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Europeans eye U.S. models to ease school segregation

A diverse area in Amsterdam weighs assigning students based in part on race, class, and parents' education level.

By Benjamin CunninghamContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 19, 2008

In class: Dutch schools are becoming more segregated, as immigrant communities in the Netherlands grow and become more isolated.

Vincent Jannink/AFP/NEWSCOM



With immigration rapidly changing the face of European and Dutch society, some leaders are looking to confront rising racial and class divisions through solutions rooted in the American civil rights movement.

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In Amsterdam's diverse Oud West neighborhood, where roughly a third of students come from households where neither parent has the equivalent to an American high school diploma, a pilot project is being floated to integrate increasingly segregated schools based on a model used in cities such as Boston, Seattle, and Little Rock, Ark.

The project is in early stages of research and will be proposed later this year to parents, who in the Dutch education system have a large say in their children's schooling.

"You need to talk to people first – it is usually a new idea to them," says Bowen Paulle, a sociologist with the University of Amsterdam who has worked in low-income schools here and in the Bronx in New York. "But I think it has the potential to lead to real macro-level social change."

The schools' increasing segregation is a consequence of the country's ongoing demographic transformation, say experts. According to the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 19 percent of residents in the Netherlands were born abroad or had at least one parent born abroad, and 6 percent of the population is Muslim.

Nearly a third of residents in the country's four largest cities – Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague – are from non-Western ethnic groups.

There are large immigrant communities from former Dutch colonies of Suriname, Indonesia, and the Dutch Antilles, and significant populations of Moroccans and Turks.

As these communities grow, they're becoming increasingly isolated from native Dutch residents. "Segregation is a big issue here, and it is getting worse," says Petra Coffeng, an education policymaker with the city of Amsterdam, who supports school integration. "Racial issues are always difficult, and politicians don't want to talk about it."