Elementary School Diversity Reconsidered

I have a background in college admissions, where diversity was always a top priority.  When I entered into the process of identifying a school for my kid, I considered diversity a primary characteristic of the school that I hoped to identify.  However, in my experiences visiting schools and hearing your public (and private) comments on this blog on the posts addressing diversity, I have come to realize that I have to change my expectations.

Diversity in a college context means that students come from all walks of life.  Urban, rural, domestic (x out of 50 states) and international, and of all different races and socioeconomic backgrounds.  At a public school, the mechanics are so much more based on geography and local school catchment boundaries.  As a result, I have come to realize that my standards for diversity are unrealistic for elementary schools.

What I have realized about diversity is that the question is larger than the numbers.  Numbers are important, but the philosophy of a school is paramount.  A school with homogeneous demographics can have a spirit of diversity that is stronger than a school with a perfectly balanced breakdown.  What I have begun to look for instead is evidence of that philosophy–how schools get involved in their community, how tolerance and multiculturalism is taught (or not taught), and how diversity is celebrated in the classroom.

An interesting question remains, one raised by a commenter on my last post on diversity.  “Ellen” writes

You live in a city that is majority African-American. I find the balance at Jenks less disturbing than, for instance, the balance at Penn Alexander, where over time the school has grown progressively whiter, so that in the lower grades (as I understand it) there are many more white kids. That’s because the costs of living in that community have driven out African-American families. So you have a school that is perhaps more balanced, but less representative, and is failing to provide an education to families who can’t afford the $500K price tag to live in that neighborhood.

I wonder.  Should a school strive to match the diversity of the community?  On the one hand, I reject the notion that a school should reflect the diversity of the entire city.  Rather, it makes more sense that a school represent the demographic of a neighborhood or a community that it serves.  In that sense, a student body composed mostly of students from outside of the school catchment will not be representative of the community.  Penn Alexander is in the heart of a gentrified community and my sense is that it accurately reflects the catchment makeup.  Political opinions of gentrification aside, as a school improves, it organically creates a push towards gentrification.  As the demographics of that community change, how should the diversity standards for the school change?  It seems to me that this is a natural and unavoidable, albeit unfortunate sociological phenomenon.

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