integration at a rally at City Hall in May 2017.

Ahead of a city council hearing Thursday where lawmakers are set to grill the de Blasio administration on its plan to boost school diversity, a trio of council members is calling for more aggressive efforts to tackle the city’s stark school segregation.

In the essay below, the councilmen — Ritchie Torres of the Bronx, Brad Lander of Brooklyn, and Daniel Dromm of Queens — note some progress the city has made in the three years since the council’s last major hearing on the issue, but call the city’s approach “still-hesitant.” Read the full essay below.

Integrating NYC’s Public Schools, Step by Insistent Step

Four years ago, the UCLA Civil Rights Project issued a chilling report, showing that New York had the most segregated schools in the country. Anyone willing to look already knew our schools were deeply segregated, of course. But we had somehow stopped paying attention. We treated segregation like it was a problem of the South, or of the distant past.

After the report — and prodded also by grassroots organizing, powerful journalism, and the symbolism of the 60th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education — we decided to hold a City Council hearing. That hearing stretched on for ten hours. Our conclusion: Separate, still, is not equal. And also: segregated schools cannot teach inclusive, multiracial democracy.

Coming out of that hearing, the Council passed NYC’s School Diversity Accountability Act in the spring of 2015. The Act called on the NYC Department of Education (DOE) to develop a plan to integrate our schools, and required the DOE to start submitting annual reports on school segregation (the third annual report came out earlier this fall).

Over the past four years, the City has taken some first steps. Forty-two schools (out of 1700) have joined the “Diversity in Admissions” program. A few middle-school districts shifted to “blind rankings,” so the schools could not so simply pick their students based on who they were. In two high profile cases, in Brooklyn Heights/DUMBO, and on the Upper West Side, the DOE changed elementary school district boundaries with an eye to enhancing diversity.    

Even these first steps the city would not have emerged without insistent activism from students, parents, educators, and advocates across the city. And those groups have kept pushing, because there is a deep mismatch between the moral clarity of the issue — our school system rations opportunity based on race, class, and neighborhood — and the slow approach to do something about it.

This past spring (two years after the School Diversity Accountability Act), the DOE released their plan, “Equity and Excellence for All: Diversity in New York City Public Schools. The title gives away the still-hesitant approach. The report does not even use the words “segregation” or “integration,” preferring the anodyne “diversity.” But at least, for the first time, it set concrete numeric targets for reducing the number of students in segregated schools (and increasing the number of integrated ones).

Finally, this fall, we got something a little bigger, when the DOE released their plan for District 1’s elementary schools, a “controlled choice” model that aims to achieve integration across a district. And a conversation is underway about District 15’s middle-schools. These are still small parts of the system — but at least we are beginning to see systemic approaches.

There’s a lot more we must do. At the high-school level, we could make real progress quickly, since students all across the city are assigned in one process. With political will, the city’s specialized and screened schools could be pushed to integrate. For elementary schools, we need new models, since neighborhood-based school zoning in a residentially segregated city guarantees segregated schools. One model is a “school-pairing” approach that has been successful around the country. Another option is to be much deliberate in the neighborhood-wide housing rezonings about education.  

We must also make sure that schools aren’t just integrated by admissions algorithm — but actually do the hard work of culturally-competent education (with diverse teaching staffs), of surfacing implicit bias, of confronting disparities in school discipline. It is no easy task to make sure our schools are genuinely welcoming and affirming places for kids not only of every race, but also gender identity, sexual orientation, disability status, immigration status, and national origin — but it remains an essential one.  

We’ve made some policy changes over the past four years, but perhaps the best thing that has changed is the emergence of advocacy movement. We’ve been deeply inspired by the growth of IntegrateNYC, the student wing of the school integration movement. Educators, activists, students, and parents from around the city meet together on a regular basis through the NYC Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation. These groups are doing the hard work of building integrated schools. And they are pointing out the gaping chasm between our values of equality and inclusion — and our practice of segregation.

So tomorrow, the City Council is holding another hearing, to listen again to those insistent voices. We’ll hear from the DOE about their plan, and push for far more comprehensive change. We’ll hear from students, parents, and teachers about the stark segregation they face in their schools. We’ll hear about some of the bright spots, too, since the power of genuinely integrated schools is truly transformative, and prepares kids for the city and the world they will inherit.

Most important, we will be called, again, to the “fierce urgency of now,” Dr. King’s demand that we look squarely at the injustice and segregation that characterizes our systems — and take real responsibility for changing them.   

Daniel Dromm chairs the New York City Council’s Education Committee. Brad Lander and Ritchie Torres are co-sponsors of the Council’s 2015 School Diversity Accountability Act.

By the numbers

New York City expands integration program, adding the prestigious Bard high school in Queens

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

New York City is once again expanding Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature school-integration program, which tweaks the enrollment process at a few dozen schools to boost their diversity.

This year’s additions — which bring the total number of schools to 42, compared to 7 when the program launched in 2015 — include highly selective schools such as Bard High School Early College in Queens, where students earn an associate’s degree in addition to a high school diploma, and P.S. 77 The Lower Lab School in Manhattan, which only enrolls students who qualify as gifted based on the city’s entrance exams.

Also, for the first time, the “Diversity in Admissions” initiative is expanding to include a school in the Bronx: Academy of Applied Mathematics and Technology in Mott Haven.

The program affects a tiny fraction of city students and only a small number of the city’s almost 2,000 schools. It doesn’t alter system-wide policies that contribute to segregation, including the way most students are assigned to the school closest to their home. But it’s popular with individual schools, and has been one of the most tangible steps taken by the de Blasio administration toward addressing segregation in New York City, which is one of the most segregated school districts in the country.

Officials announced the latest expansion on Tuesday, two days ahead of a city council hearing on school diversity.

Among the added schools are all 16 traditional public elementary school in District 1. City leaders previously announced an intention to include all the elementary schools in the district, which spans the Lower East Side, East Village and some of Chinatown.

Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack called the initiative a “key part of our schools better reflecting the diversity of our city.”

“We believe all students benefit from diverse and inclusive classrooms, and are excited to see our Diversity in Admissions initiative expand,” he said in an emailed statement.

Integration advocates have been lukewarm about the initiative. Matt Gonzales, who lobbies for school integration efforts with the nonprofit New York Appleseed, said any progress is important but that advocates still want to see more systemic changes.

“This is in no way impacting all 1.1 million students,” he acknowledged. “But it is creating more access for students right now.”

He added: “Obviously that needs to be built into a larger framework and set of priorities to promote more integrated schools all over,” the city.

Schools that join the Diversity in Admissions program are allowed to set aside a percentage of seats for students who meet certain criteria, such as qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch. The aim is to create or maintain a diverse mix of students by giving some an extra chance at being admitted.

The program sets targets for schools, but meeting those goals often requires outreach to ensure a diverse applicant pool. Most schools that have participated have met their targets when it comes to making offers for admission, according to education department figures.

Many schools in the program are located in gentrifying areas, where an influx of higher-income families has started to change the makeup of the local schools. The program can help stabilize the schools’ populations, so that they maintain a mix of students from different income levels.

For example, in Manhattan’s District 6, which is one of the city’s poorest, Muscota New School will set aside 30 percent of seats for students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch or live in temporary housing.

Principal Camille Wallin said the school — which is located in Inwood, a traditionally working class neighborhood where more families and young professionals have begun to settle — decided to join the initiative after noticing a significant drop in the number of needy students enrolled. For the 2016-2017 kindergarten class, only 19 percent of students qualified for meal assistance — down from 30 percent the previous year.

“Our belief system is that children learn from and with other children,” she said. “Widening the circle of people, and the experiences, and the social context of our school can only enhance the learning.”

The new batch of schools also includes P.S. 452 on the Upper West Side, which was at the center of a recent rezoning battle to relieve overcrowding and create more student diversity in Manhattan’s District 3. The school will first admit students living within the school’s attendance zone. For all remaining seats, students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch will have priority.

Schools have to apply to join the initiative, and some are setting aside only a small number of seats. At Lower Lab, for example, 12 percent of seats will be set-aside for students who qualify for meal assistance. Last year, only 4 percent of students were considered poor.

At Bard in Queens, students who qualify for meal assistance will receive priority for 63 percent of seats. About 42 percent of students last year were considered poor.

Advocates say changing student assignment policies is only one part of integrating schools. The city should also focus on creating welcoming environments within schools by training teachers in culturally relevant practices and making sure school staff reflect the diversity of students, they say.

“Integration can’t happen without one or the other,” said Hebh Jamal, a member of the student-led advocacy group IntegrateNYC.

Here are the latest schools to join Diversity in Admissions:

P.S. 77 The Lower Lab School in Manhattan – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch receive priority for 12 percent of seats. The standard district Gifted and Talented admissions criteria still apply.

P.S. 452 in Manhattan – For any seats remaining after all in-zone students are admitted, those eligible for free or reduced price lunch will receive priority.

P.S. 125 Ralph Bunche in Manhattan – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch and those who are learning English receive priority for 60 percent of seats.

Muscota New School in Manhattan – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch and students in temporary housing receive priority for 30 percent of seats.

Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School in Manhattan – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch and students in temporary housing receive priority for 75 percent of seats.

District 1 elementary schools in Manhattan – Students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch, are living in temporary housing or are learning English will have priority for 67 percent of seats. Those with disabilities will also receive a priority for kindergarten admissions. Students who do not meet those criteria will have priority for the remaining 33 percent of offers.

M.S. 260 Clinton School for Writers & Artists in Manhattan – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch receive priority for 17 percent of seats.

Academy of Applied Mathematics and Technology in the Bronx – Applicants currently attending the following District 7 elementary schools receive priority for up to 25 percent of seats: P.S. 1, P.S. 49, P.S. 154, P.S. 277, P.S. 359, P.S. 369. Applicants currently attending the following District 7 elementary schools receive priority for up to 15 percent of seats: P.S. 5, P.S. 18, P.S. 25, P.S. 29, P.S. 31, P.S. 157, P.S. 161

Boerum Hill School for International Studies on Brooklyn – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch receive priority for 40 percent of seats.

Bard High School Early College in Queens – Students eligible for free or reduced price lunch receive priority for 63 percent of seats.