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.

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

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.

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."

A 2007 study by the Open Society Institute characterized 10 percent of neighborhoods in the four major cities as "concentration neighborhoods" disproportionately made up of minority populations. One-third of immigrant households said they were dissatisfied with their neighborhood. A survey found that two-thirds of the native Dutch population had little or no contact with immigrants.

Oud West and its 3,200 children ages 12 and under were a prime target for the pilot project. Opulent homes run along the neighborhood's southern border, the Vondelpark – Amsterdam's version of New York's Central Park – with poorer immigrant communities to the north and west. Three of Oud West's six primary schools are considered "concentrated schools."

Petra Toor, codirector at Het Winterkonikje, a Montessori school with 400 students ages 4 to 12, says that until recently the school served pupils from more than 50 nationalities. But in the past five years, that's changed. "From a well-mixed school, we are becoming a white school with more than 80 percent highly educated parents," she says.

The project, which has received pledges of €100,000 ($155,000) from both the Amsterdam and Dutch governments, targets such primary schools with an eye to implementing the "controlled choice" model for integration developed by Michael Alves and Harvard professor Charles Willie, a classmate of Martin Luther King, Jr. at Morehouse College.

"We were convinced philosophically that diversity is a benefit in education," says Professor Willie. "Without equity, excellence does not do you very much good. They complement each other."

In the controlled-choice setup, parents visit local schools and rank their top four. The system then tries to give parents their preferences while balancing demographics such as race, class, and parental education level in all the schools. Sometimes it factors in other variables such as gender and proximity, and whether a potential student has siblings in the school.

Critics of controlled choice say it pushes middle- and upper-class students out of the targeted schools, further detracting from the overall quality of education. Another concern is whether the model is transferable from the American to the Dutch education system.

An added complication to the Oud West project is a strong, closely held Dutch tradition of full parental choice in their children's schooling.

"We want to be a good mixture of cultures and economic status, but we don't want to take away a good choice for parents in the education that they believe in," says Ms. Toor.

Policymakers are treading lightly as they seek public support. "In Holland this is a big deal, the parents' rights for choice," says Ms. Coffeng. "You need strong evidence that this will work and strong politicians. We cannot force it on people, but I think it is going to happen."

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