Can Schools Integrate When Neighborhoods Do?

Parents and educators at a struggling, racially isolated San Francisco school hope their changing community means better times ahead.

A building at a redevelopment project in Hunters Point, another San Francisco neighborhood undergoing gentrification (Robert Galbraith / Reuters)

SAN FRANCISCO—In recent years, students at Malcolm X Academy in the city’s Bayview section have been coming up with design ideas for a paved pathway that will eventually link their public elementary school to a housing complex that’s under construction nearby. The complex is slated to replace a once-crumbling public housing development that was torn down in 2010.

Some students have asked for benches in the shape of fruits and vegetables; others have requested raised planting beds. All voted for a mural paying homage to national heroes like Rosa Parks and Sonia Sotomayor. Developers who are building the pathway have promised to include some of their ideas in the new structure.

But having that promise fulfilled isn’t the main objective for child advocates at the nearby Center for Cities and Schools, an urban-planning think tank that has spearheaded the conversation about the pathway in collaboration with a local chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects. “The pathway is a symbol of a larger goal,” said Shirl Buss, the center’s creative director who oversees its elementary-school workshops, helping students connect with the neighborhoods in which they live. “It represents a pathway into the new community.”

Housed at the University of California at Berkeley, the Center for Cities and Schools spends a lot of its time pressuring local officials to address struggling public schools in their housing-redevelopment projects. And that is exactly what the center is trying to do now with Malcolm X—a small, under-enrolled elementary school in which close to 95 percent of the students come from low-income families and more than four in five children are African American, Hispanic, or Pacific Islander. In 2013, the last year California ranked its schools, Malcolm X performed in the lowest 10 percent of all the state’s schools. If the organization’s work is successful, advocates say, the K-5 school could become a model for a cooperative approach between cities and school districts seeking to overhaul troubled communities.

If the approach doesn’t work, Malcolm X could join a long list of schools that were left to flounder when gentrification came knocking.

Finding ways to integrate the nation’s most segregated neighborhoods and desegregate its public schools tend to be separate endeavors. The work is generally undertaken by different city agencies, culling from different budgets. And the officials doing the work rarely sit down together to debrief each other on their projects. “School-district planners are not often in communication with developers,” said Heather Schwartz, a policy researcher who specializes in education policy at the RAND Corporation.

But in recent years, as racial and economic isolation continues to plague American cities, a small group of planners in Maryland’s Montgomery County, Atlanta, St. Louis, and here in San Francisco are working to promote a more cooperative approach. Their motivation stems, in part, from a 2012 report showing that more than 15 percent of the nation’s African American students still attended “apartheid schools,” a term coined by Gary Orfield, the co-director of the Civil Rights project at UCLA, to describe schools in which at least 99 percent of the students are black. The news has given planners a renewed sense of urgency about using neighborhood-integration efforts to bring about school integration. But it’s not clear whether that urgency will translate into progress.

Despite its otherwise picturesque location overlooking San Francisco Bay, drugs and poverty have long plagued the historically black Bayview neighborhood. Many of the residents live in shabbily built public-housing developments, and the crime rate is notoriously high. Because of this, in 2005, officials decided to include the neighborhood in an ambitious redevelopment program.

Broad in scope and utopian in vision, the $2 billion project, known as Hope SF, seeks to desegregate five of San Francisco’s poorest pockets by tearing down federal housing projects and building mixed-income units in their place, which officials hope will bring greater racial and economic balance to the neighborhoods. The plan was undertaken in collaboration with affordable-housing developers and has been celebrated by city and state leaders, along with House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi and the Senator Dianne Feinstein. And while detractors complain that these types of programs sometimes push a community’s original residents out during the construction phase, supporters say it is a way to make good on federal housing goals as laid out in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which urged communities to do away with segregated public housing. But the program has worried educators and child advocates who want to make sure schools like Malcolm X aren’t left out of the integration process.

The Center for Cities and Schools has worked with an array of stakeholders in an effort to make it a better place for current students and an attractive one for newcomers, many of them middle class and white, who began moving into the nearby apartments in 2013 when the first phase of construction was completed. The final Hope SF project will contain a housing complex with up to 800 units, including 250 public-housing units, some market-rate homes for sale, and some affordable rentals. It already includes attractive walkways, courtyards, a concrete-floored community center, and lots of lighting for evening. Developers say the project will eventually include a store, a daycare center, and several play areas for children.

Carol Galante, a longtime affordable-housing advocate who served as the Federal Housing Administration commissioner in the Obama administration until this year, says the idea behind these types of redevelopment projects is to do something “holistic.” “It’s an opportunity to bring people into the neighborhood and make it better for the people who already live there,” said Galante, now a faculty member at UC Berkeley.

The school-board member Shamann Walton says these projects are also an opportunity to invest in campuses that are often neglected. “We want to make sure our schools grow and get better with these new developments,” he said, noting that the city is working to integrate schools in other redeveloping communities as well.

As part of that broader effort, the district has introduced Mandarin-immersion programs and strong science departments, features that are popular with middle-class families, at schools in and around the transforming Bayview neighborhood. One such school is the STEM-focused Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School, which will open this fall. School officials have tried to encourage middle-class parents to enroll their children at Willie L. Brown by guaranteeing them a slot—a sort of “golden ticket”—into their high school of choice if they attend the school. It’s a big sell in a school district with a highly competitive high-school entrance process.

Malcolm X, for its part, got a boost a few years ago when the district placed it on a list of schools in need of intensive support. That allowed the district to pump money and resources in, adding a full-time literacy coach and a facilitator to keep track of how students are doing and what strategies are working to keep them on target. In turn, the school hired a new principal and got grant money to purchase new iPads for each classroom. It retooled its reading program to be more appealing to both reluctant and voracious readers and to better serve students at all reading levels. The new system includes book bins inside each classroom, allowing students to choose what they want to read, rather than an all-class system in which everyone reads the same book.

School officials also tried to create a sense of community by instituting features common in upper-middle-class schools, such as nights for games, science activities, and movies, and added a robotics program and a school garden. It even added an outdoor classroom designed by fourth- and fifth-graders, who spent months determining its décor, building planting beds, walkways, and walls, with the help of the National Organization of Minority Architects and the Center for Cities and Schools.

On a recent morning this past spring, 10 fourth-graders were musing over the ideas they had come up with for a playhouse that will accompany the outdoor classroom; some wanted the playhouse to be decorated with large geometric shapes, while others thought it should include thick, painted plywood flowers. There was talk of a superhero theme, and a discussion of flooring options. Buss, with the Center for Cities and Schools, stood by a cardboard panel that incorporated all of the student’s ideas. As they waited to vote, they were given one last chance to promote their proposals. “Do you want to talk about your idea?”  Buss asked a boy sitting at a table near the front of the room. “You’re lobbying for it. Talk it up.” The boy mumbled something nearly inaudible, after which Buss went on to the next student, who wanted to incorporate several themes into one playhouse, a collaborative idea that had been bantered about earlier in the day. “If we do that, we can have a floor,” the girl, Genesis Martinez, said. “And we can put the flowers on the floor.”

Nearby, in a fifth-grade classroom, the teacher Laura Walker was showing her students a documentary about their historic neighborhood. It was developed in the 1940s during the Great Migration, when African American men flocked to the area with their families to work in the now-defunct naval shipyard. Walker said the film was part of a social-studies unit on migration and exploration, which would include lessons on the Vikings, Christopher Columbus, and the American explorers Lewis and Clark.

Families whose children attend the school say they have noticed a difference. Lisa Afalava, a mother with a fifth-grader, says Malcolm X offers impressive after-school programs, including Mandarin classes. The school, she says, has worked to improve attendance by offering students awards for coming to school on time, and has created a warm learning environment. “The staff is really passionate about the kids,” she said. Others, like Brenda Rios, whose son graduated from the school and now attends KIPP Bayview Academy, a highly regarded charter nearby, said the staff members excel at helping to place students at good middle schools.

But Diane Gray, the executive director of the Bayview Association for Youth, which offers academic support to students in the area, says the school needs to do a better job of promoting itself. Gray pointed to other San Francisco schools that she said have been successful in diversifying their populations to reflect their evolving neighborhoods by targeting preschools, looping in middle-class parents, working aggressively with developers, getting their names on brochures and fact-sheets, and encouraging teachers to attend community meetings. “I have no doubt that the same thing can happen here,” she said. “But there has to be a lot of work done on both sides of the fence.”

Across the country, efforts to integrate public schools and keep them integrated have been fraught. Many school districts are finding themselves rapidly resegregating once released from federal desegregation orders put in place in the ‘70s and ‘80s; have dipped back to pre-Civil Rights-era segregation numbers. San Francisco was released from its race-based federal desegregation order in 2001, and though it’s tried to promote more integration with a race-neutral school-choice program, it’s gotten mixed results.

In 2005, the former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom added a new post to his staff: a special advisor to address issues related to education and families. Hydra Mendoza, who has held the post for the past decade, also sits on the school board, working to create collaborations between the city’s housing authority and its school district, keeping key officials apprised of new developments, and telling them about development plans that might present opportunities to improve struggling schools. “We’re building stronger ties between the school district and the city,” she said.

But no one thinks turning Malcolm X into a coveted school will be easy. The school’s poor academic performance makes it a hard sell to middle-income parents: The number of students proficient in reading dipped from 48 percent to 25 percent between 2011 and 2013, with math proficiency seeing a similar dip. The school lost more than 17 percent of its student body between 2009 and 2014, and according to teachers some of those who remain are homeless or living in unstable conditions. Teachers believe the construction in the neighborhood is partially to blame for the decline in enrollment because it forced some families to relocate. The first-grade teacher Anthony Arinwine says the loss of students and the poor test scores have given the school a branding problem, even with longtime Bayview residents: “It has a lot of reputation to overcome,” he said.

But for Ray McClenter, who finished fourth grade this spring and recently moved into one of the new Bayview apartments with his family, there is much to be gained if the city can lure newcomers to the struggling school. “If more kids come,” he said, “I can make new friends.”

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.