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.

Race and class

Designing diversity: How one Memphis charter school set out to recruit its students

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Principal Chandra Sledge-Mathias speaks to Crosstown High School's inaugural ninth grade class outside the building on the first day of school.

On the first day of school, Sharonda Walker noticed her daughter and other students at the brand new Crosstown High School immediately sorted themselves by race as they made small talk outside the building.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
English teacher Deion Jordan speaks with Crosstown High School’s inaugural ninth grade class on the first day of school.

“They went into packs and it was black and white,” said Walker, who is black and lives in Klondike, within walking distance of the school. “It wasn’t intentional, but people tend to hang around people that look like them.”

Leaders at the new charter school have set out to make something that is rare in Memphis, a school that is a mix of races, socio-economic levels, and academic standing. School officials mapped the district, pounded the pavement, and then adjusted their strategy as they saw their population start to fill in with mostly middle-class and affluent white students.

The demand to create diverse schools is growing, especially among charter schools that were formed as an alternative for students of color in poor neighborhoods. Education leaders across the nation have increasingly acknowledged that schools segregated by race and family income hurt students and their communities.

Crosstown High leaders are finding that all their efforts aren’t enough and that they still have work to do.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Left, Ginger Spickler, Crosstown High School’s director of strategic partnerships and projects.

“It’s going to be ongoing work. It’s never going to be finished,” said Ginger Spickler, the school’s director of strategic partnerships and projects.

The result was 150 students that more closely mirror the demographics of the county than any other school in the district. More than a third of the students are white — making it the first charter school in Shelby County Schools to attract a significant number of white students. White students make up a small part of the entire district, about 7 percent.

Five schools have a higher share of white students than the county and Crosstown High, but most of them have academic requirements for students who want to attend. That’s not the case at Crosstown High because charter schools in Tennessee are not allowed to have admission tests. If there is a waiting list, the charter school conducts a computerized lottery to select students.

School leaders are quick to point out Crosstown High is not as diverse as they would like. They want to enroll more Hispanic students, who now represent only 2 percent of the student population. The school also fell nine percentage points below its goal for students from poor families. The school could draw more students from the neighborhood; four census tracts around the school have a median annual income of $36,643, with the lowest being $17,000. The highest was $51,000.

Graphic by Samuel Park
Graphic by Samuel Park


PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Crosstown High School is housed in a 1.5 million square-foot former Sears warehouse and store that has turned into a hub of businesses and apartments.

For Crosstown High leaders to have a diverse student body, they needed a diverse pool of applicants for the lottery, Spickler said.

So, they hit the road. They invited students across the city to apply — many were the same students they interviewed for a grant application to re-invent what high schools do. They tapped into various networks such as parent advocacy group Memphis Lift, student leadership organization BRIDGES, and Memphis Public Library’s student technology group, Cloud901. Along the way, school leaders preached the school’s project-based learning model, where students solve real-world problems and learn the math, science, English, and social studies skills required by the state along the way.

The effort lasted about two years. One such event at First Congregational Church featured students from middle schools in neighborhoods far flung from each other in geography and academic standing.

“I remember looking out and thinking, ‘If we can maintain this kind of representation of Memphis in everything that we’re doing, we’ll get there,’” Spickler said.

When applications first started trickling in, Crosstown High’s small team mapped where students were coming from and noticed they skewed toward white and middle-class families who were also considering private schools. That prompted the team to double down on visiting more middle schools with more students of color from poor families, Spickler said.

Map of Crosstown High students

Courtesy of Crosstown High School

Now that students are in the building, Spickler said the main way the school plans to help students foster relationships across racial and economic lines is through what are known as advisory groups. Administrators are picking groups of about 15 students, each representing a cross section of the school. They will meet with a teacher three times a week for 45 minutes to talk about relationship building. The hope is that the group of students would stay together throughout high school.

“That’s the foundation on which the rest of the model can work because we hope students learn to support each other,” Spickler said. “If they can apply that to the rest of their academics in a healthier frame of mind, it will be better for everybody.”

School leaders are fighting an uphill battle. Memphis schools never truly integrated after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, according to historians. In fact, schools have become more highly segregated in the city. A little more than half of Memphis schools are highly segregated, where 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.

PHOTO: Brandon Dill/The Commercial Appeal
Crosstown High School’s inaugural ninth grade class greet each other on the first day of school.

Racial and economic diversity was “a huge factor” for parent Paul Guibao, whose white son is one of the 150 ninth-graders in the school’s inaugural class.

“You have to break those barriers because they happen early and not necessarily intentionally,” he said, adding his son had attended a predominately white private school prior to Crosstown High.

“Because that’s life. You’re not going to live your life in a bubble. You’re going to deal with people from all walks throughout your existence,” said Guibao, a lawyer who lives in the affluent neighborhood of Harbor Town. “There’s a certain sheltering with people. I don’t think that’s healthy for the individual and I don’t think that’s helpful for the future of our society.”

Walker, the mother who noticed the students sorting themselves on the first day of school, said the way Crosstown is approaching learning and diversity shows there’s hope for a new model in the district.

“So, I think it’s a task,” she said. “But with the structure at hand, I believe it’s going to foster working together — learning from everyone at the table.”

Chalkbeat explains

How school desegregation efforts could change, or not, after DeVos’s move to scrap Obama-era guidance on race

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visiting the Christian Academy for Reaching Excellence in Miami.

The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw guidance dealing with race in school admissions last week wasn’t just about colleges.

School districts across the country have grappled with how to integrate their schools, too. And one of the seven documents withdrawn by the education and justice departments offered a roadmap for districts looking to voluntarily integrate their elementary and secondary schools.

This move is important symbolically — particularly in light of a surge of discussions about the persistence of segregation in public schools. But it’s not likely to have far-reaching policy implications, since only a handful of districts voluntarily use race in school assignment decisions.

Here’s what we know about what this change might mean for K-12 schools. Keep in mind that the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has authored a number of the key affirmative action opinions, puts things in even more flux. Critics of affirmative action hope Kennedy’s replacement will join other conservative judges to further limit the consideration of race in state and local policies, including school admissions decisions.

What was this guidance?

What’s relevant to K-12 education is a 14-page Obama-era document that explained how school districts can attempt to racially integrate schools without getting into legal trouble. (The document was targeted at districts that wanted to adopt desegregation policies on their own, not districts bound by federal desegregation orders.) That’s what DeVos rescinded.

It offered advice for school districts looking to make policy changes to diversify schools. Districts should first consider factors like students’ neighborhood or poverty level. But, the guidance read, “if a school district determines that these types of approaches would be unworkable, it may consider using an individual student’s race as one factor among others.”

It’s hardly a push for wide-scale race-based policies, but it left some room to use race if districts find they had exhausted alternatives.

This guidance was necessary, some argue, because the Supreme Court has weighed in on this issue in a complex way. A 2007 case, Parents Involved v. Seattle School District, struck down Seattle’s school assignment plan for its reliance on race to make admissions decisions.

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in a widely quoted passage of the opinion. But Kennedy, the key fifth justice in the majority, didn’t fully sign on to this — continuing to allow districts to use race as a factor, but not the sole one.

“A district may consider it a compelling interest to achieve a diverse student population. Race may be one component of that diversity, but other demographic factors, plus special talents and needs, should also be considered,” Kennedy wrote. “What the government is not permitted to do … is to classify every student on the basis of race and to assign each of them to schools based on that classification.”

The Bush administration issued its own interpretation of the ruling in 2008, encouraging school districts not to consider race, though it did not say that doing so was prohibited in all circumstances. By publishing a guide for using race in 2011, the Obama administration was offering practical help but also sending a message that its goals were different.  

Erica Frankenberg, a professor who studies K-12 desegregation at Penn State, said the user-friendly way the guide was written was part of the Obama administration’s strategy to encourage districts to integrate their schools.

Did any school districts use it?

According to recent research, 60 school districts in 25 states have school assignment policies meant to create more diverse schools. Of those, just 12 districts take race into account, rather than just socio-economic status. (Using socio-economic status isn’t affected by this debate about race-based admissions.)

But it’s hard to tell if the guidance was a deciding factor for any school districts.

“Even with the 2011 guidance in place, voluntary integration is still an incredibly complicated thing to do,” said Frankenberg. In addition to a plan being in compliance with the law, this approach require garnering political will and tackling logistics like transportation.

Why are some people concerned about it being rescinded?

The guidance represents the official viewpoint of the administration, but the underlying law hasn’t changed. It does mean that districts won’t have the backing of federal government when it comes to race-conscious integration policies. That might make districts using race more fearful of a lawsuit.

“This is a legal intimidation strategy from a very conservative administration that is really intent on not having race a part of decision making and policy,” said Liliana Garces, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies race, law, and education.

The move to rescind the documents fall into set of decisions by the Department of Education to deprioritize voluntary desegregation. Last year, the department discontinued an Obama-era grant program that was intended to help schools increase socio-economic diversity. (According to The Atlantic, 26 districts had been interested in applying for integration grants before that program was scrapped by the DeVos administration.)

To no longer have [the guidances] as an official stance is certainly at the very least, a missed opportunity to use the bully pulpit,” said Frankenberg, who supports race-based integration efforts.

Others support the move, arguing that attempts to use race in public policy are unconstitutional.  

“Being opposed to racial preferences is not being against diversity, which is what the critics will claim: It’s simply being against discrimination,” Roger Clegg, of the anti-affirmative action Center for Equal Opportunity, told Education Week. “The federal government should not be going out of its way to encourage such discrimination.”

What does research say about school integration?

It’s found that low-income students and students of color benefit from racially integrated schools. One recent study found that graduation rates of black and Hispanic students fell modestly after the end of a court order mandating desegregation plans. Another study found that Palo Alto’s school integration program led to big boosts in college enrollment among students of color (though, surprisingly, also led to an uptick in arrests).

Research has also shown that income is not a good proxy for race when looking at academic outcomes — even when accounting for differences in family income, black students were substantially less likely to complete high school and enroll in college. Other research has shown that attempting to use income to integrate schools by race isn’t nearly as effective as using race directly.