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Race, Choice and Richmond Public Schools: New Possibilities and Ongoing Challenges for Diversity in Urban Districts

Abstract

Several contemporary demographic trends suggest that school systems in America’s central cities, typically characterized by high levels of racial and economic isolation, are being presented with new opportunities to create quality, diverse schools. Still, numerous obstacles linger. Using multiple sources of data and innovative mapping tools, this case study explores an urban district experiencing population growth and change and several different manifestations of school choice. Analyses indicate that levels of black-white elementary school segregation have risen rapidly over the past two decades, and now surpass residential segregation levels. The increase in school segregation has occurred alongside a district policy emphasis on both choice and neighborhood schools. While the current elementary school zones present a number of opportunities for further racial and economic diversity, high shares of students transferring out of their zone—either to another setting in the district or to a private school—undermine those possibilities. The example of Richmond, Virginia has important policy implications for countless other urban districts grappling with demographic shifts and the growth and popularity of school choice. Both trends offer crucial possibilities for central city school systems, but without careful attention to policy, will likely result in further stratification.

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Notes

  1. This term is used interchangeably with “urban core” or “urban area.” Such definitions are somewhat subjective, but typically refer to a geographic area at the heart of a metropolitan region with high population and residential density, readily available public transportation and good walkability (Cox 2011).

  2. Though an examination of charter school trends was beyond the scope of this study, it is worth noting here that research has demonstrated that segregation levels, already very high in regular public schools, are substantially higher in the fast-growing charter sector (Frankenberg et al. 2011; Miron et al. 2010). These patterns may be related to a lack of transportation, burdensome admissions processes, un-weighted lotteries and/or limited outreach to diverse groups of families (Frankenberg et al. 2011).

  3. The Bradley case was initially filed in 1961.

  4. The school board also approved the first RPS charter school in 2010, expanding the choice options in the district. Admission to the charter K-5 school is governed by a lottery, but requires a parental time commitment. Families also must provide transportation to the school (PHSSA 2011). Though Patrick Henry only reports one year of enrollment data to the federal government, early trends suggest that the charter school disproportionately enrolls white and non-poor students compared to the district and to neighboring regular public schools. All three nearby regular public schools report white enrollments between 1.9 and 2.5 %, even as white students make up 35 % of Patrick Henry’s enrollment. In 2010, Patrick Henry reported that no students received free and reduced priced lunch, a pattern seen in other charter schools around the country (Frankenberg et al. 2011). By contrast, FRL students accounted for between 84 and 90 % of the enrollment at two nearby elementary schools, and more than 50 % at the other.

  5. Districts alter school attendance boundaries with some regularity, and RPS is no exception to this trend. In 2010, the district converted Maymont Elementary into a pre-K setting and zoned students from Maymont to adjacent Clark Springs Elementary. This small shift (impacting less than 1 % of students in RPS) is not reflected in the following figures and maps but should not alter the analysis in any significant way.

  6. The VDOE defines economically disadvantaged students as those who are eligible for Free/Reduced Meals, receive TANF, or are eligible for Medicaid.

  7. The terms poor/non-poor are used interchangeably with ED/non-ED.

  8. Of course, this trend may also be related to the fact that the proportion of school aged white residents differs from the proportion of white residents of all ages.

  9. In August of 2013, the school board completed a highly controversial school closure and rezoning process that is now under review by the Richmond circuit court. Claims that the rezoning resulted in the further segregation of students at least partly motivated the lawsuit (Reid 2013).

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Siegel-Hawley, G. Race, Choice and Richmond Public Schools: New Possibilities and Ongoing Challenges for Diversity in Urban Districts. Urban Rev 46, 507–534 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11256-014-0277-6

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Keywords

  • Racial diversity
  • School choice
  • Desegregation
  • Open enrollment
  • Student assignment policy