Despite gains, Mich. schools among most segregated

Jennifer Chambers, and Christine MacDonald
The Detroit News

Michigan’s percentage of black students attending highly segregated schools is the second highest in the nation, according to data compiled by the Associated Press.

The analysis found 40 percent of the state’s black students are in public schools in which the student bodies are more than 90 percent black.

West Michigan Aviation Academy, a charter, seeks to buck segregation.

While that number is on the decline, it tied the state with Mississippi for the second highest percentage nationally, according to the analysis of National Center for Education Statistics enrollment data from the 2014-2015 school year. Washington, D.C., was the highest at 66 percent.

In Michigan charters alone, 64 percent of black students were learning in schools that were more than 90 percent black that school year, according to the data. The Associated Press analysis further found that charters nationally are among the most segregated.

Research has shown high levels of segregation correspond with low achievement, including the Associated Press analysis that found highly segregated schools on average had fewer students reaching state standards for proficiency in reading and math.

Michigan’s ranking for black students, including those in charters, isn’t surprising given Metro Detroit’s historic high level of residential segregation and that charters tend to locate in higher minority areas, said Joshua Cowen, an associate professor of education policy at Michigan State University.

“School segregation is going to follow residential segregation,” Cowen said. “That’s going to map or mirror underlying segregation patterns.

“If our goal is to diversify our kids’ experiences, it shows we have more work to do.”

Charter schools put growing numbers in racial isolation

Of Michigan’s 240 most highly segregated schools for black students, 149 are in Detroit, according to the AP data. The city’s overall population is 79 percent black.

The data shows that over time the percentage of black students in highly segregated schools has dropped. In Michigan, it dipped 18 percentage points from 2000, when it was 58 percent. That could be because of black families leaving Detroit, increased use of school of choice by parents, the state’s overall population losses and the closing and openings of schools, Cowen said.

“Be wary of single explanations into this type of phenomenon,” Cowen said. “There’s no single explanation, which means there is no single solution.”

Buddy Moorehouse, a spokesman for the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, said parents should ask themselves whether their children are getting a good education.

“The bottom line is that African-American students in Michigan are getting a better education in charter schools,” he said.

For white students, the analysis found 36 percent are enrolled in schools that are 90 percent white, according to the AP data for the 2014-15 school year. That ranks the state 15th in the nation. Maine had the highest percentage with 83 percent of its white students in schools that were 90 percent white.

The data showed that number is also dropping over time. For white students in Michigan, it was 70 percent in 2000, a 34 percentage-point drop, according to the AP data.

Segregation is not good for children of any race or ethnicity, said Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust — Midwest, a nonpartisan, education policy, research and advocacy organization.

“Not for white kids, brown kids or black kids. ... It doesn’t prepare them for the real world. Workforces that are more diverse are more effective and productive. We want to prepare kids for a 21st-century workforce in our state,” she said.

Parent Roquesha O’Neal has a son in Detroit Public Schools Community District, but he previously attended a suburban school that O’Neal said was racially balanced. The student body of his current school, Osborn High School, is 98 percent black. She would like to see the school become more integrated.

“We don’t see that culture and climate. If you only see black in your school, you think that’s how it is,” O’Neal said.

In response to the ranking, state officials said the focus should be on improving the academic success of students.

“With Michigan law providing parents with options through Charter Schools and Schools of Choice, it is the parents’ decision to enroll their student where they believe is the best educational fit for them,” said Martin Ackley, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education. “Our goal is that all students attend schools that provide a high-quality education with a full range of learning opportunities, regardless of the location or makeup of the school.”

Tenth grader Amanuel Hailemarian studies in class at West Michigan Aviation Academy in Grand Rapids.

Another segregation measurement in the AP analysis was the percentage of students enrolled in schools with more than 50 percent of the student body of the same race.

In Michigan, 63 percent of black public school students are in schools in which more than 50 percent of the student body is black, according to the 2014-15 school year data. That percentage of black students ranks Michigan fourth highest in the nation, behind Washington D.C., Mississippi and Louisiana.

For Michigan’s white public school students, 94 percent attend schools in which more than 50 percent of the student body is white. That percentage ranks the state 17th highest in the nation.

Those numbers for black and white children also are declining.

It dropped 13 percentage points for black children since 2000, when 76 percent of black students were enrolled in schools in which more than 50 percent of students were black. For white students in 2000, that figure was 97 percent, only a 3 percentage-point drop.

Gary Orfield, a research professor of education and law at UCLA, said increased segregation has plagued American schools since the early 1990s and “right now, we are not doing anything” to address the issue.

Officials must choose to integrate schools and put policies in place that make it last, including community buy-in and support from the board of education.

“You have to plan for it. Reach out to students, make them feel welcome in schools, and you have to help figure out transportation so students can come from segregated areas to schools,” he said.

Meanwhile, the massive exodus of minority students from urban areas into suburban school districts is creating new segregated districts, he said.

“When they move, for a time they are truly less segregated. Whether they stay that way is the question,” he said.

While segregated schools are a national phenomenon, Metro Detroit has had its own history to overcome, Orfield said.

In the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision of Milliken v. Bradley in 1974, the court ruled that school districts in Metro Detroit that had not explicitly discriminated against students could not be forced to participate in desegregation plans.

The ruling called for a “Detroit only” plan to improve educational outcomes. As Detroit Public Schools moved to decrease segregation within the district, white flight from the city surged. In his dissent, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said he feared children would be denied an equal opportunity for education as the result of the decision, Orfield said.

“Ever since then, Thurgood Marshall’s prediction as to what would happen to black students came true,” Orfield said.

One Michigan charter school trying to buck the trend of low diversity is the West Michigan Aviation Academy in Grand Rapids. The school, founded by Michigan businessman Dick DeVos in 2010, offers high school students the chance to earn a pilot’s license along with their diploma.

Patrick J. Cwayna, CEO of the school, said from the beginning diversity was its mission.

“Our charge was to recruit all aspects of our community. We held open houses in the inner city and meetings in hispanic community centers. We really intentionally sought a diverse student body,” Cwayna said.

Cwayna said providing free bus passes to all students and being located at an airport — not in a neighborhood — have helped attract diversity because students are motivated and must make an effort to get there.

Last year, the school’s student body was 64.7 percent white, 14.4 percent Hispanic, 13.3 percent African-American and 4.3 percent Asian.

This school year, the amount of diversity had dropped slightly, an issue concerning to school officials but a reality they saw is also out of their control.

The school has a policy that siblings of current students have priority — a common policy in choice schools — which often forces a blind draw lottery every year for the new freshman class.

“When 70 percent of the population is white, it’s a problem. We love having siblings, but we love having new kids, too,” said Larry Fisher, dean of student life at the school.

Associated Press contributed.