Education

The lines that divide: School district boundaries often stymie integration

At Houston High School in Germantown, Tenn., football players take to a pristine field framed by a sophisticated scoreboard. (Brandon Dill for The Washington Post)

MEMPHIS — The football stadium at Houston High School was alive with the sounds of a 185-student marching band and an announcer bellowing “Touchdowwwwn, Mustangs!” Videos played on a sophisticated scoreboard as players scrambled across pristine artificial turf.

It made the community’s wealth obvious, especially to parents from Southwind High, seated on the visitors’ bleachers. At Southwind, more than 4 in 10 students live in poverty and nearly all are black or Hispanic. It is part of the Shelby County Schools, which primarily serve Memphis.

At Houston High, 3 percent of students are poor and 14 percent are black. It sits in Germantown, a neighboring mostly white suburban district.

“Memphis is segregated — very much so,” said Catrina Morrow, whose son plays defensive end for Southwind, where she said there never seems to be enough money for anything. “I feel like if they don’t want the black children there, that’s fine. But cater to our children as well, be concerned about our children as well.”

For decades, debate over school segregation in the United States has focused on how school districts assign their students to individual schools. But it’s the lines that divide school districts from each other that have a much more profound effect in separating students by race, ethnicity and class.

Boundaries between districts enabled white flight from the cities to the suburbs after courts began enforcing desegregation orders. Those district lines also provided an escape route for middle-class black families, leaving city centers with concentrated poverty.

In Shelby County, the boundary lines changed not once but twice in two years, as Memphis and its suburbs battled over controlling the schools. For many years, there were two districts — one for the city, one for the rest of the county. Then, a few years ago, there was one large merged district. After a year, the suburbs rebelled, with six breaking away, each forming its own system. Today, there are seven school districts, each serving the children inside their own lines.

One result: considerable segregation on the metro level, with the black children of Memphis separated by district lines from the adjacent, mostly white suburbs.

Between Memphis and suburbs, a

segregated student population

Racial distribution of students in Memphis and

the surrounding suburbs

Other

Asian

White

Black

Hispanic

Shelby County

district

(Memphis)

7%

77%

44

39

Millington

Bartlett

59

29

Collierville

60

18

Lakeland

71

13

Germantown

75

10

Arlington

76

14

Between Memphis and suburbs, a segregated student population

Racial distribution of students in Memphis and the surrounding suburbs

Other

Asian

White

Black

Hispanic

Shelby County district

(including Memphis)

77%

7%

Millington

44

39

Bartlett

29

59

60

Collierville

18

Lakeland

71

13

Germantown

10

75

Arlington

14

76

44

36

62

25

63

17

74

10

75

14

75

8

A Washington Post analysis of the nation’s 13,184 traditional public school districts found school segregation is considerably more pervasive when measured at the metropolitan level.

A school district is considered integrated if its campuses reflect the makeup of students in that district. But that district may bear little resemblance to the student population in the larger metropolitan area, and when looked at in this broader way, those same schools may be regarded as segregated.

So taking a snapshot of integration across a metro area offers a richer portrait of how students are sorted across schools in the region. Virtually no metro area is better integrated than the school districts within it, The Post analysis shows.

The Post found that 23 percent of all public school children attended highly integrated school districts in 2017. But only 3 percent of children lived in highly integrated metro areas in 2017.

That’s because the demographic makeup of school districts within a metro area differ significantly from one to another.

Taken as a whole, metro areas are less integrated than the

individual districts within them

The share of students in school districts or metro

areas nationally by level of integration

How evenly students of different races are split across schools in school districts

Highly

integrated

Somewhat

integrated

Not

integrated

Not diverse enough or

too small to integrate

13%

23%

22%

42%

How evenly they are split across schools in metro areas

63%

3%

20%

14%

Metro areas are less integrated than the individual districts

within them

The share of students in school districts or metro areas nationally by level of integration

How evenly students of different races are split across schools in school districts

Highly

integrated

Somewhat

integrated

Not

integrated

Not diverse enough or

too small to integrate

13%

23%

22%

42%

How evenly they are split across schools in metro areas

63%

3%

20%

14%

DRAFT

Many school districts are well integrated. Not so for the larger metro areas.

The proportion of students by level of integration

How evenly students of different races are split across schools in a school district

Highly

integrated

Somewhat

integrated

Not

integrated

Not diverse enough or

too small to integrate

13%

23%

22%

42%

How evenly are they split across schools in the larger metro area

63%

3%

20%

14%

“When you move to an area, you’re told by Realtors or by social contacts, ‘These are the places to live that have these kind of schools that we think are more like you,’ ” said Erica Frankenberg, who directs the Center for Education and Civil Rights at Pennsylvania State University. “When I came to Penn State, people were like, `This is the district you should live in.’”

In much of the country, it’s common for every city, suburb and town to have its own school system, and that makes it easy for families to avoid or depart a district if they are uncomfortable with the demographics or unhappy with the offerings.

In the most dramatic cases, communities have broken away from their larger school districts. The nonprofit advocacy group EdBuild identified 128 communities that attempted to separate from their school districts since 2000, including 73 that were successful. Some cases had nothing to do with race. But in others, especially in the South, the departing community was whiter and wealthier than the district left behind.

Normally, Southern states, including Tennessee, are home to county-based districts, but Shelby County, which includes Memphis, looks less like the South and more like the Northeast. It has seven school districts, with black children concentrated in the city and white students mostly in suburban systems.

The Post found that the difference between integration on the metro level in Memphis and integration on the school district level was among the highest in the nation.

There was a period of time when things might have been different.

For nearly 150 years, Shelby County had two districts — one serving Memphis and one serving the rest of the county. Then, in a convoluted whirlwind, the districts merged in 2013, thought to be the largest school district merger in American history. Memphis, which triggered the merger, was looking to protect its funding, but the debate that followed centered on power, race and whether children would be hurt or helped by better racial and economic integration.

A year later, six suburbs decided they were better off on their own and formed separate school systems.

“We’re looking at a community that does not view itself as a single community, but rather as a series of smaller communities that are often looking out for their own best interests,” said Daniel Kiel, a University of Memphis law professor who has studied the region’s history. “There’s no sense here that we are all in it together.”

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray went to Oakshire Elementary in Memphis as a child. To his dismay, seven trailers from his days as a student remain. (Brandon Dill for The Washington Post)

A segregated history

Shelby County is nestled in the southwestern corner of Tennessee, on the banks of the Mississippi River. Arkansas sits to the west, Mississippi to the south, and history is all around. Elvis Presley lived at Graceland, the blues were born on Beale Street and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel.

The county has a legacy of racial tension, discriminatory housing policy and segregation. Both the city and county school systems operated for years under federal desegregation orders, and the court order governing the county was not lifted until 2009.

Today, the city schools operate as the Shelby County Schools and include Memphis and unincorporated parts of the county. Districtwide, 77 percent of students are African American and 15 percent are Latino. Just 7 percent are white, and they are clustered in a handful of magnet schools. About 60 percent of students live in poverty.

The district itself never seems to have the money it needs. Unlike suburban counterparts, which are funded in part by their municipalities, the city schools receive scant money from Memphis. Officials have tallied $500 million in deferred maintenance: obsolete air conditioners, unreliable heating systems, old windows. Superintendent Joris Ray is trying to build support for merging some schools through community conversations dubbed “Reimagining 901,” a nod to the local area code.

Ray arrived for a recent visit to Oakshire Elementary School just as a plumber walked in to fix a backed-up toilet. Ray, 45, attended the school as a child, and he was dismayed to see the same seven trailers still being used as classrooms. As he toured the campus, he noticed a section of seriously uneven sidewalk. “You see this?” he told a colleague. “This is problematic. A kid comes, trips. This is foreseeable.”

Jamyla Ham, 5, receives “Dolphin dollars” from Principal Terence Bobo at Oakshire Elementary in Memphis. (Brandon Dill for The Washington Post)
Oakshire pupils may use their rewards to purchase toys at a school store. (Brandon Dill for The Washington Post)
LEFT: Jamyla Ham, 5, receives “Dolphin dollars” from Principal Terence Bobo at Oakshire Elementary in Memphis. (Brandon Dill for The Washington Post) RIGHT: Oakshire pupils may use their rewards to purchase toys at a school store. (Brandon Dill for The Washington Post)

Oakshire’s principal, Terence Bobo, was eager to showcase successes. He said the school, home of the “mighty Dolphins,” had been able to reduce absenteeism by giving “Dolphin dollars” to students each day they are in school. The notes are redeemable for toys and snacks in a school store. Last year, 24 percent of kids were chronically absent, meaning they missed 10 percent or more of days. So far this year, the figure is 9.5 percent.

Just 7 percent of Oakshire students were proficient on state English language arts exams last year, and Bobo says absenteeism is one reason.

At Lowrance Elementary/Middle School, just a few miles from the line separating Memphis and suburban districts, more than 75 percent of students were below grade level on state exams in 2017-2018. It used to be worse, Principal Kelvin Bates said. “In the real world,” he said, “you have to celebrate small growth."

Challenges include children living in temporary housing and in poverty. “There are traumatic events taking place in their life every day,” Bates said. A colorful poster in the school lobby keeps track of “days of peace” — consecutive days without a fight. On this day, it stood at 10.

Bates has added prekindergarten classes to his school, worked to recruit and retain strong teachers and used corner nooks to create book cubbies, where the titles are free for the taking. “Students might not have access to books at home,” Bates said. “They can keep them or bring them back. They don’t have to check them out. Just grab a book.”

Math and science teacher Kaitlin Sullivan leads a fourth-grade lesson about erosion at Forest Hill Elementary in Germantown, Tenn. (Brandon Dill for The Washington Post)

Thriving suburbs

In Germantown, a $30 million elementary school called Forest Hill opened this year, paid for by municipal taxpayers. The hallways are streaked with natural light. There’s a Zen garden seen from one window. Another view opens to a 200-year-old white oak tree and a small lake that the district hopes to use for fishing rodeos. Across the street is a gated community of homes. Forest Hill was built for 850 students but has just 550. Superintendent Jason Manuel predicted that students from other parts of the district will seek transfers now that they see how beautiful the school is.

“It’s so exciting to come here,” a retired teacher gushed to Manuel as he gave a tour of the building. “I love the school!”

At Houston High, which serves Germantown, some students considered what they might improve about their school and landed on the hallways. “Maybe if there was a pop of color?” said Caroline Pillow, a senior.

At Southwind High, which is part of the city system, the same question to students elicited tales of student fights.

Resource-laden suburban schools such as Collierville High offer a stark contrast to Memphis campuses. The $100 million school opened last year. (Brandon Dill for The Washington Post)

The region’s biggest and most expensive school is in the next suburb over, where the $100 million Collierville High opened last year. It sprawls over 450,000 square feet on 158 acres of land. It has 107 classrooms, a robotics lab and a media center where outlets for laptops are built into the furniture. The career and technical education facilities include an industrial kitchen, mock hospital beds, a welding center and a greenhouse. The school has a technology “command center” where students can bring their school-provided laptops for repair.

A state-of-the-art, 1,000-seat auditorium is named for David Pickler, a community leader who helped guide the effort to separate the suburban schools from the city and donated $250,000 to the new school.

Pickler, a wealth adviser whose office is in Collierville, also gave $200,000 to the neighboring Germantown Municipal School District toward projects including a new band room and athletic facility at Houston High, and he is leading a fundraising effort for a third suburban district. Asked if he had donated to the Memphis schools, he said he had begun discussions with a city high school about funding a project there.

Pickler, whose business card takes the form of a metal coin akin to the challenge coins military officers hand out, said he and his wife moved to Germantown from Memphis in 1986 because they wanted to enroll their children in public schools and the city schools were not acceptable. They threw themselves into their new community, and he saw the schools thrive with support from parent volunteers and fundraising.

An auditorium at Collierville High is named for benefactor David Pickler. (Brandon Dill for The Washington Post)

The move by Memphis to merge with the suburbs, he says, was a power play gone bad. He supported the separation to preserve local control and property values, and to avoid being controlled by a district he considered bureaucratic and dysfunctional.

“It wasn’t like the primary agenda was a racial agenda. It was about autonomy and local control,” he said. “Some people say, ‘Look at the white people in Germantown [who] don’t want to be around black poor kids.’ That’s an oversimplification of biblical proportions.”

The decision to separate from Memphis has been an economic boon to the suburbs, he and others say, with property values and populations rising. “People vote with their feet,” he said.

Median household income in Germantown and Collierville was just over $113,000 in 2017, census data show. In Memphis, it was $38,230.

In the suburbs today, there appears to be little concern over the racial segregation that was exacerbated by the new district lines. Residents note that Collierville, where 60 percent of students are white, is more diverse than the district serving Memphis, where students are overwhelmingly African American. Even in neighboring Germantown, 1 in 4 students are black, Asian or Hispanic.

“Longtime residents of Memphis and Shelby County have grown weary in many ways of the spotlight on desegregation,” said Jeff Jones, chief of staff for Collierville schools. “People feel, ‘We tried that. We went there, and it didn’t work.’ That’s the resignation a lot of people have arrived at.” Instead, he said, the goal is for each district to do the best job possible with the children it has.

Collierville allows students from other districts in the county to transfer in, but charges about $400 each, with 466 transfer students this year. Germantown has considered charging tuition as well, but so far has not.

Jones added that longtime residents of Collierville are invested in Memphis’s success, but he said newer arrivals hardly relate to the central city, living their lives in the suburbs. “They eat here, shop here, worship here.”

At Southwind High in Memphis, where students played basketball one day, parents said it seems like there's never enough money. (Brandon Dill for The Washington Post)

Coming together, then breaking apart

In 1869, urban elites in Memphis formed their own district to separate from what they saw as a rural backwater. Memphis City Schools educated students within the city limits and Shelby County Schools handled everyone else, with both systems legally segregated.

Both systems relied on a county property tax, with the proceeds distributed on a per-pupil basis. For many years, taxes from the city subsidized the suburbs. That changed as the suburbs developed and grew, and as tens of thousands of white families fled Memphis to escape desegregation and busing that began in 1973.

Today, suburban taxes subsidize the city.

In the 1990s, the suburban district began eyeing a change. State law barred formation of new school districts, and the suburbs started lobbying for an exception. That would have accomplished two things. It would have made their district borders permanent, preventing Memphis from rejoining the county system. A special school district also might have been conveyed power to levy taxes that could be raised in the suburbs and spent in the suburbs. Pickler, who was on the suburban school board at the time, said the county never asked for that.

For Memphis, this represented an existential threat. The city feared that if the suburbs had their own funding, they would no longer support the countywide property tax Memphis relied on.

The city school board knew it could block it by forcing a merger, specifically by relinquishing the city’s school charter and rejoining the county district.

The more the suburbs talked about forming their own district, the more the city talked about merging. And the more the city talked about merging, the more the suburbs wanted their own district.

In 2013 Memphis joined Shelby County Schools. For a single school year all county students were educated in the same school district. The next year six suburbs opened their own districts.

Millington

Lakeland

Bartlett City

Arlington

ARKANSAS

Memphis

Germantown

5 MILES

Colliersville

In 2013 Memphis joined Shelby County Schools. For a single school year all county students were educated in the same school district. The next year six suburbs opened their own districts.

Meeman-

Shelby

Forest

State

Park

Millington

Lakeland

Bartlett City

Arlington

ARKANSAS

Memphis

Germantown

Colliersville

Memphis

Int’l

Airport

5 MILES

The tipping point came in November 2010 when Republicans gained seats in the Tennessee statehouse and won the governorship. It looked like the suburbs might finally get their way in Nashville. The next month, Memphis City Schools dissolved its charter and, after the decision was ratified with a citywide vote, merged into Shelby County Schools.

Funding was the driving motive, but some saw the merger as a way to promote racial and economic integration, at least on the margins.

“You heard a lot about how the city schools and the county schools were separate and unequal and the merger presented an opportunity to come back together, or really come together for the first time as a community and push for greater equity in education for everyone. That’s what people were saying and feeling,” said Kiel, of the University of Memphis, who served on a planning commission that worked to implement the merger.

Memphis was the newcomer, but city officials made clear they expected power commensurate with their greater numbers.

Memphis City Council member Martavius Jones pushed to merge the city and county school systems when he was a school board member. (Brandon Dill for The Washington Post)

“My thinking was that Shelby County is comprised of majority Memphians,” said Martavius Jones, who pushed for the merger as a member of the school board at the time and now serves on the City Council. “If you have Memphians on the Shelby County school board, you can then control the direction of the Shelby County schools.”

That didn’t sit well with the suburbanites, who saw Memphis as a failing system. Some also feared that an integration program would follow.

“I remember thinking we will never have a voice in that school system,” said Mark Hansen, who now leads the school board in Collierville. “There was going to be this mega-system, and what does that mean for us? There was fear they would be reassigning teachers and changing boundaries and those kind of things. … Neighborhood schools wouldn’t be neighborhood schools.”

The suburbs persuaded the legislature to change the law barring new districts, which allowed them to break away. All six suburbs voted overwhelmingly to form their own municipal districts. A lawsuit alleged that the move would exacerbate segregation but failed to stop the creation of the districts. After just a year as a merged system, six new districts opened for business in 2014.

By giving up the charter, the Memphis schools relinquished any claim on funding from Memphis, to the City Council’s delight. Meantime, the suburbs, by forming municipal districts, are now able to tax themselves to boost their spending.

In the Memphis suburbs, few parents appear concerned with questions of integration.

At the football game in Germantown, some pointed to the racial diversity present in their schools, or noted white parents in Memphis who send their children to private schools. Some said segregation was an issue in the past, not the present.

“I personally don’t get caught up in the racial drama that goes on here,” said Anne Higgins, whose son plays on the Houston football team. She supported the decision for Germantown to form its own district. “I think the best thing is it’s just a smaller environment so the funding can go where it needs to go.”

“We just wanted our local tax dollars to go to our system, our schools and our kids,” said Shannon Walls, a Germantown father. He added: “And it’s not racial; it’s not white or black.”

But the entirely African American crowd on the other side of the field could not shake the feeling that their kids were getting shortchanged. The football stadium was sponsored by a local car dealership, which in 2015 paid $150,000 for naming rights and also bought naming rights for Collierville’s new athletic facility for $500,000 over 10 years.

“When you look at their scoreboard, it’s just amazing the type of money they get to spend on frivolous things,” said Nicxavier Burton, a special-education teacher at Southwind High. “I feel like they left [the district] because they pay more and they want their kids to have the best of the best. You can’t do that if you tried to divide that equally among everybody.”

Denise Nelson, mother of a Southwind student, also saw the disparities, but said that was not her focus.

“I teach my son it doesn’t matter what you have, and it doesn’t matter what you’re lacking,” she said. “You can still compete with anyone who has more in their pockets.”

Ilana Marcus contributed to this report. Reported and written by Laura Meckler. Data analysis and graphics by Kate Rabinowitz. Edited by Stephen Smith. Copy edited by Paula Kelso. Photo editing by Mark Miller and J.C. Reed. Designed by J.C. Reed.

Brandie Wilson cheers for Houston High during a November football game in Germantown, Tenn. (Brandon Dill for The Washington Post)

This analysis used the Common Core of Data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) for the 2016-2017 school year. Charter and private schools were excluded because the government has limited control over them. Virtual schools were also excluded. The racial demographics of Shelby County public school districts are sourced from the Tennessee Department of Education and use the most recent data available, the 2018-2019 school year.

The variance or correlation ratio, also referred to as eta-squared, was used to measure integration for both school districts and metro areas. More detailed information on the calculation and analysis can be found here.

The Post compared the metro-level variance ratio to the average variance ratio of all underlying school districts, weighted by the student population of each district. Not all school districts have variance ratios, so the metro-level variance was calculated both for all underlying school districts and only for districts that had variance ratios.

The Stanford Education Data Archive was used to assign school districts to metro areas.

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