OPINION: How School Integration Will Benefit Us All

by Tina Kelley
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Some of the most prized features of South Orange and Maplewood are seen on our schools’ website, which proclaims we are “a district that celebrates diversity, human rights, equality, students, teachers, parents, our community, our differences, our similarities.” We talk about the importance of living together as one community. But we are not there yet.

I support the South Orange Maplewood School District’s Intentional Integration Initiative because it will help us live up to what we say we are. If we celebrate diversity, we can’t be comfortable with elementary schools that range from 23 percent white (Seth Boyden) to 70 percent white (Tuscan), in a district that is 55 percent white

We can’t have one school, South Mountain, with 4 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced price lunches, and another, Seth Boyden, with 44 percent, not in a district where 16 percent qualify.

Accepting the status quo means accepting hypocrisy. 

Under the integration plan, elementary schools will be integrated year by year, starting with kindergarteners entering in the fall of 2021, followed by all Kindergarten classes following behind them. Integration, based on census data including the education level, income, and race of parents, will be accomplished using the method used by Berkeley, California. In the fall of 2022, the middle schools will be integrated following the same principles, starting with incoming sixth graders. The formula for placing students will take into account the need to keep siblings together, transportation, students with special needs, and convenience to aftercare. 

I admire the plan for its intention to knit our community together by ensuring that every neighborhood participates and shares in the benefits of integration along with every neighborhood experiencing the changes in transportation that the new system will bring. Black students, and their parents and guardians, should not be the only ones traveling to schools beyond what has been considered their neighborhood schools. Integration can not happen on the backs of Black, Hispanic, or Asian students. To do so would be one more instance of white privilege, where white families benefit by inconveniencing families of color. Every family and neighborhood will benefit from integration, so the intentional integration plan ensures that every neighborhood will be engaged in this transformation. Other plans might have placed an undue burden on only some neighborhoods, and this plan avoids that unacceptable outcome.

I believe that all students will be well-served by schools that are thoughtfully and thoroughly integrated. Over the years, many studies have shown that students of all races do better when their schools are desegregated. Educational research has shown that in schools integrated according to race and socioeconomic status, opportunity gaps shrink and students succeed. Integrated classrooms promote critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity for all students, but also reduce stress for all students. Attending integrated schools does not hurt White students academically, the studies have shown. White students perform the same in schools with lots of Black students as in schools with only a few. But racially segregated schools (aside from all-Black charter schools, where families have chosen a segregated setting) have been shown to be harmful to Black student achievement levels as early as 1st grade, regardless of family income. 

Conversely, integrated schools has been shown to help increase Black students’ graduation rates, income, and health. And all students in integrated schools are more likely to have positive attitudes toward – and friendships with — people across racial and ethnic lines.

It’s time for us not just to proclaim our diversity, but to live into it more fully. Supporting integration is a crucial way for us to be true to our values and help reduce race-based disparities.

If you’d like to learn more about how a Brooklyn school struggled with school integration over the decades, please listen to the Nice White Parents podcast, which also has transcripts available. 

On April 13, the Community Coalition on Race is hosting “Roadmap to Equitable School Integration: Lessons Learned from ‘Nice White Parents,’” a conversation open to the public, discussing how our district can integrate its schools effectively. The evening features Maplewood resident Julie Snyder, the podcast’s executive producer, and takes place Tuesday, April at 7 p.m. via Zoom. Please register here: https://www.communitycoalitiononrace.org/roadmap_to_equitable_school_integration . Registration will be open until Tuesday morning.

Maplewood resident Tina Kelley is writing as a member of the Community Coalition on Race’s Schools Committee. Her latest book, Breaking Barriers: How P-TECH Schools Create a Pathway From High School to College to Career,  is due out in June from Teachers College Press.

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