Video Courtesy of CBS News

Stefan Lallinger had just finished teaching a lesson that traced the fight for civil rights and school integration in the U.S. when a student in his New Orleans classroom posed a question: “So, why do no white kids go to our school?”

Decades after Lallinger’s own grandfather had helped argue the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case in front of the Supreme Court, which declared that segregated schools were unconstitutional, he said the boy’s question left him speechless — and still demands an answer today.

“I think as a country, more broadly, we don’t have a satisfactory answer to that,” Lallinger said.

Courtesy photo/The Century Foundation Stefan Lallinger will head The Bridges Collaborative, a new initiative launched by The Century Foundation to spark and support school integration efforts.

Segregation remains rampant in American classrooms, and New York City is home to one of the most segregated school systems in the country. Now Lallinger is heading a new effort to address the country’s unfinished business of integrating its schools. He is heading the Bridges Collaborative, an initiative launched Monday by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

The collaborative seeks to fill the gap between research showing more diverse schools can improve outcomes for all students, and the political will to pursue integration. To do that, Lallinger hopes to bring together advocates and policy makers who rarely work together — from charter and district schools, and housing — to learn from successful integration efforts across the country.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the collaborative has delayed plans for meeting in person, but is still laying foundations for the inaugural class of about 50. Applications are expected to open this fall.

Lallinger spent about a decade teaching and leading a New Orleans charter school post-Katrina, in classrooms where virtually every student was black and came from low-income homes. For the last year, he was a Harvard doctoral resident working in the New York City education department on integration issues.

Here’s what Lallinger had to say about what’s still standing in the way of more diverse schools, and what integration should look like in 2020.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

How would you describe the status of school integration right now?

We know that integration is good for kids and there’s tons of research that backs this up. Yet most people across the country don’t know about that research. In part, because folks don’t know about this — and also because of many, many historical reasons — the state of our public schools continues to be segregated.

Nationally, about a fifth of schools across the country have almost no white children. That is to say, they are 90% or greater students of color. And then another fifth of our schools nationally have almost no students of color. So their student bodies are about 90% or greater white.

There’s other data that shows that the percentage of American schools that are intensely segregated along both racial and socioeconomic lines has actually increased over the last two decades.

So we’re not headed in the right direction, coming up on the 66th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education.

What kinds of bridges does this collaborative seek to build? Who or what needs to be brought together to advance school integration? 

Ultimately, the goal is to build bridges across lines of difference in our schools and in our classrooms, creating environments in which children who come from different backgrounds have the opportunity to learn together. I don’t think we need to look any further than the state of our country today to see why that is needed.

If that’s not good enough, then there’s research to demonstrate that students who go to integrated schools are much less likely to harbor bias, they’re much likelier to have higher average test scores, much likelier to enroll in college.

Our collaborative is also looking to build bridges across sectors. We’re bringing together folks from school districts, from charter schools, and from fair housing organizations. We want to provide a space for folks to be able to have the difficult conversations and engage in the type of collaboration that is actually going to move the needle in communities across the country.

What is getting in the way of that collaboration now?

To start with, charter and traditional school districts, the way things have been set up structurally, there’s often either competition or distrust.

Then, to bring in the housing folks — oftentimes folks who work in housing and folks who work in education speak in different languages. Getting them on the same page to truly understand what the barriers are that each set of folks face is a feat.

Your grandfather, Louis Redding, was a civil rights lawyer who played a role in the landmark school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education. How is your personal history connected to your current work? 

I always start with my grandfather, a man who was born in 1901 and whose grandmother was a slave. Despite that, he attended Brown University and was one of few African Americans at the time. He decided to move to the South after graduating and went to teach at a school created by freedmen after the Civil War to serve children of emancipated slaves. Then he went to Harvard Law school, where he was one of the first African American graduates of that institution, and decided that he wanted to move back to his home state of Delaware to practice law.

In 1952, he brought two lawsuits against local districts in Delaware, which he won, forcing them to admit black students. When those cases were appealed, they became a part of Brown vs. Board.

I often think about my grandfather and wonder, if he were alive, if he came to tour the school where I was a principal and saw all the amazing things, how proud he would be — and then wonder how long it would take him to realize he was walking the halls of a segregated school, and what he would think about that decades after he won this legal battle.

Why do you think integration should remain a goal of American schools, all these years later?

Research simply shows it’s one of the most cost-effective education interventions you could have, second only in some of the research that I’ve looked at, to quality pre-K.

In the divided society that we live in, research also demonstrates that attending a diverse school helps reduce bias and counter stereotypes. For many of us, this is the most divided any of us have seen our country in our living history, and this is one way we can address that for the future.

Thirdly, this is something that will improve outcomes for students.

How can policymakers begin to overcome skepticism of integration — whether due to racism, from more affluent and white families worried about losing access to ‘good’ schools, or from families of color afraid of sending their children into hostile environments?

Folks by and large don’t have the vision for what a truly integrated school is, and therefore don’t truly know why it’s the best option for all of our students. Additionally, I think a lot of people fall prey to old and stale arguments, and fear mongering tactics.

It’s incumbent on folks who really believe in this issue to make clear, through appropriate communication and messaging, how we might do this in 2020 that’s different than 1960 and 1970, why it’s worth doing, what are the benefits that all students get — that it’s not some social justice crusade on behalf of one group of students, but that it’s truly beneficial to all students.

We have gotten to a place where, when we look at segregated schools, we’ve tricked our minds to think that is a natural phenomenon. That is absolutely not a natural phenomenon. There are specific reasons, and specific actions, and choices that have been made throughout the course of history that have made us believe that this is normal.

How are today’s integration efforts any different from the past?

Matthew Delmont has a great book that talks about the history of busing in this country and the use of ‘busing’ as a phrase, just as a fear-mongering tactic — when in fact, students have been bused in this country for decades with few ill effects. Ironically, busing really came into vogue in the era of segregation when white families needed to go to school farther from where they lived.

These are the things that come to people’s mind when, in reality, there are so many innovative ways to think about how we might get a diverse set of bodies into schools.

The things I’m talking about include reexamining district lines that mostly have been drawn specifically for the purpose of segregation, number one. Number two: being more creative about where we place sites for new schools.

Number three: developing innovative programming in schools that might attract different types of populations. Number four: identifying very closely systems of tracking that segregate children within schools. Number five: developing magnet programming and specialized programming that allow students to attend schools away from where they live.

And number six: opening up school choice in the public system, and, in places where choice exists, coming up with innovative enrollment mechanisms that promote diversity.

What will success look like for the Collaborative?

We want districts, and charter schools, and housing folks around the country to see examples of districts and schools advancing the issue in ways that make sense, and in ways that bear fruit, in a way that makes it feel safe for them to try.

To get a little more specific on some of the tangible things that we will be doing, we have engaged with a reputable polling and messaging firm to help us tackle this issue of how do you develop messaging that is compelling and gets across all of the benefits of diverse schools.

In New York City, one of the country’s most segregated school systems, there has been growing local support for integration, but few systemic changes. Why?

One of the things that needs to happen more is a clear articulation of why creating integrated schools in New York City is a strategy for improving our schools. You can’t really define an excellent school without answering the question of how diverse the school is, because a key element of excellence is what kids are learning from one another.

What does integration look like in a system like New York City, where most students are black or Hispanic and come from low-income families?

We have to think of integration more expansively than just black and white, and low income and not low income. New York City is one of the most diverse cities in the world, and it’s not just because you’ve got a lot of white folks and black folks living together. There’s a lot of beautiful and rich diversity within a lot of these blanket categories we use.

There’s a huge difference between a family of four that has a household income of $35,000, and a family of four that relies on public assistance, or a family that has students in temporary housing.

For race, there are schools that are reported as having 95% of their population being black or Latino, and you have Dominican populations, and Puerto Rican populations, and you’ve got Mexican students and you’ve got students from the Caribbean. We need to think more expansively about that.

The last thing I would say is that, what I think a lot of folks who bring up that argument are getting at is that, if we think of integration as necessarily involving a critical mass of white students, that integration of the entire city is then mathematically impossible. Well, that doesn’t mean that any action is futile. It means we need to start by integrating the spaces where we can and those spaces will become richer and better environments because of it.

How has COVID-19 changed or shaped this effort? 

I definitely think that COVID-19 has shone a light on the rampant inequities that exist in our system. Some folks have adapted really easily to digital learning, mainly due to their environmental circumstances, and other folks have had a really, really hard time. At a time when these inequities are laid bare and there’s an opportunity to rethink the way we do things, I think the collaborative becomes even more important.

One of the things that we do want to make sure folks think about is that, during this time of social distancing, numerous parents and children have talked about how important the social aspect of schooling is, and how much they get from the interactions they have day to day with folks. Even when folks are not socially distant, where kids are in close proximity in the classroom, there’s so much that they are missing out from when they attend schools that are homogenous. Everybody’s experience would be so much richer if they attended schools with a vast array of beautiful diversity of students.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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