WASHINGTON – Maryland public elementary schools became more racially isolated during the 1990s, at the same time that the overall student population was becoming more diverse, according to a Capital News Service analysis of school demographics.
In all but three of the state’s 24 school districts, the “dissimilarity index” between whites and non-whites increased between 1992 and 2000, the study found. The index is a measure of how evenly a given group — whites or non- whites — is distributed within a school system. The higher the number, the more segregated the groups are.
School officials were not surprised by the shifts, which they said reflect the larger communities in which the schools lie. But others said the trend, while not surprising, is still cause for concern.
“Maryland is one of the most diverse states in the union,” said Richard Steinke, deputy state superintendent of schools. “It is time to rethink our obligation to have our youngsters experience intercultural relationships.
“I’m not suggesting we start busing kids. We have learned from the past,” said Steinke, who is in charge of the Office of Instruction and Academic Acceleration. “Yet we shouldn’t be ignorant to the fact that some children don’t have choices (about where they attend school).”
But others said school diversity is more than a black-and-white issue — it involves other races, other languages and different levels of income.
“You can’t look at it as a white/non-white issue,” said Maree Sneed, an attorney who represents Montgomery County Schools. “It’s still diversity when Asian and Hispanic kids are together.”
Sneed does not believe that Montgomery County schools, where no one ethnic group is a majority, are becoming less diverse, even though the county’s dissimilarity index rose from 31 to 39. Besides, she argued, it is not the school system’s responsibility to worry about racially isolated schools, when they are determined by housing patterns.
“School districts don’t build apartment buildings,” Sneed said.
Others said the greater threat — and one of the reasons for the increasing racial isolation — is economic isolation.
“All too often economic factors follow different minority or ethnic groups,” said Baltimore County Schools spokesman Charles Herndon. “We are concerned with the economic side.”
Baltimore County targets low-income schools with funding in an effort to assist poor students regardless of their race, Herndon said.
Steinke agreed that race and wealth often go hand in hand.
“When I looked at statistics about race and income, it was as if someone had taken a baseball bat and hit me over the head. The connection between race and income was amazing,” he said.
Talbot County, for example, has five elementary schools, one of which is a high-poverty school. But 69 percent of the county’s non-white students go to that one school, Easton Elementary, which Talbot officials attribute to a housing boom in Easton. Meanwhile, St. Michael’s Elementary, which is in an area where housing costs have skyrocketed, lost 40 non-white students over the eight- year period as Easton Elementary gained 54.
Steinke said the isolation of races and classes is a concern because it is his job to improve all schools — no small task with vast disparities between schools in rich and poor areas of the state.
Steinke thinks the federal No Child Left Behind act could help level the playing field if it lives up to its mandate that all children have a “highly qualified teacher” by 2005. But he acknowledged that there are not enough highly qualified teachers willing to teach in high-poverty schools.
“Teachers prefer to teach near where they live, and the more highly qualified teachers tend to live in wealthier areas,” he said.
The link between race, wealth and the quality of education cannot continue to be ignored, Steinke said.
“We’re putting our heads in the sand if we don’t see this and we need to invent some solutions,” he said.
But educators said there is little school systems can do to reverse the situation. They have to play with the hand they are dealt by the community, and try to make sure that schools get equal resources regardless of the neighborhood they are in.
“The schools reflect the neighborhoods in which the children live,” Herndon said.
That is the case in Montgomery County, where Hispanics made up 18 percent of the school population, but more than 50 percent of the student body in six schools. That situation has led to isolation of language-minority students in a few schools, said Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery, a former county school board president.
Officials not that diversity is also an elusive — if not impossible — goal in school systems that are almost entirely white, like Garrett County, or almost entirely black, like Baltimore City.
But even in the state’s larger, more diverse school districts, racial dissimilarity increased. In Baltimore County, where 60 percent of students were white in 2000, the student body at 20 schools was more than 90 percent white and at 11 other schools it was more than 90 percent black.
There are some areas of Baltimore County that are predominantly African American and others that are largely white, Herndon said, but short of a return to busing — which has not garnered support — the schools do not plan to go out of their way to change the situation.
Gutierrez agreed that there is only so much school boards can do, when government policies place low-income housing in one area.
But most agreed that diversity remains an admirable goal, even if they differed on just what diversity is and how schools can best get there in what Steinke called “a pluralistic and ever-diversifying nation.”
“The Jim Crow era cannot be discounted, it is still a major factor in the hearts and minds of many Americans,” Steinke said. “It will take broad and powerful policies to stop the cycle of poverty, poor achievement and racial isolation.
“We think we’ve handled the civil rights issue, but we haven’t,” he said.
Former Prince George’s County school board chairman Alvin Thornton said funding is part of the solution — he successfully pushed for a sweeping school equity bill last year that would dedicate an extra $1.3 billion to local schools over six years, with much of the money directed to poor school districts.
Thornton said the money will help, but that diversity is still necessary.
“Democracy cannot work without integration,” he said. “Our Constitution looks to an integrated society, where people know each other and can interact with each other.”