Bostonians Committed to School Diversity Haven't Given Up on Busing

When Boston software engineer Josh Weiss was deciding where to enroll his older daughter, Julia, in kindergarten in 2005, he was more than a little apprehensive about Hurley, the family's neighborhood public school in the South End. Julia is white, which put her in a tiny minority at the school — at the time, one of about eight students out of 300. The vast majority of the school's students were living in poverty, with many speaking Spanish, not English, at home.

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"It was like a bunch of people standing on the dock looking at a cold lake, thinking about jumping. And just hoping your friends aren't behind you laughing and calling you an idiot."

But in the end, the Weisses and a number of other middle class families in the neighborhood jumped in together. Today, about 20 percent of the Hurley student body is middle class, including Weiss' younger daughter, Chloe, a third-grader. Julia, meanwhile, began seventh grade this fall at Boston Latin, an exam school for high achievers. Weiss attributes Julia's success, in part, to Hurley's two-way bilingual curriculum, in which native speakers of both English and Spanish spend part of the day learning in their second language. "It mostly worked for her," he says, "and that's because learning in Spanish is challenging," even though it might not be as prestigious as a traditional gifted program.

Photos of Hurley Elementary School, courtesy of Discover Hurley

The Weiss family's story is instructive as the Boston Public Schools enter the last few months of a contentious rezoning process, one that is likely to reduce the city's reliance on busing. In 1974, Boston became the site of the most infamous school desegregation battle in the North, as white parents vociferously — and sometimes violently — protested the busing of black children into predominantly white neighborhoods. In the following decades, white families fled the Boston school system en masse, moving to the suburbs or enrolling their children in private schools.

Today the district is split into three large school zones and children are bused widely within them. But since only 13 percent of Boston public school students are white, and only 22 percent are middle class or affluent, politicians have begun to speak openly about the supposed futility of busing as a school desegregation tool. In his January 2012 State of the City address, Mayor Thomas Menino vowed to end widespread busing, speaking romantically about the neighborhood school model. "Pick any street. A dozen children probably attend a dozen different schools," he said. "Parents might not know each other; children might not play together. They can't carpool, or study for the same tests."

Busing can not only reduce school segregation, but also help lure more middle-class families into urban schools.

The problem with this rhetoric is that it obscures the reason neighborhood schooling was abandoned in the first place: the close correlation between racial isolation and poor educational outcomes for non-white children — a correlation that persists nationwide, despite the notable successes of some exceptional high-poverty schools. Given this reality, it's important that policy-makers pay attention to the best national evidence on busing: that when used judiciously, in ways that emphasize parental choice, it can not only reduce school segregation, but also help lure more middle-class families into urban schools and increase academic achievement overall.

A recent Harvard Graduate School of Education analysisreinforced this idea, finding that Menino's proposals to reduce busing would lead to the further clustering of poor and nonwhite students in low-performing schools, and would give white, middle-class students disproportionate access to high-quality schools. Guaranteeing middle-class families seats at the best schools, closer to their homes, would certainly help convince some of them to forgo the suburbs or private education; after all, not everyone is as committed to diversity as the Weiss family is, and many middle-class parents won't take a chance on high-poverty schools with low standardized test scores.

But there are other models that have been left out of many of the political and media conversations about Boston's reorganization — options that have the potential to more meaningfully integrate actual classrooms, while offering both poor and affluent families more choices. City councilor John Connolly, a former charter school teacher and frequent Menino critic, has released the Quality Choice Plan, which would guarantee all children a seat at one of their four nearest schools, but would also create 16 new city-wide magnet schools organized around themes such as Montessori methods, the arts, oceanography, bilingualism, or math and science. Magnet schools are a proven school desegregation tool, since their more focused curricula draw a range of families happy to travel longer distances by bus for a specialized education. And when students enroll at magnets, seats often open up at high-quality neighborhood schools, which can be reserved for children whose own local schools are under-performing.

Some regions, such as the area around Hartford, Connecticut, have pursued integration by allowing suburban students to enroll at urban magnets, and then busing city kids to the open seats at suburban schools. While Boston's METCO program currently allows 3,300 minority children to attend suburban schools, the busing goes only one way, from the city to the suburbs, which limits the program's scope and places the burden of busing entirely on urban kids. Still, there are 10,000 students on METCO's waiting list, proving that many parents and kids are absolutely willing to endure busing if the outcome is a better education.

The challenge is the political heavy lifting needed to expand cooperation between cities and suburbs. It took METCO over 40 years to grow from seven cooperating suburban districts to 37; supplementing the program with urban magnet schools and two-way busing would be more expensive, and would likely require either state-level intervention or a painstaking process of regional coalition building — one the Menino administration seems unlikely to pursue.

In 2009, Susan Eaton of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard Law School led several Boston Public Schools administrators on a tour of Hartford's integrated magnet schools. While the officials were impressed by what they saw, Hartford-style urban-suburban cooperation "has not been discussed as a viable solution, nor is it something that is taken seriously among elected leaders," Eaton says.

Dorothy Joyce, a Menino spokesperson, says the city is choosing to focus on giving more students access to high-quality K-8 schools near their home in part because parents of the youngest children often report feeling nervous about busing. The result, she says, will be "stronger communities."

On the web, the city has published several rezoning proposals more integrationist than its own.One, by researchers at MIT, would use a complex computer algorithm to guarantee that every Boston child has the same probability of being assigned to a high-quality school, regardless of race, class, or geographical location. Another is by Josh Weiss, the South End dad who chose to enroll his own daughters in a high-poverty — yet ultimately high-performing — public school. His plan would "pair" two neighborhood zones with one another, meaning that even if kids are bused to school, they will travel alongside their neighbors, helping to achieve some of the community cohesion Menino champions.

Most observers expect the city to select one of its own five reorganization models — the plans experts predict will lead to deeper segregation by race and class. Rahsaan Hall of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights is part of a coalition of organizations urging the city to halt the process and refocus on providing poor and nonwhite children with equal access to seats at high-quality schools. Hall notes that the city's rezoning plans project to cut only about $4 million from Boston's $60 million to $80 million annual busing budget, meaning that even from a financial perspective, these proposals aren't ideal.

"My hope," Hall says, "is that there is enough of a groundswell of parental and community interest to put pressure on the school committee, superintendent, and ultimately the mayor to put the brakes on."

Dana Goldstein is a Brooklyn-based journalist, a Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, and a Puffin Fellow at the Nation Institute. All posts »

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