Lack of diversity in suburban schools hinders all students - The Buffalo News

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Lack of diversity in suburban schools hinders all students

The numbers make me wonder. If integration, diversity and a rainbow coalition in the classroom help all kids get ready for the real world, why aren’t more suburban parents upset?

The Buffalo News last week ran a racial breakdown of every public school in Erie and Niagara counties. The statistics were predictable, yet still startling.

Aside from diversity gains made over the past decade in a dozen inner-ring suburban schools, the complexion of most non-urban public schools is decidedly pale. Buffalo – a district with a 78 percent minority population – gets a lot of grief about the racial “imbalance” in some of its schools. But even Buffalo’s least-diverse non-neighborhood school, City Honors, is one-third minority. That’s a higher minority percentage than all but 12 of 141 non-charter suburban schools in Erie County. Yet those schools, unlike Buffalo’s, are under no pressure to diversify, under no microscope of criticism and have little impetus to change. It doesn’t seem fair.

“It is unfair, it’s the double standard,” said Gary Orfield, a national expert on education policy. “And it’s unfair not just to minority kids, but to white kids. They are not going to be ready for a society where you have overwhelming diversity. There are very valuable skills that develop when you are in a diverse environment. These schools are not preparing them for that.”

Orfield is co-director of the Civil Rights Project, a UCLA educational think tank. Its recent report on segregation in New York schools partly prompted The News’ school segregation stories.

In some wealthier districts, the lack of diversity is eye-popping. More than half of the county’s non-urban schools are at least 90 percent white. Clarence, Hamburg, Orchard Park, Lancaster and West Seneca are larger districts with at least a 93 percent white population.

“Kids who aren’t used to diversity,” Orfield told me by phone, “are going to feel out of place in the real world.”

Education and school ranking is about more than test scores and graduation rates. There is plenty of learning that doesn’t show up in a grade-point average or SAT score. Going through the day with kids of other races, backgrounds and income levels – in the classroom and cafeteria, in clubs and on sports teams – is, or should be, part of every student’s learning curve. The kid who takes a Metro Bus to school, and the kid who gets a ride in his dad’s Mercedes, can learn a lot from each other.

It barely gets mentioned, but that sort of cultural/racial/socioeconomic mash is not happening in most suburban schools.

“There is a broader vision of education,” Orfield said. “It should prepare us to live more successfully in society, and to be a healthier and less divided society.”

If you believe that, and I do, then diversity should be as much a part of the equation – for the state Education Department and for parents – in evaluating schools as test scores and graduation rates. And the onus to balance schools racially – and, more to the point, socioeconomically – should loom over suburban schools as much as it does over city schools. In other parts of the country, everything from regional magnet schools that lure suburban and urban kids, to suburban schools opening doors to city kids, have created a lift-all-boats mix. The same thing hasn’t happened here.

Districts in older suburbs are closing schools because of shrinking enrollment. But even the recent suggestion that districts bordering the city, like Cheektowaga and Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda, take some city kids was met with a firm “Thanks, but no thanks” from suburban school superintendents. The lame excuses camouflaged, to my mind, an underlying fear that letting poor, black city kids through the door would do more harm than good. It was no profile in courage.

“Some people are paranoid about racial change, but once you get these kids in the schools, nothing bad happens,” said Orfield. “It’s easy to do on a small scale. The difficulty is getting through the process and the people who are hysterical about the issue.

“Once it happens, people look back and say, ‘What were we worried about?’ ” he added. “But it takes courage, and it takes leadership.”

Courage and leadership. Anybody seen any?


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