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School Segregation is Worsening in Virginia, Studies Find

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Interior of Chimborazo Elementary School in Richmond. (Photo: Catherine Komp/VPM News)

Racial and economic segregation is deepening in Virginia schools, according to a new study from Virginia Commonwealth University and Penn State. In metro areas -- including Richmond -- that segregation is made worse by local school attendance boundaries.

Among Central Virginia’s 15 school districts, 44% of segregation is caused by how those district lines are drawn. The other 56% happens within the individual districts, at the level of neighborhood school assignments.

“In our three major metro areas -- Central Virginia, Northern Virginia and Tidewater -- the attendance boundaries within school divisions mattered a little bit more in terms of how much they contributed to school segregation,” said Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, an associate professor at the VCU School of Education.

VCU map

Siegel-Hawley and her team used a statistic called Thiel’s H to measure segregation between racial and ethnic groups. The report based its findings on federal and state school enrollment data, Virginia school board policies and media accounts related to rezoning. 

“Central Virginia, or the Richmond metro area, is the only superintendent’s region that reported severe school segregation between major student racial/ethnic groups… School segregation is even more intense between White and Black students in Central Virginia,” the study reports.

Siegel-Hawley says the result is fewer resources for students of color and students facing poverty, an issue that is then exacerbated by a lack of funding. She says these inequities then are reflected in poor rates of teacher retention, student absenteeism and student mobility.

“All of those things point to the fact that separate remains unequal, and that those opportunity gaps are related to gaps in opportunity later,” she said.

Another recent study of segregation in Virginia schools by The Commonwealth Institute had almost identical findings, reporting the highest levels of segregation in the Roanoke and Richmond metropolitan areas. 

The TCI report found that Black and Latino students are increasingly likely to attend schools where the student body is almost entirely non-white, and where there are fewer resources, less course offerings and higher rates of poverty.

TCI map

“While Brown v. Board may be thought of as the end of schooling segregation, the truth is that we are in another chapter in the fight against it,” said TCI Senior Vice President Ashley Kenneth in a statement. “ It is going to take a system of intentional, actionable, and anti-racist policies to make high-quality, meaningfully diverse schools a reality for more than some.”

The VCU study analyzed rezoning policies by 28 local school boards, and found that most school districts’ primary goal behind rezoning was “efficiency” -- not integration -- and 71% did not raise the issue of segregation at all when discussing new school zones.

The study says Richmond and Henrico’s recent rezoning efforts in particular did acknowledge a need for racial and economic integration. However, “board language around integration was often vague” and “difficult to quantify.”

“Henrico’s board was focused on ‘reducing concentrations of poverty while balancing a community or neighborhood school concept,’ while Richmond’s sought to ‘increase student diversity of all kinds within schools,’” the study reads.

The VCU report offers a number of recommendations to local school districts and  the state government. Siegel-Hawley says it’s incumbent on Virginia officials to confront school segregation head-on: “The state is complicit in both structuring school segregation, and then doing too little to unwind it.”

The report’s proposed policies to address school segregation include the following:

  • Use the state bully pulpit to amplify the importance of reducing school segregation and promoting integration for students and communities.
  • Establish an office or department in the Virginia Department of Education to support voluntary integration and reduce segregation within and among schools.
  • Establish certification requirements for superintendents, school boards, principals and teachers related to school segregation and integration.
  • Authorize new state data collection for public use related to school attendance boundaries. 
  • Including school segregation and integration as part of the state’s accountability measures under Virginia's required updates to its Every Student Succeeds Act plan Implement a grant program to support voluntary integration.
  • Study, define, evaluate and address racial, ethnic and economic school segregation. As of now, the state does not have a clear definition of “school segregation.”
  • Increase school board capacity to address segregation as part of rezoning processes.

As diversity across the state increases and ongoing social movements amplify calls for institutional change, Siegel-Hawley says she hopes renewed public attention to the issue of school segregation will inspire renewed commitment in state and local government.

“It's damaging for all of our kids, regardless of racial or ethnic background, in part because public schools are the institutions where we first learn how to come together, learn how to take care of one another, learn how to share with one another,” she said. “They are our preparation for citizenship in an increasingly multiracial and increasingly unequal society.”