Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

Why a good racial mix may also create a sense of comfort at school

A new study suggests that middle-schoolers in more racially diverse schools feel safer and less alone.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
High school freshman participate in a Spanish class at R.J. Kinsella Magnet School of the Performing Arts in Hartford, Conn.

A stroll through the hallways of West Hertel Academy, a public elementary and middle school serving Buffalo’s west side, can feel like a quick walk around the world.

The flags of Burma, Somalia, and other far-off countries line the walls, welcoming students and parents with a touch of home. Signs for the bathroom and other facilities include at least five languages each – a small fraction of the 50 spoken across the student body. 

At West Hertel Academy, where more than a third of students are non-native English speakers and roughly 9 in 10 come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, the challenges involved in creating a harmonious, cohesive student body are significant. But new research has found that children at diverse schools like West Hertel reap unique social and personal benefits that those at more homogeneous schools don’t. 

A recent survey of middle school students by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggests that students of all races and ethnicities can benefit from diversity in the classroom. Of 4,302 sixth-grade students surveyed, those attending schools with a relatively equal balance of three or more ethnic groups reported feeling safer, less lonely, and less vulnerable to bullying than their counterparts in schools with a clear ethnic majority. 

But the findings of the study, published Tuesday in the journal Child Development, also underscore the importance of what experts say is a crucial, yet oft-overlooked, requirement for successful integration: diversity within the classroom. Students in more diverse schools reported better relations between ethnic groups and were more likely to feel that teachers treated all students fairly and equally – but only when the diversity of individual academic classes reflected that of the entire student body. 

As educators and lawmakers grapple with how best to combat the increasing resegregation of American schools, much attention has been paid to increasing the overall diversity of student bodies. But a closer look inside desegregated schools often reveals persisting ethnic and racial divides. Advocates point to in-school policies such as academic tracking, which sorts students into different classes or curriculum based on academic ability, as perpetuating “secondary segregation” in even the most diverse schools, often separating students by race and putting students of color on less advanced tracks than their white peers. 

Successful integration requires a conscious effort from schools to not only avoid such systems, but also to create an equitable and accepting environment through changes to curriculum and school culture, says Lee Teitel, faculty director of Reimagining Integration: The Diverse and Equitable Schools Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

“One of the key things that we’ve learned is to pay attention to what happens inside the schools, because it’s not always enough to get diverse bodies in the building,” says Mr. Teitel, who was not involved in the study. “It doesn’t automatically lead to the good outcomes that you’re looking for.” 

Creating school where kids feel that they ‘fit’

The authors of the new research attribute the well-being of students at more diverse schools to a broader sense of acceptance and equality among peers. 

“We presume that in these types of environments, there is a good balance of power among the groups and ... students do not feel intimidated or threatened by students from other ethnic groups,” says Jaana Juvonen, professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, and lead author of the study. “There are also likely to be multiple norms for behavior and looks, hence it is easier for any one student to find their niche and feel that they ‘fit in.’ ” 

Simply bringing students of different races and ethnicities together under one roof is “a place to start,” says Amy Stuart Wells, professor of sociology and education at Columbia University Teachers College. “You’ve got to get kids into the same building before you can work on these other things.” 

But, she and Teitel say, efforts shouldn’t end there. 

Historically, Professor Wells says, policymakers have focused primarily on that first step of the integration process – increasing the overall ethnic diversity of schools – with little consideration given to what happens inside schools after they’ve been desegregated. In recent years, however, the issue of integration within schools has begun to gain more traction in the research and policy spheres, in part due to the changing demographics of city schools as whites return to urban areas.

In 2014, the US Department of Education penned a letter to the country’s school districts calling attention to persisting disparities in US schools and noting that “students of color are less likely than their white peers to be enrolled in [advanced courses and gifted and talented programs] within schools that have those offerings.” A Department of Education investigation into tracking practices in New Jersey’s South Orange-Maplewood school district that same year found that black students held only 18.7 percent of spots in the district’s Advanced Placement classes, despite accounting for 51.5 percent of the district’s high school enrollment. 

“There’s kind of this renewed emphasis on integration and diversity in the US,” Wells says. “If we don’t tackle these issues of integration, these schools won’t be stable and they won’t be sustainable over time.”

Changing the mindset of a school

Successfully integrating a school typically involves structural shifts such as de-tracking, adjusting curriculum, and rethinking approaches to discipline that disproportionately affect students of color, Teitel and Wells say. But it also requires less tangible changes in school culture, among both students and educators. 

West Hertel Academy in Buffalo has experienced both the challenges and the rewards of trying to bring about those less tangible changes. 

The school has in recent years stepped up its efforts through the professional development of teachers, honest conversations about issues of diversity among faculty and staff, and collaboration with parents and the outside community, according to principal Cecelie Owens.

“It really is all about ... changing the mindset [of the school] to do what’s best for the kids,” Principal Owens says. “When you know better, you do better.”

Among the student body, West Hertel has worked to foster an environment of inclusiveness through schoolwide projects and regular events celebrating different cultures, adds Rebekah Barbera, a fifth-grade ENL (English as a New Language) teacher at the school. 

They note that progress has been slow – as experts say it often is – but noticeable. 

“It takes time,” Owens says. “But this is 2017. Things are different. We can’t keep responding the same way we did 15 or 20 years ago.” 

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