Center for Education and Civil Rights examines integration among K-12 schools

Penn State's Center for Education and Civil Rights' (CECR) ongoing quest to eliminate educational inequities and advance school integration efforts moved forward in Washington, D.C., recently during a "Furthering Diversity in K-12 Schools through Student Assignment" conference.

CECR co-director Erica Frankenberg, associate professor of education and demography in the College of Education, managed the all-day event that brought together school leaders from across the country. They addressed recent federal funding cuts and worked together to learn more about aspects of designing, implementing and sustaining student assignment plans that promote racial and socioeconomic diversity.

The CECR is in its neophyte stage at Penn State. Building from the ground up with small gatherings such as community brown-bag luncheon encounters and campus lectures to larger-scale, city-based diversity conferences such as the one in Washington, D.C., has established groundwork to achieve nationwide acclaim for the organization.

Conference attendees – the maximum 150 enrolled – helped establish ongoing support networks for districts and charter schools; provided school leaders with research to assist them wherever they are in the process of considering or implementing racial and socioeconomic diversity efforts; and learned about other resources that can assist with integration efforts.

From Penn State, Greg Kelly, associate dean for research in the College of Education, gave opening remarks, and Liliana Garces, associate professor of education, facilitated the day's final panel. Graduate students Kendra Taylor, Jeremy Anderson, Andrew Pendola and Dwayne Wright also participated.

"This event was designed to support and network districts, bring research-based evidence about strategies (what was likely to further integration, what might set back integration) and also to bring different possible resources in terms of people or different products to help them move forward," Frankenberg said.

"We thought as a center this was a critical moment in time to help continue support for districts maybe who had applied for grant funding but didn't get it, were part of some efforts last fall or weren't part of it, and also to infuse some research in some districts."

School representatives from Texas to Massachusetts and many in between attended and discussed a range of topics from voluntary integration to building schools that by design would be more diverse. One of the panelists had attended New York City schools and is part of a group trying to push New York City to support more integration.

"Her being able to talk powerfully about why integrated schools matter was really incredible and a relatively new voice to bring to such discussions," Frankenberg said.

Frankenberg said every school district has a student assignment plan, but some are more explicit than others. For that panel, she said, Anderson and Taylor presented on their current project – Voluntary Integration in U.S. School Districts, 2000-2015: District Approaches and Segregation Outcomes.

That revealed preliminary findings that dozens of districts today implement voluntary integration policies using a range of methods and factors to define diversity (by race and/or income) in addition to about 200 districts implementing desegregation under court oversight. Future research will examine in what contexts voluntary integration policies are associated with declines in racial segregation – particularly whether this is more likely with plans that also incorporate race-conscious factors.

"There are a number of people in our department and across the University who do work around education equality," said Frankenberg, who believes that conclusive change can someday be a reality.

Education Policy Studies Department Head Kevin Kinser believes that CECR provides a strong steppingstone toward that goal as well.

"CECR provides a unique focus for education policy research at Penn State, and Erica’s leadership in this field has already had national impact," Kinser said. "The next generation of educational leaders, policymakers and scholars needs to understand both the history and current context of civil rights in the United States in order to be effective advocates for all learners.

"The research from CECR will help people working in schools, state capitals and federal agencies be agents for change.”

Frankenberg also believes that Penn State can be a national leader in the field.

"There are a number of efforts that our center has built upon and it's nice not to feel that you're starting from scratch," Frankenberg said. "I think it's made an effect on people in the field who are excited to see the energy.

"It helps create an important identity for Penn State to help among the change that is going on among our nation's schools and the help that is desperately needed," she said.

The genesis of Frankenberg's passion began in her birthplace of Mobile, Alabama. She said her middle school was a magnet school created intentionally to further integration as a result of a consent decree in a desegregation that began in 1963. The school consisted of diverse faculty and students with a college prep focus and was an "incredible experience" with no stratification within the school.

Her high school days differed in that while her school was an even mix of black and white students, her International Baccalaureate classes had no black students in them, and she doesn't think she had a black teacher in high school. As a senior, she took part in an exchange program that sent her to another district school that was predominantly black and with inferior educational options than her own.

"You don't really know how to make sense of all this as a 16- or 17-year-old," she said. "You do have this moral righteousness as a teenager of fairness and it didn't seem fair that just because of where I lived, I got all these opportunities that other kids didn't.

"At the end of my senior year, a judge declared that schools were integrated and dismissed the court desegregation case. That set off this lifelong quest … how could that be? I had seen this other school. How could a school district be declared to have meet its constitutional obligation when there were such disparities in what was a completely black school and my own?"

Off she went to Dartmouth College, a world away from Alabama, but still consumed by trying to understand educational inequality and segregation. She said she designed her own major in education policy and wrote a thesis researching the history of school desegregation in her school district.

"I learned that the person my middle school had been named for was a former superintendent who was racist and had tried to prevent school desegregation from happening, according to memos that I uncovered during my research process," Frankenberg said. "It was an incredible experience to be able to use the district that I'd grown up in and to learn about it and then to get this growing insight of understanding that this was a struggle that was still ongoing in many districts around the country.

She wanted to learn more and ended up on The Civil Rights Project while attending graduate school at Harvard; she worked with Gary Orfield, now co-director of The Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

"I admired the way in which he (Orfield) combined his research to try to improve integration and racial equality," Frankenberg said. "To me, the model of being a public scholar is not just trying to write journal articles but also to really take seriously the responsibility of using knowledge to try to make schools better. These experiences inform the CECR."