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This map shows what more racially diverse school boundaries might look like
But not that much more diverse
Can DC use its school boundaries to make schools more racially diverse? Should it? A research team at Northeastern University has a tool which imagines different school boundaries to do just that. And by request, they’ve now added DC.
In the ongoing Boundary and Student Assignment study (whose advisory committee I serve on as the Ward 2 representative), racial diversity was one of the top guiding principles suggested by both committee members and the public.
Based on this, the study team is recommending that the guiding principles be: By-right neighborhood schools; equitable access; predictability and continuity; racial and ethnic diversity; and socioeconomic diversity. (Proximity kind of gets covered by “neighborhood schools” too.)
Some committee members also strongly argued that any system must be inclusive, such as of students with disabilities. The committee agreed that meeting those students’ needs should be clearly included in the concept of “strong” neighborhood schools (which have to meet the needs of students with disabilites and others) and equitable access.
The Northeastern team created this map tool
This tool comes from researchers Nabeel Gillani from Northeastern; Doug Beeferman, Cassandra Overney, and Deb Roy from MIT; and Christine Vega-Purheydarian from Wellesley College. (Note that this team is not affiliated with DC’s boundary study; the study has consultants who are going to be doing some analysis of their own and making their own maps.)
It takes school district boundary data and racial data and simulates alternate boundaries which have less racial segregation. It says, “81.7% of elementary school students in District Of Columbia Public Schools are classified as non-White students, but they are concentrated in 54 out of 73 elementary schools where an average of 96.0% are non-White students.”
Here’s one simulated new boundary which allows schools to be up to 10% larger and students to travel up to 50% farther. Important note: this is not an actual proposal for new school boundaries, but just a thought experiment!
The tool moves some of Cleveland Park and Forest Hills into H.D. Cooke, in the Adams Morgan area, a school that’s about half Hispanic (the rusty orange color).
It also adjusts a lot of boundaries around Capitol Hill, particularly at Miner Elementary, which is 85% students of color while some of its adjacent elementary schools are majority-white.
Other boundaries don’t change much, such as when a school already resembles the city’s racial breakdown, or more often, when it’s in an area without a lot of diversity nearby.
With all of that, though (if it were possible), after shifting 14.6% of students to another school, the net effect on segregation is to “change the average percentage of non-White students at these schools from 96.0% to 95.0%.”
That’s not a lot — 1%. If students could be given up to 100% larger travel times to school (double what they have now), a more aggressive map from the tool makes overall segregation drop by … just 1.8%.
The fact is that DC is very segregated racially, and so if you try to adjust boundaries but keep constraints that boundaries must be contiguous and kids can’t travel enormously farther than they do, then there’s only so much to do, mostly in a few more diverse areas of the city.
Would a boundary change make parents leave the neighborhood school?
There are several caveats to this data. Some little ones: the tool right now is missing Oyster-Adams, which just appears as a gray hole in DC. It just assumes everyone in the Capitol Hill Cluster (Watkins and Peabody) are attending school at Watkins.
While the tool allows schools to grow by up to 10%, some schools have absolutely no ability to do that, while other schools have room to grow far more.
Much more significantly, this data looks at who lives in the boundaries but not which students go to the in-boundary school — and about half of students at publicly-funded schools in DC attend either a charter or DCPS citywide school rather than their neighborhood school. Boundary changes also can cause significant shifts in who opts in or out of neighborhood schools, so it’s not actually just a matter of shifting lines.
Don’t blame the researchers — they knew they didn’t have this data. In fact, that’s why when I first came across this tool, it didn’t cover DC. I asked them if they could include DC, and they did (thank you!) In some other cities, they have formed partnerships to get the data, and here, the consultants working on the boundary study will have that kind of information.
But we know, from a 2016 Mathematica Policy Research study, that parents will send kids to a farther school to avoid them being too small a racial minority. That analysis by Steven Glazerman and Dallas Dotter had access to years of MySchoolDC lottery rankings.
Writing about the study in Greater Greater Washington, they said, “If the own-group percentage is low, parents show a strong preference against a school. But as the percentage rises, the relationship weakens and even becomes negative, suggesting a taste for diversity.
“In short, parents on average seem to want their children to not be in the vast minority at their school, but as long as there are some students of similar racial or ethnic backgrounds, this stops being a priority.”
That’s a reality the boundary study team will need to keep in mind as they think about ways to fulfill the study’s principles, to advance racial and income diversity while also prioritizing neighborhood schools.