School segregation is not a thing of the past. A US District Court judge in Alabama recently allowed a majority-white enclave to proceed with plans to secede from the Jefferson County School District, despite the judge’s finding that the separation was racially motivated. In contrast, a majority-white school and a majority–African American school in Chicago, one of the most racially segregated cities in the country, are planning to merge. This merger could be an important example for other urban school districts grappling with changing demographics and educational inequality.
In May, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) announced it will recommend a merger between two elementary schools: Ogden International School, a high-performing, predominantly white, wealthy school that serves Chicago’s Gold Coast, and Jenner Academy of the Arts, an almost entirely low-income and African American school that has served the residents of the former Cabrini-Green housing complex for generations. Merging the schools aims to solve the problem of Ogden’s overcrowding and Jenner’s persistent underenrollment. Since the idea was first proposed in 2015, however, there have been heated debates centered around school quality, race, and segregation.
The consolidation—championed by a coalition of parents and community and faith leaders from both schools—is an attempt to tackle education inequities and historic race- and class-based divisions between Chicago’s neighborhoods. Only 9 percent of CPS students are white, yet most of the city’s white students attend schools where they hold a plurality. This racial segregation is closely related to socioeconomic segregation, with most African American students attending schools with high percentages of economically disadvantaged students.
Research shows integration has one of the highest returns on investment of any educational intervention. A study of a Montgomery County, Maryland, school district tested whether low-income students performed better in high-poverty schools given more resources or in more affluent schools. The low-income students at more affluent schools performed better, narrowing the math and reading gap with nonpoor students by one-third. Other studies have found that school desegregation results in significant improvements in outcomes for African Americans, including increased educational and occupational attainment, higher adult earnings, reduced probability of incarceration, and better health.
Desegregation also positively affects prosocial behavior of minority and nonminority students. Diverse classrooms benefit all students, including white students, because they promote cross-cultural understanding and critical thinking, two important skills in an increasingly diverse working world. Integration enhances minorities’ educational ambitions and better prepares them academically and socially for higher education. Exposure to diversity reduces biases and negative attitudes toward members of other races.
In the context of Ogden and Jenner, the two Chicago schools, increased interactions between the demographic groups within the combined school community could foster meaningful opportunities for community building among residents of the mixed-income communities taking the place of public housing in the neighborhood. (New homes are being built in the former Cabrini-Green area that garner market rents and keep homes affordable to public housing and moderate-income residents.)
Despite the evidence supporting desegregation, there’s still a gap between research and practice. The peak of the desegregation effort came in the years immediately following the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when there was broad support for desegregation by the courts and federal government. As a result, the test score gap between black and white students reached its narrowest point. These gains were reversed as support weakened and schools resegregated. In fact, by some measures, schools are more segregated now than they were in 1968.
Although there are still important questions to be answered about the logistics of the merger, the Ogden-Jenner plan presents an opportunity to break down historic neighborhood and racial barriers while testing the notion that desegregation will lead to increased—and more equitable—economic opportunity. This merger could be a model for other urban school districts to turn the challenge of changing demographics into an opportunity to improve the educational outcomes of historically marginalized groups.
As former US secretary of education Arne Duncan said at an event last year in reference to the Ogden-Jenner merger, “If you learn together, you learn to live together. Funding alone can’t fix racism, but having a mixed-income, mixed-race school system could be the key to teaching children at a young age how to live, work, play together.”