School integration is complex work, tricky to navigate for many educators. Lee Teitel has been studying the schools and districts that are creating high-quality, integrated learning environments for students. He leads an initiative called Reimagining Integration: the Diverse and Equitable Schools (RIDES), which works in partnership with schools and districts and to explore how communities come to value diverse schools and how practices and policies can sustain the work. We asked Teitel to describe his systemic approach.
Start by envisioning what a challenging, culturally connected, courageous classroom would look like at your school — and then think systematically about how to get there. Look beyond single-issue solutions, because improvements don’t work well in isolation.
What is integration?
There is a real distinction between desegregation, which means getting diverse bodies in the building, and integration, which means creating positive academic and social experiences for all students.
Most people use the words interchangeably. In the focus groups we ran, people often discussed the downsides of desegregation — the biggest of which is lack of belongingness, especially for students of color who, in many desegregated schools, do not get welcomed in the same way, or get access to the same experience as white students.
But a truly integrated school focuses on creating a positive experience for all students of all backgrounds, and supports what we call the “ABCDs” of diverse and equitable schools: strong academics, a strong sense of belonging, a commitment to dismantling racism, and an appreciation of diversity.
Why is integration important for schools?
Society is in transition, especially as our country shifts from being predominantly white to a country where whites are the minority. This shift has already happened in schools, where fewer white children are enrolling in schools than students of color. How we respond will be important. Are we moving to become a country where the differences between us are exploited to reinforce inequality, racism, and other forms or oppression? Or one where kids of all backgrounds are being prepared to function in a multicultural, multiracial, and multiethnic egalitarian democracy?
Schools can and must play a role in navigating that transformation. In 1974, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall captured this in a dissent in Milliken v. Bradley, a case that rolled back the desegregation efforts called for in Brown v. Board. Marshall’s words — “Unless our children begin to learn together, then there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together” — provide a prophecy and a challenge for educators and activists who seek to make schools work as transformative agents of change.
How do schools start this work?
It begins with educators envisioning what a challenging, culturally connected, courageous classroomwould look like at their school — and then thinking systemically about how the pieces fit together. We have seen that often educators throw out single solutions, but improvements don’t work well in isolation. If, for instance, you just say, “Let’s go out and get a really good culturally relevant curriculum,” but you haven’t changed the mindset of your teachers or the expectations of students, the curriculum probably isn’t going to work nearly as well as if you tackled all three components.
RIDES doesn’t tell you what integration has to look like, because people have different pathways into this work, which is okay. But RIDES does offer five steps to reimagining integration to guide schools, districts, or organizations that are already diverse and want to become more fully integrated. (Resources that support each of the five steps can be found here.)
- Create a working group that really works. When a school or system talks about being more equitable without a clear vision for where they wish to go, they struggle to make progress. RIDES offers suggestions for ways to organize to do equity work.
- Diagnose equity in your system. It’s easier to move forward once you understand your starting point. Ask yourself, “What would a highly-equitable, integrated school be like for us?” Then, step back and assess where you are in actually meeting that vision.
- Think globally and act locally. Build on what you’ve learned in the diagnostic process. Identify one or two specific, “local” things to work to improve — keeping the “global” systemic improvement roadmap in mind.
- Make those specific improvements, recognizing that improvement is a process.
- Reflect — and build continuous systemic improvement. Assess how your “local” improvements are fulfilling your “global” goals, consider what you are learning from the process, and look ahead.
What can an educator do if integration isn’t a focus in their school or district?
If you’re a teacher, start by working within your classroom. Develop a clear vision of what your challenging, culturally connected, courageous classroom could look like. Engage your students in this. Some of the most exciting work we are doing with RIDES this year is working with schools that are shifting from seeing students as subjects of improvement around equity, to working with them to become agents of improvement. At the same time, it’s helpful to continue to learn about pedagogy and about equity literacy, and to do your own personal work around understanding yourself as an individual – your own biases, triggers, and beliefs you bring to this work.
Whether you are a teacher, a parent, a staff member, or an administrator, look beyond the classroom for allies interested in this work, since ultimately this has to be done systemicalyy. You’ll find that there are others — teachers, parents, students, administrators — who are quietly doing, or wanting to do, similar work. Create a discussion group where you can talk to each other informally, or formally if you have the support of the principal. Work within your sphere of influence, but then bump it out to work for more systemic change.