Q&A: The Value of Socioeconomically Mixed Schools

How to address opportunities and challenges of economically diverse schools — that's the topic Michael Petrilli ponders constantly, as executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a think tank focused on K-12 school systems.

To prevent white flight, upper- and middle-class families must also see the value of sending their children to socioeconomically mixed public schools, he says. As it turns out, many middle-class families, in a shift from recent years, are considering sending their children to big-city schools to expose them to a range of individual students. Some families have chosen to migrate from suburbs to cities such as Denver; Oakland, Calif.; and Washington.

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"This creates new opportunities but also new challenges," Petrilli says. But the question remains: Will the schools simply become gentrified, or will school boards and parents work to keep them mixed.

In his recent book, The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent's Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools, Petrilli makes the case for and against sending kids to these economically mixed schools.

Below are edited excerpts of his conversation with the Next America.

NA: Is the solution to make all the schools economically and racially integrated, or to improve schools with higher concentrations of poverty?

Petrilli: The demographics of most cities are such that it's going to be a long time, and I don't even know if we're ever going to get to the point where all schools will be integrated. The concentration of poverty is too great, so we're going to have to figure out how to make high-poverty schools better than they've been in the past. We need to have a two-track policy: integrating schooling for a lot of reasons, as well as make high-poverty schools more effective. I don't think we have a choice.

NA: What are the benefits for lower-income students attending public schools with a vast number of students from middle- to upper-income households?

Petrilli: When low-income students have an opportunity to go to school with middle-class culture, they learn how to navigate middle-class America. That's very important when they're going on to college campuses and when they enter the workforce. There are some high-poverty schools that try to teach that to their students but they can't live it every day because it's not the culture in that school. There are also huge benefits in terms of academic achievements.

There's this demographic shift, but also this residential shift. In our great cities we have more affluent families moving into cities and choosing to use the public schools, so I'm optimistic that this creates one of the best opportunities that we've had in a generation to create integrated schools in our city.

NA: You've mentioned the benefits for lower-income students. But what's the benefit for children from middle-class or affluent homes, many of whom are already achieving academically?

Petrilli: The benefits for middle-class students are largely the attitudes they develop. Those children will be more likely to grow up to be less prejudiced or racially biased as adults. They'll be more comfortable in multiracial settings; they'll be more comfortable sitting down with people of different races and classes. These are things a little hard to measure.