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The segregation of Latino schoolchildren: The bad — and a dash of good — news

Arlington Public Schools wants to relocate Key Elementary, shown in February. Hispanic families are concerned about the move and how it could affect low-income families who live in affordable housing near the school. (Cal Cary/For The Washington Post)
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A report by researchers at three universities concludes that the segregation of Latino children in elementary schools has grown since a generation ago — but there is some good news, too.

The report was conducted by academics from the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Maryland and the University of California at Irvine, and it was just published in “Educational Researcher,” a peer-reviewed journal of the American Educational Research Association.

Here are its findings, written by Bruce Fuller, a key researcher on the study who is a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of “Organizing Locally.”

By Bruce Fuller

It feels both essential and stuck in the past ­— this summer’s rekindled debate over the racialized segregation of public schools.

Perhaps bickering over Joe Biden’s opposition to busing, four decades ago, as one means of integrating schools will crystallize the identity of other Democratic candidates. President Trump’s newfound resemblance to George Wallace, the Alabama segregationist, jolts us back in time, as well.

But the dynamics of the segregation problem have become way more complex since the 1970s, less black and white, especially given the worsening isolation of Latino children. Meanwhile, inventive educators are quietly advancing ways of blending the rainbow of children who now populate our cities and aging suburbs.

First the bad news. Latino children are likely to enter elementary schools with fewer white peers nationwide than a generation ago, says a new study out this past week from the University of California, Berkeley. In 1998, the average Latino child attended an elementary school in which four of every 10 schoolmates were white. By 2015, that number had fallen to three white peers for every 10 students enrolled.

The isolation of Latino children in urban areas has become even more stark. One in every 20 schoolmates of the average urban Latino is now white, and such thin exposure to middle-class kids continues to decline. The flip-side — a dash of good news — is that the integration of middle-class Latino children has improved in older suburban regions of the country.

My Berkeley-led team found that college-going rates of Latina mothers have climbed steadily since 1998. These women show little hesitation to assimilate, while enriching their bilingual skills, then moving into better jobs and middling suburbs that host integrated schools.

Another piece of encouraging news: More school officials have devised ways of raising the odds that Latino children learn beside white kids. The odds of a randomly selected Latino child sharing a classroom with white peers are nearly three time higher in Fairfax County, compared with that Latino’s schoolmates in D.C. schools. Part of this stems from differing patterns of housing segregation. Still, educators differ in their will to build magnet schools and dual-language programs, which white parents find rigorous and attractive.

We know that integrated schools lift students in terms of higher test scores and cultural understanding, even a greater incidence of cross-racial friendships. Take Yesenia Solis, who attended a mostly Latino high school, just south of Fresno, Calif., “where if you weren’t placed in honors classes, the teachers would not push you.” Still, Solis challenged herself to engage middle-class whites “who you felt intimidated by,” learning alongside them.

Long-term research verifies personal experience. After tracking tens of thousands of black students through integrated schools, Berkeley economist Rucker Johnson discovered more robust rates of college-going and higher wages, compared with peers who remained in segregated institutions, detailed in his book, “Children of the Dream” (written with Alexander Nazaryan.)

San Francisco officials ­— recognizing the tie between bilingual skills and good jobs ­— have expanded dual-language campuses. One popular elementary school immerses students in classes taught in both Mandarin and English, starting in kindergarten. It’s a “microcosm of the world,” Principal Darlene Martin saids, where enrollment is one-third of Asian heritage, plus equal shares of black, Latino, and white classmates. Even preschools dunk children into Spanish and Korean.

At its heart, school integration aims to foster novel relationships. Yet kids often resegregate after entering a diverse school, occupying separate tables at lunch, enrolling in different classes. Instead, Boston’s cross-district integration effort reshapes kids informal ties, helping parents arrange cross-racial playdates after school and on weekends. Nurturing familiarity often requires a gentle nudge.

Solis, back in Fresno, gained the confidence to reach higher, winning admission to Berkeley, then laboring to make white friends once again. She reported feeling “scared they would find me so ghetto, I would not have a voice.” But Solis has prevailed, bonding with middle-class peers, excelling in her courses.

Yet our political leaders say little about how they see today’s realities of segregation, or how they aim to bring the nation’s kaleidoscope of children under one roof. Let’s look forward and build from what works, recognizing that nurturing mutual respect grows from tender mercies each day in classrooms, not from polarizing squabbles over the past.