Hawthorne Elementary in Louisville, Kentucky, looks like what you might imagine a typical American suburban elementary school to be, with students’ art projects displayed in the hallways and brightly colored rugs and kid-sized tables and chairs in the classrooms. It’s located in a predominantly white neighborhood. But the students look different than those in many suburban schools across America. Some have dark skin, others wear headscarves, others are blonde and blue-eyed. While many of them qualify for free and reduced lunches, others bring handmade lunches in fancy thermal bags and come from well-off families.
Ever since a court forced them to integrate in the 1970s, the city of Louisville and surrounding Jefferson County have tried to maintain diverse schools. Though the region fought the integration at first, many residents and leaders came around to the idea, and even defended it all the way up to the Supreme Court in 2006.
The county, which borders Indiana on the south, spreads across 400 square miles and encompasses census tracts in which more than half of the population lives below the poverty level, and tracts in which less than 10 percent does. But there are no struggling inner-city schools here—the city and county schools are under the same district, and the most sought-after high school within it, duPont Manual, is located near downtown.
Indeed, it could be argued that Louisville, an economically vibrant city in a highly conservative and segregated state, is a success today in large part because of its integrated schools and the collaborations among racial and economic groups that have come as a result. “Our PTA president will drive downtown into neighborhoods she probably would not have gone to, to pick up kids to bring to her house for sleepover,” said Jessica Rosenthal, the principal at Hawthorne Elementary. “I just don’t know how likely that is to happen in a normal school setting.”
In contrast, regions that kept city and suburban schools apart have been plagued by growing inner-city crime, low academic achievement levels for black children who live in the city, and a hollowing out of the city by middle-class families who feel that they need to move to the suburbs to ensure their children will get a better education.
The Louisville plan wasn’t popular at first. Thousands of protesters rallied against busing at the district’s schools, protesting and vandalizing police cars until the governor called in the Kentucky National Guard to supervise buses for the first few days.
But something strange happened as the integration plan continued. Many of the residents’ fears failed to materialize, and after a few years the protests ceased.
It’s as though “people are amazed to discover that people from another race or ethnic group are actually pretty similar to them,” said Gary Orfield, the co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, who has worked with the city for decades on the plan (and is Myron Orfield’s brother). “There’s a tremendous deflation of protests when almost all the stereotypes people hold aren’t true.”
“School integration was never meant to be the only solution, but it is it is an essential and necessary element, they’ve at least kept that going, in spite of all kinds of problems over the years,” Orfield said. “They believe it works, not perfectly but a lot better than the alternatives.” It’s possible that commitment to diversity is a result of the integration that was forced on the region, in the 1970s. Now, people who grew up in integrated schools want the same for their children.
Since no system is without flaws or detractors, it’s worth reading the whole piece to get some idea of the negative aspects of the situation.
More: The City That Believed in Desegregation - the Atlantic