Bridges column for Commentary

Recent stories about a school pairing proposal by Richmond Public Schools illustrated divisions that often arise over efforts to expand access to K-12 opportunities. Responses to policy proposals can fall into predictable patterns, whether the policy seeks to foster diversity, equity and inclusion in gifted programs, advanced courses or school zones.

In 2010, when the Richmond School Board proposed an intentionally diverse, equitable and inclusive pre-K center at Maymont Elementary, I observed this dynamic as the board chair. The proposal consolidated pre-K classes from four nearby schools into one school. I was surprised by the vigor of the pushback from some families in my primarily white district and the neighboring one.

Along with reasonable questions about facilities, transportation and plans came political pressure, including threats to re-election for those supporting the change and threats to flee the city schools if the decision passed. I tracked responses to find that half or fewer of respondents opposed the plan, yet those against the proposal were the most vocal and repeated voices, both at meetings and in media accounts.

This fed a misperception of opposition exceeding support. The narrative of “fight, flight and might” responses to school integration and equity efforts continues today in localities across the commonwealth and nation. These responses can quickly polarize stakeholders and dilute the focus on increasing student opportunity, but recognizing common patterns and potential root causes can help disrupt the pattern.

Disparate responses to school integration and equity efforts arise, ironically and in large part, because we remain isolated by race and class in our homes and schools — a result of historic government-sanctioned policies of residential segregation. Unequal understanding of the systems and structures of racism and personal roles in perpetuating them also contribute. A body of research shows that white families often make school decisions based on the influence of their homogenous social networks and racial composition, and perceive schools with high populations of nonwhite, low-income students to be of lower academic quality even with comparable academic metrics. Indeed, conceptions of “my neighborhood” and “my school” get warped by the very bubbles in which we live and learn, perpetuating biases and reinforcing separation.

Fortunately, many also welcome change to inequitable and segregative K-12 policies. Despite a divisive national dialogue, local signs point to greater opportunities for breaking these boundaries than existed even nine years ago. After a 2013 rezoning effort further segregated several Richmond school zones, hundreds of people coalesced around support for integrated schools. Multiple nonprofit and advocacy groups now promote the public system and equity and diversity efforts. More citizens know the policies and history that isolated communities by race and class. We can leverage these developments to come together for discussions centered on:

  • the prevailing research on inequities and the benefits of diversity for all students, which include positive academic, social and civic outcomes that persist even after K-12 graduation;
  • cross-racial dialogue — between families across schools — designed around the principles of intergroup contact;
  • input from historically marginalized populations who don’t frequently navigate school system hierarchies or political processes; and
  • student voices and experiences.

These areas offer new ways of engaging people in policymaking around research and relationships. Differences in access to technology or time to attend a lengthy public hearing shouldn’t determine who gets heard. Research on intergroup contact demonstrates that prejudice decreases and cross-racial relationships bloom — for adults and students alike — in conditions of equal status, cooperation and supportive leadership around shared goals. And students want to, can and should lead on education decisions around diversity, equity and inclusion.

Student stories and examples powerfully illustrate what happens when we learn and work together. I learned this lesson, too, from the RPS pre-K decision. After a wearying process among adults, the approved pre-K center opened as an inclusive, enriching school the kids loved. Within a few months of its opening, a couple of parents who had resisted the change told me they had been wrong. Their negative responses dissipated when they saw their children thriving and bonding with little ones who wouldn’t have attended their neighborhood school.

Policies have long separated us, but policies also can bridge those divides. So can the community processes we undertake to get to public policy decisions. Processes designed for diversity, equity and inclusion can help us overcome the historical conditions that bias perceptions, distort options and keep us apart. It takes intention and new ways of engaging stakeholders, but with massive persistence we can break old patterns to ensure we grown-ups — and all of our children — live, learn and progress, together.

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Kimberly M. Bridges is a former member and chair of the Richmond School Board and is an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Education. Contact her at bridgeskm@vcu.edu.

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