The Struggle for School Integration

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S1: Hey everyone. It’s Mary. Quick heads up here at the top. This impeachment story is moving super fast. By the time we record a show for you a new document is being released. Someone’s about to testify on Capitol Hill. We want to give you the big picture on all this but we also want to tell you about things that are not happening in Washington. So for the next couple of days that’s what we’re going to do. It doesn’t mean we’re going to be ignoring what the House of Representatives is up to though. So let us know what questions you have as you watch all this play out.

S2: Is there someone you really want to hear from. Is there a story we’re ignoring. Shoot me a tweet let me know. I’m at Maria’s desk.

S3: For the last month the school board in Howard County Maryland just outside Washington D.C. has been inundated with these letters. Hundreds of letters some of them are neatly typed and contain graphs and charts. Some are handwritten like the one from a fourth grader from Tri Adelphia Ridge Elementary School. Almost all of them say the same thing. In the words of the fourth grader.

S4: Please please please please please please please don’t change our high school.

S3: There are four E’s in the last please.

S5: Howard County Board of Education they certainly got an earful tonight for parents and students.

S6: These letter writers are pushing back on a plan to switch where local kids go to school in a district that ProPublica has called highly segregated people in Howard County are protesting a proposed redistricting plan which would reassign just over 70 300 students in the county’s elementary middle and high schools ripping students out of their communities putting them on long bus rides across the county.

S7: That poses real risks to their health.

S1: Howard County looking at the people organizing against this plan. The main thing that’s tough to square for me is that in 2019 I just didn’t expect to see a protester carrying around a sign that says no forced busing.

S8: Yeah go on D.C. Urban Moms dot com and you’ll see even worse stuff.

S3: Josh Starr lives one county away. He spent years as a superintendent first in Connecticut then in Maryland. He’s taken on desegregation like this in the past.

S8: It’s really really hard. I mean the joke is that you only do redistricting if you wanna get rid of a superintendent or if there’s an interim. And when I did this when I was in Stanford Connecticut they were actually starting on a redistricting process when I became superintendent and I said look you need to hold off on this because I won’t be able to get my footing. So we actually held off for a bit because it’s such a difficult process that can really divide a community and it takes over everything and it can ruin a superintendent support. So you have to be very careful on board to be very careful how they approach it. I wanted to talk to Josh because he’s been here before.

S9: Leading a school district to the painful process of figuring out what equity looks like. And part of what makes the Howard County story so interesting is that it isn’t just white parents who are protesting it’s black and brown parents South Asian parents saying they just don’t want to leave their neighborhood schools.

S8: Part of the challenge when doing these kinds of things is the individual stories are the ones that get put into the forefront.

S10: Right. Because we see schooling as a private commodity not a public good. And it’s hard to convince people that OK you’re in a public school system and sometimes you gotta make some adjustments in order to serve the whole. And people don’t want to hear that. And so the letters that you get the testimonies that come up the kid that is put in front of the Board of Education by their parent who says if you move me I will be destroyed. Those stories are what dominate the narrative and the real and good reasons for wanting to do a redistricting get pushed aside because those issues those stories about individuals loom so large and are so attractive.

S9: So I asked Josh to tell me a different kind of story the story of desegregating a school system from the inside. What he learned from it what he’d tell those parents in the county next door. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to why next. Stick with us.

S3: Before we talk about Josh I want to talk about Howard County. Howard County started thinking about busing kids to different schools because of overcrowding. Some schools were too full. Others were too empty. And then the superintendent decided to restructure the districts integrate Josh Starr says this is part of what’s making this debate so fraught.

S11: Redistricting for enrollment purposes and crowding purposes alone is complex and difficult and contentious to add in the layer of integration whether it’s by race or socioeconomics just adds another layer to it and makes it that much more difficult contentious and complex ultimately more rewarding. But still you know the process is just sort of bereft with all these you know potholes.

S3: When I was trying to understand Howard County a little better I started following the protesters online. They said busing their kids would deprive them of sleep and make it harder for their children to do after school activities. One immigrant family said they felt the redistricting plan put their American dream under attack. And I found this video testimony from a mom opposed to Howard County’s plan. She’s black a lawyer and she gave the school board a history lesson about Oliver Brown the plaintiff in Brown v. Board of Education. He did not understand why.

S12: His daughter Linda Brown could not go to the predominantly white school which was right across the street from his house. Why did his daughter had to be bused across town to the closest. Predominantly black school. So it was really a racial issues other planes destroying and to make it what we now consider a racial beat us desegregation. It was a busing issue.

S3: It was Josh Starr has a completely different take on what’s happening here. So I asked him what are these protesting parents not get in my view.

S11: It’s about race. It always is in America and American public schools.

S1: I got in trouble for saying that a lot but yeah I mean I wondered if that parent was here she’d say but I’m black and I’m telling you I want my kid to go to public school.

S13: Well so I think look I am a privileged middle aged white male.

S11: Right. Education systems are designed in a way that reflect all the institutional racism and bias that is in America right. Property taxes the way we draw lines. I mean you know who to do.

S14: It goes like this deep institutional designs of the systems that reflect the racism that’s inherent in American society but that doesn’t mean that a black or Latino parent or an Asian parent ever maybe doesn’t have the right to say I want X Y or Z for my kid right.

S1: Yeah I mean it sounds like what you’re saying is that the stories that we’re seeing the individual stories at the top are actually they can be distracting because the work you’re doing is deeper and more systemic.

S9: And so the stories at the top may not help us understand what the project at hand.

S13: That’s right. That’s that.

S15: That’s exactly right.

S3: It was 2005 when Josh started working as a superintendent in Stamford Connecticut. And part of the reason he took on school segregation so aggressively is that in Stamford there was this policy on the books. It required the schools to be socio economically balanced. But Josh wanted to go beyond this basic requirement and integrate individual classrooms.

S8: The major issue was that within schools there was deep segregation called tracking and that was actually in policy going back to the 70s. So the idea was desegregate the schools but segregate the classes so that kids would be in an ability group. So you had white kids and it at the time when I got there there were more Asians in white and Asian kids who were in the advanced classes getting the best stuff. And you had black kids and brown kids who were not. And it was just incredibly clear how rigid that was. So that’s that’s what we dismantled along with the redistricting and all that that just had to be done to balance out demographics. We also dismantled the tracking that existed.

S1: Yeah. I want to talk about the tracking. How did you see it when you walked into a school like when you first took the job and you started going to all the schools in your district. What do you see.

S8: I still remember going to one school. I won’t name the school when I’m walking with the principal and it was clear that she just wanted to show me the classes with the white kids. And I said I then said like you know show me a lower level class. And she basically just you know had it. She she looked around she got great she realized the class with the African-American and Latino kids with the lower level class. And I mean you literally could see in every classroom the difference just by the nature the kids who were sitting in the class. It was stark. You know that manifested then in high school. One of the high school was very very diverse big high school 24 and you get the black cafeteria the White cafeteria. And it was it was cafeteria like out you know it was de facto it wasn’t the jury right. I mean kids just naturally gravitate in part that’s because when they were scheduled for certain classes and who’s in the classes and you go with the kids you know and if you if you are a white kid who is an advanced placement class you are gonna be hanging out with those kids and if you are black or Latino kid in a remedial class or a lower level clashing with those kids you know so you just you saw it everywhere.

S1: How did the community feel about this. Like did they even recognize what was happening.

S8: Well that’s the interesting part. So some of them did not. There were certainly some black and Latino families and community members who said wait a second why is it that our kids aren’t performing. Why is it that our kids aren’t in top classes. But a lot of people just thought OK this is just the way it is. Right. And particularly because the elementary schools I mean the schools were so integrated in terms of the school building itself. Right. So people felt good. Oh my kids going to school with kids of all different races et cetera. And I don’t think a lot of them didn’t know that it was going on. And then once we started you know I basically made it very very public and a lot of teachers then and school administrators and parents started saying yes thank you for naming it we know it’s an issue and no one’s wanted to talk about it. So some people just didn’t know because you know they don’t pay much attention. And then you know some people have said OK that’s just the way it is and then some people of course wanted to change it but many others or some others were dead set against changing the status quo and having the privilege taken what was their argument. Oh ranging from if you put those kids into these higher level classes as they won’t be prepared and you’ll dumb down the curriculum the teachers aren’t ready for it. So people you know they’d wrap themselves up in all this stuff that you know Robin De Angelo talks about in white fragility right. That that’s not about the real issue which is just that a lot of white people just want to make sure their kids continue to get what they perceive as the best even if it’s not.

S1: You say it’s not the best. And you’ve really made this argument when you talk about this that when you desegregate classrooms and and redistrict shift kids around and make sure they’re exposed to kids who are different than them it’s good for everyone academically. And I think that that’s something that people still don’t understand it. So I’m wondering if you can explain that a little bit.

S8: Yeah it’s hard to wrap their head around right. But the evidence from 30 40 years is so clear. So when you track when you integrate classes whatever we want to call it two things happen a few things happen One is the performance of white kids does not decline whatsoever. They continue to do well academically and part of that is because you know this this may not be totally fair but we have a lot of schools that I call First Do No Harm schools with just add water kids. The kids are going to do fine regardless. Right. If they come from a family that’s supportive they are literacy rich environment home they’re getting outside tutoring kids getting to well regardless. So so white kids tend to do just as well in integrated classes as they always did. African-American and Latino kids more vulnerable kids kids report their their achievement goes up invariably. And the social awareness of all kids increases substantially so kids sense of Yeah multiculturalism is important. Yeah. You know what. It’s great to be friends with different kinds of kids. Yeah I really appreciate diversity those factors that measures those like that increases for everybody whether you’re white with your black whether you’re Latino whatever you may be it increases for everybody when you’re integrated classes fights over busing the kind of fights that are happening in Howard County right now.

S3: Josh there’s these fights are some of the toughest for a superintendent to take on.

S13: There’s a real legitimate issue around busing policies right. I mean if your kid is going from a 20 minute bus ride to an hour long bus ride that’s a problem. And I would understand why a parent wouldn’t want that.

S1: Yeah. Because I mean when the busing issue I feel like is where this gets complicated because you have parents coming in and saying listen this is going to quadruple my commute and my kid might not be able to do after school activities. And you know this is just going to really change what our lives would have been whereas we’ve moved here so we could go to the school five minutes away. But now that’s not a possibility.

S16: Yeah that’s right. And it is the biggest challenge with this. You know when we polled the American public on this in 2017 there was about 70 maybe 72 percent of parents said they wanted their kids being a racially diverse school but only about 20 22 percent of parents said they would be willing to accept a longer commute in order to achieve that. Forty one percent of African-American parents said they’d be willing I think was like 16 percent of white parents had that. So people do want diverse schools but they don’t want to work for it. Right. They don’t want to have to commute longer and the busing issue is real because people are segregated by housing. You can’t be too disruptive. You have board policies. There’s an environmental concern as well as a whole bunch of issues and and you have to be reasonable with that. But you know assuming that you’ve taken care of all those issues right you’re not sending kids on buses for an hour and a half or whatever it may be and it’s reasonable it’s within board policy. You just got to do it and people will adjust. They always do.

S3: Another way Josh helped parents adjust started outside the school system. It had to do with housing.

S13: I went to the realtors and I said you guys have to be clear with people about what the rules are because they come to me and complain that you know oh the Realtors told me that my kid was going to X school and then I could go to or I could go to y magnet school. Now you’re telling me I can’t. And I said Well I don’t control the realtors but we were able to effectively decrease complaints about magnet Roman system by my second year by just building in a lot of transparency and communication.

S16: And we also got the realtors to build into their stuff sort of a disclaimer that school you saw on the map there was aligned your house was not necessarily the school your kid is going gonna go to that the district has the authority we built in those kinds of mechanisms too.

S1: I’m so interested that you went to the realtors. That seems like one of those things you wouldn’t necessarily think to do. But of course it’s going to change how people see these issues.

S13: Yeah it was fascinating. And the really interesting thing about it was a number of the real tears were so happy I was taking this on because I was being public about it. Look I grew up in Stamford I love this community. This is part of what we celebrate. I love the fact that you’re pushing it out there and sell and celebrate the fact that we do something. Other districts don’t they really. This is this is great. And it actually makes it attractive in my sales pitch to people other said whatever. I don’t care. I just need to sell the house to the most expensive homes the most to the highest price buyers and I’m going to tell them and I’m gonna tell them right. So it’s very ancient to hear the reactions I got from the realtors but you have to go to them because you know parents don’t understand and realtors don’t have to tell you the full truth.

S1: It was striking to me how long it took you to lay the groundwork in Connecticut for the changes that you rolled out and it involved recruiting teachers to talk about the trouble with tracking and recruiting parents and sort of building everyone up. And you’ve described this moment in 2009 you gave an opening day speech and you announced like this is the year we’re going to do it. Can you describe the reaction you got.

S13: Yeah I get a great reaction. I mean it was so I was dropping hints for four years right. I mean I had to because I had to let people know that I was going to get there. I had to make sure that my allies were going to go along with me and that they weren’t saying why is he moving quick enough. And I had to signal people that this is real and we got to do something about it but we’re not just gonna do it willy nilly. And I found again that a lot of teachers and principals and administrators many of whom had gone through the school system and had been tracked and didn’t didn’t want that didn’t want to be in a system like that. They they got it right. So when I did say you know every year I kind of dropped a pebble. I said why are we doing this. You know what’s what’s up people. And then when I finally said we are going to stop doing this. Yeah I think I got a standing ovation from a number of people and they were very happy that I’ve said no where we’re going they’re right but it took me time to line up all the various factors within the system where all the elements of the system so that it would be successful.

S1: I was struck too by the fact that your work in Stanford was kind of unique in that there was this law that required the schools to be racially balanced. Do you feel like when you look at situations like what’s happening in Howard County they’re a little bit hemmed in because they may not have similar requirements.

S13: Yeah I will say that I could not have done this without the voluntary integration policy that we had. Well I could have but it would’ve been a heck of a lot harder and frankly without a voluntary integration policy you don’t have a mechanism a trigger to to push the conversation so that piece was incredibly important so people did know that there is this complex system. But at the same time you know when parents came up to me and said you know we’re going to sue you or whatever.

S16: I said okay. Go for it. This has lasted for 40 years. You know the schools are required to be integrated in Stanford.

S13: And I said to the board I said publicly if you want we can look at the voluntary disagree voluntary integration policy that’s elegant. Nobody wants to touch that. Even people who are opposed to the detracting work they did not want to want to even think about putting that on the table. And given the fact that we had no child left behind which I was not a huge fan of No Child Left Behind. But what it did is it. But it it required me to do something and it required the board and schools to do something about the incredible achievement gaps that existed.

S1: So interesting it really shows the power of these laws that get on the books and years later they’re really important to sort of giving political cover to. Well that’s hard work you’re doing.

S16: Yeah that’s exactly right. So that’s one of my greatest concerns about ESSA frankly and I was not a poll was ESSA Oh I’m sorry. ESSA is the federal law overseeing schools it goes back in 50 years it has been called No Child Left Behind under Bush then it was race to the top under Obama now. SS So it’s just a different name of the federal policy that guides schools and under the current administration. It actually started under Obama. We’ve gone back to local control in a way that I think is really problematic is left to their own devices school boards and superintendents for that matter will typically just maintain the status quo. And unless there’s a federal law or in most cases a court action or somebody sues is legal action taken. School improvement efforts and system efforts are not organized around the needs of the most vulnerable kids things regress of the mean. And I’m very concerned about how that’s going to rear its ugly head now as there’s an increase in local control.

S3: Josh says these decisions about schools are so local that means individuals like him and to having a lot of power. That is until they don’t.

S16: And that’s part of the challenge with all of this right you. You do it. You hope that it lasts long after and I know the structural kind of technical things we put in place made a difference I know student achievement increased when I was there and all that kind of stuff.

S17: But unless you have someone who’s going to continue to drive it and improve it you know the gains can always be sustained and that is a huge challenge.

S18: Josh Starr thank you so much for joining me. Oh it’s my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me. Joshua Starr is now the CEO of PDK International consulting firm.

S19: All right. That’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson Jason De Leon Morris Silvers and Daniel Hewett. I am Mary Harris. I will talk to you tomorrow.