School Boundaries and Racism

Hi Friends!
Heads up — it’s soapbox time! Stick with me, please. I have some helpful data and lots of links to back up my thoughts. I really hope you’ll engage with me on this. And, this email does not discuss the current pandemic, so it’s a break from stressful news!
I want to highlight a recent story in the Washington Post by Donna St. George about a boundary analysis being undertaken by Montgomery County schools. Unlike Arlington County, which seems to adjust school boundaries every year, Montgomery hasn’t evaluated its boundaries since the 1980s and it is understandably segregated (so is Arlington, but we’ll get to that). Unsurprisingly, familiar arguments are being made by families with many perspectives — they want neighborhood schools to stay together, they don’t want kids on long bus rides, they should be thinking about all kids in the system, schools need to be integrated to benefit all students, schools far away from student homes will make it harder for parents to be involved, etc.
There is also a lot of unsurprising bristling at words like segregation and racism (see White FragilityWhite GuiltWhite Rage).
So, since Arlington will be embarking on another boundary process soon, and since these concerns aren’t going away (and seem to make people really, really angry), I thought I might provide some context and some suggestions for how we move forward to find consensus that will serve all of our students.
First, our communities are segregated by economic status and have been getting more stratified over time. The reason this is happening is rooted in systemic discrimination in housing practices (redlining), wealth-building, income opportunities, and education opportunities (to name a few). Systemic racism is in everything. This is not simply a problem of the past — these systemic problems are still in place today because no one has dismantled them.
Research has been showing for the past 20 years (at least) that racist practices and policies have created segregated neighborhoods and schools. PBS News Hour shared an interview by Gwen Ifill about the Harvard Civil Rights Project in 2001. The National Bureau of Economic Research published a paper by Trevor Logan and John Parman called “The National Rise in Residential Segregation” in 2015. The Brookings Institution shared a report by Grover J. Whitehurst on school choice and racially segregated schools in 2017. And, The Atlantic published a story by Will Stancil showing that school segregation is not a myth in 2018. These were just the top few resources that came up in a Google search. There are hundreds more.
School segregation is well established as a systemic problem in our country. This is why many people of color react when arguments are made for neighborhood schools by white families in white neighborhoods. While it might be based on the understandable convenience of being able to walk to school, to be more involved in the school community, to feel more connected to this very important part of our children’s lives, pushing for neighborhood schools can sound supportive of a segregationist, racist system. Remember my post about discomfort? Consider how your advocacy for your individual comfort impacts the lived experiences of your fellow community members.
A reminder — this doesn’t make you a bad person. You are part of a racist system — we all are. It means you need to educate yourself about the truths of our white supremacist society (which, if you are white, was created in a way to be invisible to you, so you’ll have to work to see it and to recognize it). It means that you have a role to play in changing this unfair system.
And perhaps most importantly, it means that each one of us has to consider the education and well-being of every single student in Arlington. Not just those most precious little people in our own homes.
Also, please don’t believe for a moment that Arlington is somehow a magical place that doesn’t have any of these racist systems. Have you visited the wall in the Halls Hill neighborhood? It was constructed to separate adjacent white and black neighborhoods from the 1930s to the 1960s and parts of it are still standing. Arlington County placed a historical marker in 2016 and you can read more about the dedication ceremony and the history at the John M. Langston Citizens Association website (Hall’s Hill/High View Park). This is a physical reminder of the insidious and well-rooted systems that we all function within, that systematically discriminate against some of our neighbors for the benefit of others. It’s true whether you know about it or not. It will remain true until enough of us are willing to see it and choose to reject that immoral privilege.
All of this means that when we discuss boundary changes in our schools, we must focus on the perspectives and needs of under-served populations rather than ourselves. Seek out the voices of families in your school who differ from you (income, language, race, ability, citizenship status, etc.). And if there aren’t any, or there are very few, consider why. Look outside of your school community to understand how different our schools are from each other:
Free/Reduced Lunch Data from APS October 2019 — Current choice schools are noted for awareness.
Listen to that voice in your head as you look at this table. What has society taught you about “good” and “bad” schools? What assumptions do you make about the quality of education that students are receiving at each of these schools?
If you assume unfairly that quality of education is low at some Arlington schools (or, correctly, that access to opportunities is unequal among Arlington schools — see PTA Funding Disparities, for example), what justification can you tell yourself that allows you to let this kind of segregation in our community continue to stand? If your children deserve the best education and opportunities that Arlington can offer (and they do), so does every other child here, no matter their circumstances.
I know that many of us reading this post are already strong advocates for our school communities and for all of Arlington’s students. We need to build on our work. We need to raise awareness, to bring more families out of their bubbles of ignorance, to empower them to demand that Arlington do better for all of our children. We need to listen to our neighbors and be willing to believe their lived experiences. We need to amplify the voices of our under-served populations and support efforts at APS to address inequity in all of our schools. We need to follow the lead of community groups like Black Parents of Arlington and the NAACP who have been working and advocating for equal access to opportunity.
The culture is shifting. There are new opportunities every day for educational equity advocates to speak up, to talk to our fellow community members. Please continue to engage in this work and reach out to me and each other if you have ideas or need support in your efforts. And in the upcoming boundary process, please keep these priorities in mind. We just have to keep working to be the loudest voices in the room.
Listen. Amplify. Follow.

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