A few weeks ago, the local school council of Ogden International School in the Gold Coast voted to merge with Jenner Elementary, near the former site of the Cabrini-Green housing project. The two schools are very close to each other—barely a mile apart—but separated by the affluence of their neighborhoods: The former faces overcrowding in a dense, wealthy area, while the latter sits mostly empty since the demolition of the last of the project's apartment towers in 2011. If approved by the Chicago Board of Education, the merger would alleviate both problems; it would also be a relatively rare experiment in combining a plurality white school (Ogden is 46.7 percent white, compared to nine percent district-wide) with a majority black school (97.5 percent at Jenner, compared to 39.3 percent district-wide).
Ogden already boasts a relatively diverse student body; the remaining 51 percent of students are evenly split between black, Hispanic, and Asian, each at about 14 percent, with another eight percent described as "multiracial/ethnic." But the proposed merger with Jenner, a school historically associated with the old Cabrini-Green project, has brought back old fears, as detailed in this DNAinfo article from September:
[M]uch of the discussion revolved around safety concerns parents had about potentially sending their kids to Jenner…
"People buy houses to live in a certain area, send their kids to certain schools," said Deba Ghosh, economist and father of an Ogden student. "They don't buy homes so they can be involved in some experiment."
But those experiments do happen—not as much these days, but quite often in America from the late 1960s through the late 1980s, as investigative journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones explored for NPR's This American Life and ProPublica, a nonprofit website that produces public-interest news. Hannah-Jones found that desegregration worked, as she detailed in a This American Life episode from this past July:
I find there's one thing that really worked, that cut the achievement gap between black and white students by half…
[I]f we had kept going when we had cut it by half, I don't know that we would have eliminated it totally, because there's a long history here. But you could see where we would have been, like, so close to eliminating it. But instead, since 1988, we have started to re-segregate. And it is at that exact moment that you see the achievement gap start to widen again.
Part of her conclusion comes from the work of Rucker Johnson, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. In 2011 he released a study tracking 9,156 students across 815 school districts that were forced by court order to desegregate between 1968 and 1988. He found astonishingly comprehensive gains for black students in schools that were desegregated. From his report: "[Integration] significantly increased both educational and occupational attainments, college quality and adult earnings, reduced the probability of incarceration, and improved adult health status" for black students.
And for white students? "[D]esegregation had no effects on whites across each of these outcomes," the report states. In other words, the narrowing of achievement (and other) gaps did not come from slowing down the educational attainment of white students; it came from improving the educational experience of black students. And Johnson isn't alone in these findings.
Several researchers at Columbia University and UCLA took a different approach when looking at the effects of these efforts: They talked to people who graduated from desegregated schools in 1980, near the tail end of America's integration push. Such an approach doesn't offer as much data as Johnson's, but it finds things that can't really show up in the data. Things like this, from their 2005 report:
All 242 graduates we interviewed expressed some gratitude for having attended desegregated schools. They said these schools provided them with one of their only opportunities—or their only opportunity—to mix with people of other racial or ethnic backgrounds. Although sometimes difficult and frustrating, this experience yielded a valuable social education not otherwise available through books, videos, or field trips—the types of “virtual” desegregation we often see used in segregated school today. The interviewees stressed the increased level of comfort they now have in racially diverse settings, especially when they are in the minority.
White graduates said that they had gained a greater appreciation for other cultures in high school and were less likely to revert to stereotypical assumptions about others based on race. They also stressed their decreased fear of people of color. White spouses and friends who did not attend diverse schools, they said, are often frightened in racially diverse and predominantly black or Latino settings.
"Less fear of other races" is not a sentiment that shows up in test scores or other measurable outcomes of educational attainment. But can anyone argue against how tremendously valuable that sentiment is?
The researchers also found that the country has backslid in desegregation, and those former students, now parents, have followed, factoring in test scores more than diversity when considering schools. More from the report mentioned above:
Whites are most often the people with the resources to buy the homes or pay the tuition that will get their children into high-scoring schools, which are often predominantly white and/or Asian and affluent. Sixty percent of our white interviewees with school-age or almost-school-age children have enrolled or plan to enroll them in public or private schools that fit this description, even as they lament that their children will miss the racial diversity they had in their own schools.
A white alumnus of Austin High has struggled, he said, to come to terms with his children’s enrollment in a “very white, disgustingly affluent” private school. He thinks they are getting an excellent education, but their lack of exposure to students of different racial and cultural backgrounds—what he said was an important part of his own education—is a real “down side.” He added, “So this is ironic. I’m not giving my children the opportunity I had. I mean, they have a different opportunity…, [but] they don’t have those cross cultural friendships.”
Those people, when they were students, faced their parents' fears—and came through without them. For Ogden and Jenner to follow that path will require facing a new generation's fears.