By Lianna Brenner
Sixty-three years since Brown v. Board of Ed.and controversy over school segregation continue to play out in federal courts and local school districts across the country. While disturbing statistics and stories of veiled resegregation efforts dominate media attention, however, another facet of educational segregation is often overlooked: the “school within a school” problem.
Take Albany High School, for example. I graduated from Albany High with the qualifications to attend an Ivy League college, while over fifty percent of my class failed to graduate on time, or at all. Unsurprisingly, these differences in outcomes broke down by race and class: my peers in honors and AP classes were, like me, primarily white and middle-class, while the majority of students in Regents-level classes or below was black and low-income. We interacted–minimally–in our mandatory, unleveled gym classes, and we might brush elbows in the hallway at lockers that were assigned alphabetically, but otherwise we led very segregated academic lives.
The “school within a school” phenomenon is not unique to Albany High, of course. Small urban school districts, where one public high school serves the entire city, tend to look diverse on paper, with students from all neighborhoods and, consequently, all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, learning under the same roof. But as my experience shows, just being in the same building isn’t enough. Administrators and educators must take on a more active role to truly integrate their student bodies.
Research has widely shown that diverse classrooms, from the elementary to the graduate school levels, make for richer learning experiences for all students. It has also become increasingly clear that the most effective way to improve outcomes for disadvantaged and minority students is not to flood low-income schools with programs and resources but to actually move these students into racially and socioeconomically integrated learning environments. At schools like Albany High, students of different backgrounds are already together in the building, so the battle is half-won; small urban school districts now need to find or create meaningful ways for them to engage with each other.
Opportunities for such engagement do exist, if schools are willing to think creatively about how to use the time, space, and resources available to them. Teachers could take advantage of the mandatory arts requirement, one of the subjects for which students are not tracked, and use it to have students work collaboratively on a project. As the successful integration of many school sports teams has shown, people of many backgrounds form deep, lasting bonds when working toward a common goal. Alternatively, high schools could utilize the ubiquitous “study hall” period–which, in its current unstructured form, many students are wont to skip–for facilitated group conversations about race. Instead of continuing to ignore the elephant in the room, why not teach young adults how to give voice to their experiences and to listen to the experiences of others?
What I’m proposing certainly isn’t a comprehensive solution to the “school-within-a school” problem, nor am I suggesting that it’ll be an easy task. There are myriad complex factors, many outside of high school administrators’ control, that have led to the current state of intra-school segregation; among the most prominent is the widespread practice of academically “tracking” students, starting at very early ages. But at the high school level, educators have a responsibility to do what they can to level the playing field for the students in their buildings.
Albany High School, and other schools like it, can reap the benefits of an inherently diverse student body, but only if administrators and teachers take active steps to facilitate this. Let’s hope they do.