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  • Writer's pictureOrina Ontiri

Students’ return to school is marred by renewed segregation across US

Experts say a ‘substantial majority’ of black and Latino students attend schools segregated by race and poverty, which are linked to poorer education

Millions of students around the US have started autumn with familiar rituals: waiting for absent teachers, flipping through outdated books and watching their peers fall behind in strained, segregated schools that experts warn represent a slow-burning crisis neglected by leaders.

Little has changed since a 2014 report concluded that 60 years after the supreme court declared segregation unconstitutional, major regions of the US have turned away from integration toward deeper inequality, said Gary Orfield, a UCLA professor and co-author of that paper.

The “substantial majority” of black and Latino students are in schools segregated by race and poverty, Orfield said. Such students are being primed by struggling schools for “a downward spiral” in a society that increasingly demands college diplomas.

If you get in a really poor-performing high school, you probably were in a weak elementary school,” Orfield said.

“Let’s say your family’s poor, and then your chances of going to a really great state university are basically nonexistent. It’s deeply unhealthy for a place where a majority of people are non-white.

“If this is sustainable then it’s incompatible with democracy, and spells disaster for the long run.”

According to the report, black people are most segregated in the north-eastern US, especially in New York, where 65% of black students go to school almost exclusively without white peers.

In the western US, Latinos still largely lack access to mostly white schools, the report adds. In California, where white people are a minority, the average Latino student in a public school has only one to two white classmates.

In the south, where courts and officials worked hardest to desegregate schools and dismantle unconstitutional policies, integration has best endured.

When the civil rights act was passed in 1968, 78% of black students in the south went to intensely segregated schools. By 1991, only 26% of black students were in similar schools, the lowest rate in the US.

But following successive court decisions to roll back desegregation orders, that number has increased to 34%, still the lowest in the US but part of a national retreat toward segregation.

Today, two out of five black and Latino children go to a school that is less than 10% white, said Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University.

A ‘substantial majority’ of black and Latino students face segregation in schools, an expert says. Photograph: /flickr

Siegel-Hawley stressed the consequences of the situation, noting the large body of research that supports the supreme court’s judgment that segregation itself is “inherently unequal”.

“These school environments are linked to a lot of factors that depress kids’ educations,” Siegel-Hawley said.

She listed the data-backed problems of segregated schools: far fewer resources than most white-majority counterparts, leading to high teacher turnover, less experienced or qualified teachers, less structure, less attention, worse access to opportunities and poorer grades.

Data shows that without a stable curriculum or strong teachers, and often coming from poor homes, students naturally struggle. Segregated schools have high rates of absenteeism as families move; the schools also tend to have stricter rules about testing and discipline, in part as a consequence of decades-long policies about accountability. Students also see friends dropping out at high rates.


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