(Part I) Can Schools in Gentrifying Neighborhoods Become More Diverse, Too?

Malcolm X Academy in San Francisco may just be a test case

This piece was written by Kyle Spencer and produced by the Hechinger Report where it was originally published. It is reproduced here by permission.

In recent years, students at Malcolm X Academy in the Bayview section of San Francisco, have been coming up with ideas for a paved pathway that will eventually link their public elementary school to a housing complex rising nearby. The complex is replacing a crumbling public housing development that was torn down in 2010.

Some students have asked for benches in the shape of fruits and vegetables; others have requested raised planting beds. All voted for a mural paying homage to national heroes like Rosa Parks and Sonia Sotomayor. Developers who are building the pathway have promised to include some of their ideas in construction.

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But that’s not enough for child advocates at the nearby Center for Cities and Schools, an urban planning think tank that has spearheaded the conversation about the pathway in collaboration with a local chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects.

“The pathway is a symbol of a larger goal,” said Shirl Buss, the creative director at the center. She oversees its elementary school workshops, helping students connect with the neighborhoods in which they live. “It represents a pathway into the new community.”

Housed at the University of California at Berkeley, the Center for Cities and Schools spends a lot of its time pressuring local officials to include struggling public schools in their housing redevelopment projects.

And that is exactly what the center is trying to do now with Malcolm X, a small, underenrolled elementary school in which close to 95% of the students come from low-income families and 83.6% are African American, Hispanic, or Pacific Islander. In 2013, the last year California ranked its schools, Malcolm X, which had a mere 98 students, was in the lowest 10% of all schools in the state.

If the organization’s work is successful, the K-5 school could become a model for a cooperative approach between cities and school districts seeking to overhaul troubled communities. If the approach doesn’t work, Malcolm X will join a long list of schools that were left to flounder when gentrification came knocking.

Finding ways to integrate the nation’s most segregated neighborhoods and desegregate its public schools tend to be separate endeavors. The work is generally undertaken by different city agencies, culling from different budgets. And the officials doing the work rarely sit down together to debrief each other on their projects. “School district planners are not often in communication with developers,” said Heather Schwartz, a policy researcher who specializes in education policy at the RAND Corp.

But in recent years, as racial and economic isolation continues to plague American cities, a small group of planners in Montgomery County, Maryland, Atlanta, St. Louis and here in San Francisco are working to promote a more cooperative approach. Their motivation stems, in part, from a 2012 report showing that more than 15% of the nation’s African American students still attended “apartheid schools,” a term coined by Gary Orfield, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles, to describe schools in which at least 99% of the students are black. The news has given planners a renewed sense of urgency about using neighborhood integration efforts to bring about school integration. But it’s not clear whether that urgency will translate into progress.

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