Beware of ‘turnaround’ school districts (copy)

Students leave North Charleston High School, which has a student body that is more than 80 percent black.

Charleston County public schools are troublingly segregated.

About 40 percent of the school district’s roughly 50,000 students are black. About 47 percent are white. But of the district’s 85 elementary, middle, high, charter and magnet schools, at least 18 have student bodies that are 80 percent or more black. Seventeen schools have student bodies that are at least 80 percent white.

All five of the district’s wealthiest schools are overwhelmingly white. All five of the poorest are overwhelmingly black. That’s a problem.

On Monday, researchers with the Clemson Office of Inclusion and Equity presented the results of a six-month study to the Charleston County School Board. They concluded that the district should “draw or redraw attendance zones to minimize the wide range of differences in poverty levels that currently exists in the district.”

That’s a controversial and challenging suggestion. But it’s important.

Much of the explanation for the district’s segregated schools is geographic. Lots of Charleston County neighborhoods are effectively segregated for reasons ranging from present-day housing costs to Jim Crow-era discrimination. Those demographics are reflected in classrooms.

In fact, data from University of California Berkeley researcher Tomas Monarrez show that Charleston County schools are actually slightly less segregated, on average, than the racial makeup of their attendance zones. So redrawing more diverse districts would require some significant changes.

But mountains of research, including multiple studies here in Charleston County, show that students in overwhelmingly minority, high-poverty schools perform worse than their peers in more diverse schools. And there is plenty of data to suggest that segregation is a primary culprit.

Take, for example, a 2014 report from Duke University. Its authors found that, “When the minority composition of schools was 75 percent or more, the growth in African American first-graders’ reading skills lagged behind their African American peers in more integrated schools.”

By comparing students of similar socioeconomic backgrounds learning in different environments, they could determine that school segregation, rather than other factors like poverty, was the main factor in educational outcomes.

There are a lot of possible reasons for that. And not all mostly black schools perform poorly. On the contrary.

But in general, black students performed better in more integrated schools. White and Hispanic students performed at the same levels. Multiple other studies conducted over the past few decades have shown similar results.

In other words, if more Charleston County School District classrooms had more diverse student bodies, it would lift up students across the board.

And diversity in schools offers a range of benefits and life skills for all students that can’t be measured with tests. Integrating classrooms would be the right thing to do even if the effect on student performance was negligible.

So why don’t we have better-integrated schools? It’s complicated.

For one thing, redrawing school attendance zones is almost always controversial and time-consuming. In some cases, it can put a burden on low-income families without easy access to transportation.

Closing small, struggling schools and sending the students to larger, more successful schools also tends to generate resistance among communities who want to save neighborhood schools.

Even the sheer size of Charleston County, which is more than 70 miles from end to end, is a factor.

Heavy-handed efforts to force school integration have historically prompted backlash. Incentive-based programs like expanding school choice outreach and availability, and adding alternatives like Montessori or increasing access to advanced classes, have shown promise.

But Monday’s report must be a wake-up call for the school board. Too many students are falling behind in failing, segregated schools. Better integration could help some of those students succeed. It should be a priority.