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Study of Montgomery County schools shows benefits of economic integration

'Art of the possible'

"We chose to do the art of the possible," Weast said. "Housing policy is a far stretch for a school superintendent."

Education researcher Heather Schwartz wrote the study while working toward a PhD in education at Columbia University. She now works for the Rand Corp., which had no role in the study.

Researchers say that poor schools often struggle because they tend to attract rotating staffs of less-experienced teachers and administrators, among other problems. Schools with lower levels of poverty have a range of benefits that include more stable staffs, fewer discipline problems and more support from volunteers. Parents who have one job instead of three also have an easier time being involved. And expectations are usually higher.

"This is not about 'poor kids can't learn,' " DeLuca said. "It's about the fact that we've had a legacy in this country of segregated neighborhoods and socioeconomic isolation from opportunities and the mainstream of life."

The U.S. Education Department's $4 billion "Race to the Top" program encourages states to adopt policies that increase the role of student performance in teacher evaluations, expand charter school offerings, make it easier to fire bad teachers and adopt national standards for reading and math.

Scars from busing battles

But questions about integrating school systems have not been front-and-center since the 1970s, and scars from school busing battles have made policymakers leery of raising such issues again. Most districts nationwide now assign students to schools based only on where they live. Parents with the means to live close to top-performing schools often have resisted efforts that would send their children to schools with larger numbers of students from low-income families.

"There is still this kind of fear, a fear that is not easily overcome when you have a government that is highly parochial," said David Rusk, the former mayor of Albuquerque who has written extensively on the subject. "Public officials in the United States with rare exceptions do not want to deal with the underlying economic and racial segregation of our neighborhoods."

A growing number of school districts - at least 60 so far - has in recent years been experimenting with strategies that promote economic diversity. These include magnet schools, student assignment policies that take into account economic status and agreements that give poor kids a chance to attend schools in wealthier suburbs.

"This study confirms what we've long believed," Education Department spokeswoman Sandra Abrevaya said via e-mail. She said that federal proposals to expand existing public school choice and magnet school programs were aimed at promoting racial and socioeconomic diversity.

The money spent on those programs, however, is relatively small, Kahlenberg said.

Dominique Johnson, 13, who attended an elementary school in the District before moving to a public housing apartment in Bethesda, said the difference was obvious.

"It was a bad, bad school," she said of her old school, shaking her head. "The principal, I don't think she did anything about all the fights. I had this one teacher who would curse at the kids."

At North Bethesda Middle School, she said, she found rules, focus and difficult classes with attentive teachers. Her grades dropped. But after a year or so, they improved.

"Now I understand the work," she said. "I've made friends. The principal is nice. It was harder at first, but at lunch I'd go to classes and the teachers helped me."

mccrummens@washpost.com birnbaumm@washpost.com


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