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Controlled-Choice Student Assignment

Controlled-choice student assignment plans offer families structured choice options that can both work to provide choice and racially diversify schools. These plans can be district-wide and open up choices across the entire district, or the district can be divided up into different geographic zones and choice is provided within specific zones (Diem,

2012). Successful controlled-choice plans require clearly defined parameters: goals must be set for diverse student enrollment with demographic data considered, constantly monitored, and updated in any algorithms used to assign students to schools; and the majority of families need to receive their first choice in order to get buy in from the community (Quick, 2016b). The Berkeley Unified School District (Berkeley, CA) has been implementing an iteration of a controlled-choice student assignment plan since 1995 with the goal of achieving integrated schools and providing families with choices. Specifically, the district uses a composite diversity map that looks at parent education level, parent income level, and race and ethnicity in the city’s 445 planning areas. Each area is assigned a diversity composite category of 1-3 based on the three aforementioned diversity factors. Students are then assigned to schools based on the diversity category number assigned to the planning area where they reside, along with their choice preferences. Students who reside in a specific attendance zone are also given priority to attend schools in their zones. The district monitors the plan regularly to see if changes need to be made to ensure schools are maintaining the district’s diversity goals (BUSD, 2019; Diem, 2012).

Diverse-by-Design Charter Schools

While still relatively small in number, diverse-by-design charter schools are popping up across the U.S. with the goal of creating racially and socioeconomically diverse schooling environments. While research shows that, left to the open marketplace, charter schools contribute to school segregation, when designed with racial and socioeconomic diversity in mind, they may be able to do just the opposite and provide diverse school settings (Potter & Quick, 2018). In Rhode Island, Blackstone Valley Prep enrolls students from four racially and socioeconomically diverse communities, utilizes a culturally responsive curriculum reflective of its students’ backgrounds, and does not separate students in classes based on performance. Teachers are also provided with professional development opportunities in which they reflect upon their positionalities and biases as well as larger societal inequities. Students in the diverse charter school are performing well academically and applications are over six times the number of students the school can serve. Yet, as the demographics in the communities change, some becoming more low-income, there is a fear that the school will become less diverse (Zimmer, 2018). This is also the case at City Garden Montessori School in St. Louis, Missouri, another diverse-by-design charter school that provides free and diverse Montessori education to children who live in nearby neighborhoods. While the demographics in the catchment zone where the school draws its students was initially one of the most racially and socioeconomically diverse parts of St. Louis, it is becoming less so as neighborhoods are gentrifying (Quick, 2018). However, school leaders in City Garden are determined to make changes necessary to maintain its diverse enrollment by engaging with and recruiting low-income families and those of color as well as lobbying the state legislature to be able to use a weighted lottery system in their admissions process so they can guarantee a specific number of low-income student seats in the school (Quick, 2018).

Magnet Schools

One of the oldest forms of school choice, when designed appropriately magnet schools are still very much one of the viable options available to school leaders to racially diversify their schools. In a marketplace that is proliferating with school choice options, magnet schools distinguish themselves as being the form of school choice that was intentionally designed for the purpose of racial integration (Frankenberg & Siegel-Hawley, 2008). Yet, school leaders must also ensure that the strategies they utilize in their magnet programs take into consideration a range of factors to avoid the potential of racially isolating students. Strategies such as weighted lottery systems, regularly monitoring neighborhood demographic changes and making sure student enrollment is reflective of these changes, and avoiding standalone magnet programs within larger schools that split up the larger school (with the magnet element often racially identifiable) can work to racially diversify magnet schools (Frankenberg & Siegel-Hawley, 2008; Holme, Frankenberg, Diem, & Welton, 2013). Hartford Public Schools (Hartford, CT) utilizes an inter-district magnet program that resulted from a settlement in Sheff v. O’Neill (1996), where the lead plaintiff, a fourth grader at the time of the initial litigation, was arguing for equitable and integrated education for children living in Hartford and the surrounding suburban areas. The program enrolls students from Hartford Public Schools and suburban districts; there is also an open choice program that allows students to transfer from school districts. The magnet schools, of which there are approximately 45, are operated by the district and the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC), a Regional Educational Service Center in Connecticut. The Hartford School Choice Office administers the program and uses a lottery system to meet its diversity goal: almost half of the students of color from Hartford will attend more racially diverse schools. The magnet program has been successful both in terms of achieving racially and socioeconomically integrated student populations as well as positive academic outcomes (Quick, 2016a).

Regional Equity Plans

Regional policies outside of education have long been in existence to connect cities and suburbs to provide shared services such as transit and housing to reduce racial segregation between municipalities (Finnigan & Holme, 2015). While these policies have not been implemented at any kind of significant level, particularly in the education arena, they can still be looked to as a means to reduce racial isolation and provide families with choice. Typically referred to as inter-district school integration plans, these voluntary regional choice plans have been around since the 1960s yet are implemented only in 13 metropolitan areas across 10 states. The programs are consistently popular but due to funding and accountability issues have not been enrolling as many students as they did at their peak (Finnigan & Holme, 2015). For example, in St. Louis, Missouri, a regional inter-district plan was created in 1981 as part of a school desegregation lawsuit (Liddell v. Board of Education of St. Louis, 1972) that provided students of color in the city of St. Louis the opportunity to attend suburban schools and students in the suburbs could attend magnet schools in the city. At its peak, the program served over 14,000 students and is consistently sought after by families, yet the program is scheduled to be phased out in the 2023-24 school year (Diem & Pinto, 2017; VICC, 2017).

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