MAPLEWOOD, NJ — A full auditorium at Columbia High School showed how many parents and community members were curious about the Intentional Integration Initiative that South Orange Maplewood School District is embarking upon in 2020.

The event, held last night, Jan. 8, featured three nationally recognized experts in various aspects of the topic.  

In his introduction, Superintendent Dr. Ronald Taylor said “we are a learning community” and he seeks a rich dialogue as the process of deciding what intentional integration will look like in the district. He showed graphics of how each school in SOMSD looks, broken out racially and by those who receive reduced or free lunch in school. “One school, 42 percent free and reduced lunch. Another school, not even 4 percent,” he noted. “We look at our racial breakdown and we see that we have some schools at 60 percent or above white students and one at less than 25 percent.”

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Taylor noted “we can show all the colored charts we have but it does not change the fact that we have to address the segregation of our elementary schools.” He said the mandate for integration “goes far beyond legal obligations.”

Dr. Eddie Fergus, assistant professor of Urban Education at Temple University, introduced the speakers and moderated the discussion. Fergus has worked with more than 65 school districts on educational equity and school reform.

Elise Boddie, a law professor at Rutgers who resides in Montclair, gave the historical background of segregation through case law. While southern states had de jure — intentional, based on law — segregation, the northern states’ segregation was largely de facto — not intended and arisen from different sources and factors.

Boddie said we have to “reimagine integration.” The school district will have to pay attention to the difference between desegregation, a legal term, and “equitable integration… that is, we have to focus on equity and fairness and opportunity, not just on some legal obligation we have to adhere to.”

“The problems of segregation always find a way. You have to be attentive to that as you design your school system,” Boddie noted. She said to “avoid the trap doors” of using the language of “inferiority” — that minorities feel inferior if not integrated — and “dispersal” — the idea that the minorities are the ones to be dispersed among the whites. Tracking in classes and “excessive focus on discipline in black and brown children” are also problems to be addressed, she said. 

Dr. Erica Frankenberg, a professor at Pennsylvania State University and author of several books on the topic of educational integration, spoke about the differing models cities across the country have used, delineating the pros and cons along the way.

She presented a couple questions for the community to resolve as it works out intentional integration: How to measure diversity, by race and socio-economic status or by socio-economic status alone, and what scale will the district measure diversity, by individual, neighborhood, or school?

She laid out the options of methods districts use to integrate: attendance zones, which can be politically tricky but effective, she said; controlled choice, wherein the district and the family can have input into the choice of school; magnet schools; student transfer; and, Frankenberg noted, many school districts have combinations of the above within their plans.

She also noted that “there are a lot of ways in which other district policies” such as first come, first served for school choice applications “can undermine the best designed student assignment plans.” Offering choice of schools without providing transportation and the nebulous use of the term “neighborhood” can be pitfalls, she said. 

She presented the models that the school districts of Berkeley, Cal., Cambridge, Mass., and Richmond, Va., are using.

In Berkeley, parents have a controlled choice plan for their elementary schools, she said. Parents submit their preference for a school within their zone; the city is divided into three zones to make transportation easier. The student population is balanced by census information (for race), household income, and educational attainment of adults. “They try to get a mixture of every diversity category in each elementary school.” The model had been adapted in other cities including metropolitan Louisville, Ken. 

The model has been “relatively successful,” she said, but a drawback of choice is that any group that understands the choice system will be advantaged, in getting applications in on time, for instance.

In the Cambridge model of controlled choice, the district “uses free and reduced lunch status as its only measure of diversity.” It also gives preferences for the two closest schools to the family, she said, resulting in making it harder for families across town to get into some of the more affluent West Side schools. “Nevertheless, 86 percent of students in kindergarten enter one of their top three choices” for elementary schools, she said. She said the concerns of people “gaming the system” have been addressed by the district “in really intentional ways.”

Richmond, “had a very public rezoning effort last fall” after a 2013 rezoning “led to more segregation.” They used contiguous and non-contiguous zoning to achieve their goals. “The politics are intense, but [it has] certainly a lot of advantages and it eliminates the choice factor,” Frankenberg offered.

As the speakers joined Taylor to create a panel, Boddie noted that “there is no silver bullet” for integration. “Race is a very dynamic system… Segregation is a system [as well], and you have to come to terms with that,” she said. “It’s important not to let perfect be the enemy of good.”

Columbia High School senior Jordan Muhammad was the first to pose a question to the panel, about how to address segregation when there is on-the-surface integration at the high school. Taylor acknowledged “it’s a constant struggle” to have integration in the levels of the classes, and they are working to make “courses more accessible… You can’t just rely on student or parental interest because there is implicit bias in that methodology.”

Parent Jocelyn Ryan, also a volunteer with the Community Coalition on Race, asked the panel how the models address parents’ fears around bussing. Frankenberg said Louisville surveyed their parents about the bussing experience and that overwhelmingly “the kids liked being on the bus, it’s more time with their friends.” And some parents reported “it reduced the time they need childcare.” 

Boddie warned that many times “bussing is a dog whistle for race” and “it’s crucial, and better than you think.” Having a high school student, she said, both she and her child miss him taking the bus to school.

A website has been set up on the initiative, along with an email address for feedback: somsdiii@somsd.k12.nj.us. A recording of the event is due to be posted on the district website.