It’s a Friday morning at Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn and fifth-grade students are giving presentations on topics like civil rights movement protests and school segregation. Parents gather around small groups of kids -- whose skin colors span shades of ivory and tan and brown -- to ask them about their projects and the ways in which these issues are still relevant today. One student, a fifth-grader, incredulously tells a group of parents that segregated schools still exist today. She even has a friend who attends one.
The fifth-grader may not know that her friend is not an exception, but rather the norm in the Big Apple. In New York City -- one of the most segregated school districts in the country -- schools are highly isolated by race. In the country as a whole, many public schools have become increasingly re-segregated in the past few decades. Charter schools -- which are publicly funded but independently operated -- are no exception, and researchers from Pennsylvania State University and University of California Los Angeles have found that in some states, these schools are more segregated than traditional public schools.
Community Roots is one of eight charter schools or charter school networks that has a deliberate balance of students from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, according to a February report from The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank. This number is small, but reflects a growing conversation in the charter school sector about the need for schools to reflect more racial and socioeconomic diversity.
The Charter School Divide
For all the benefits of attending a charter school, exposure to students of different races and economic backgrounds typically isn't one of them.
The number of students attending charter schools has exploded in recent years, with kids attending these institutions in 43 states and the District of Columbia. In 15 of these states, nearly 70 percent of black students are attending intensely segregated schools, where an overwhelming majority of students identify as minorities, according to 2009 research. By comparison, researchers found, only 36 percent of black students in traditional public school attended schools where at least 90 percent of students were of color.
Desegregated schools provide a number of tangible and intangible benefits. The ability to interact with diverse groups of people can help kids down the line as they enter the workforce. Desegregated schools tend to boast better material resources.
"We have over 60 decades of evidence documenting why separate schools continue to be unequal schools," said Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The reasons for this stratification make sense. Many charter schools do not provide transportation, so kids are forced to go to institutions in their communities. Some schools are placed in certain neighborhoods specifically to serve low-income students who have limited educational options.
"There are some who would argue that charter schools are leading to the hyper-segregation of education, but if you're going to communities that need options, and you're serving kids in the community, that’s what you want schools to be doing," said a representative from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. "It's not a charter school problem, it's an American society problem. It is a housing problem."
How One Brooklyn School Found A Fix
Community Roots Charter School in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, was founded a decade ago. At first, it was able to create a diverse population of students simply by drawing from local families who applied for the school's lottery, which randomly selects school applicants for admission.
But as the neighborhood gentrified, affluent families began flooding the school's lottery. The most needy students were getting cut out of the school's offerings.
For the school's co-founder and co-director, Allison Keil, the population changes were unjust. To offset the gentrification, the school tweaked its lottery to reserve 40 percent of seats for children living in nearby public housing. The school is now nearly 40 percent African-American, 40 percent white and over 10 percent Hispanic.
But the school takes its commitment to diversity a step beyond just getting a range of races in the classroom. Issues of equity and social justice are heavily incorporated in every level of curriculum at the K-8 school. A director of community development works to make sure that parents -- not just students -- from different backgrounds are mixing and getting to know one another.
The school thinks deliberately about "creating small intimate spaces where families can come together and can make connections," Keil told The Huffington Post. "We don’t have a community that all goes to the same playgrounds or stores or restaurants."
The school holds regular family sports and music nights so that all groups can mingle. There is an adult book club. A parent-initiated program plans events for families to meet outside of school.
"Our feeling is race relations is in a pretty dismal place," said Keil. "We are incredibly optimistic with the kids going to school here, that is going to change for them and because of them."
There is hope that charter schools can move the needle in increasing school desegregation around the nation.
"Because charters are allowed increased flexibility in curriculum and admissions procedures, and because charters typically accept students from multiple school zones or neighborhoods, they are well positioned -- in theory -- to facilitate student integration through weighted lottery systems and targeted outreach," notes the February report from The Century Foundation.
In recent years, it has gotten easier for charter schools to create deliberately diverse classrooms. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education released new federal guidance that allows charter schools receiving federal grants to use a weighted lottery system that favors disadvantaged students, so long as their state allows it. Most states don't have explicit rules about whether or not weighted lotteries are prohibited, but a few specifically allow them.
M. Karega Rausch, the vice president for research and evaluation at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, said he thinks there has been an increase in the number of charter schools that are "intentionally trying to pursue diversity."
"Pursuing school integration has been a public ideal for a large period of time. It's not all that surprising we’re seeing a lot of operators who want to use their flexibility to create more diverse kinds of schools," said Rausch, although he also praised schools that have mostly "a low-income student population that have also produced some great results for kids."
But creating a diverse mix of students is only half the battle. If students and teachers are not engaging in social justice issues or talking about issues of equity, Keil sees these desegregated schools as a lost opportunity.
"Our feeling is that we are raising children who are going to understand what it means to be an ally, understand what it means to hear and take in different perspectives, understand what it means to work together in a diverse collaborative group," said Keil. "If we’re not teaching into that, we might be reinforcing stereotypes or reinforcing segregation in a desegregated environment."
Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation and the achievement gap in K-12 education. In particular, she is drilling down into the programs and innovations that are trying to solve these problems. Tips? Email Rebecca.Klein@huffingtonpost.com.