School Diversity Matters

By Dave Steele, Director of School Partnerships

I would not be the person I am today without Mr. Taylor’s fifth grade class at Garland Elementary, an MPS School on Milwaukee’s South Side. In Mr. Taylor’s class, where students came from many backgrounds and from all corners of the city, I learned lessons that for many people don’t come until adulthood. I learned how to communicate and build relationships across barriers of culture, language, race, and class. I learned how to be comfortable with differences, to embrace them, and to work across them. These experiences have shaped my personal and professional life in countless ways.

For most of us, school is where we first build meaningful connections with people outside of our family or inner circle. For me, these connections were made in diverse classrooms with kids from many different backgrounds. For many kids today, however, their classrooms are as segregated as ever. Their interactions at an early age are increasingly among kids that are like themselves.

48% of MPS schools and 64% of private schools participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program are “intensely segregated,” meaning that 90% or more of the student body is of one race or ethnicity. Milwaukee’s schools are typically as racially and economically homogeneous as the neighborhoods they serve.PAVE school diversityWhile single-race or single income-level schools are increasingly becoming the norm, Studies of school communities across the U.S. offer convincing evidence that low-income students tend to do better academically in diverse environments. Whether this is due to diverse schools having more resources than predominantly low-income schools, or because diverse classrooms may be more steeped in “middle class values,” is still unclear. But we do know that diversity can bring not just social value, but academic value as well.

Being a school that is predominantly low-income or of one race certainly doesn’t guarantee a lack of success. To the contrary, many of these schools are among the best schools in the city with strong track records. And, of course, diversity is certainly no guarantee of school quality. But, among the small group of truly diverse Milwaukee schools stand some of the best educational options in the city, offering examples of what urban education can be.

These diverse schools face unique challenges. In an environment of nearly unlimited choice for parents, diverse schools must strike a balance where both middle-income and low-income parents feel a part of the community, a place where parents of all backgrounds “opt in” to a diverse school culture. Diverse schools can also face unique financial challenges in providing the highest quality experience to students of all income levels.

Those of us who care about education in our city, whether parents, board members of schools, volunteers, or voters, should understand and appreciate the value that diversity can bring to education. We should ask ourselves what we can do to make our schools more diverse settings, through supporting public policies like the Chapter 220 program, or through ensuring that students in our schools are afforded opportunities to meaningfully interact with their peers across racial, cultural, and socioeconomic lines.

And while diverse schools were great for me growing up, they might not have been great for the students who were bused for hours a day across town, sometimes against their will. So while we should celebrate and encourage diversity, let’s ensure that it’s diversity by choice. As board members, we should ask how we can build and maintain a diverse student body by being the kind of school that parents of all backgrounds seek out; a place where students from all backgrounds are welcome and celebrated.

We must create a space to talk about school diversity as a social and academic value for our schools and to celebrate and exemplify those successful examples in our midst. Diversity in and of itself is not a guarantee of school excellence, and will not in and of itself solve our society’s problems, but a diversity of experiences is a critical component for a well-rounded education.