As Wake School Segregation Worsens, A Push To Counter It

Jan 3, 2020

Randy Harrington was a student at Apex High School the first year it integrated.
Credit Wilson Sayre / For WUNC

In the 1960s and 70s, when Randy Harrington was a boy growing up in southwestern Wake County, he went to segregated, all-black schools.

"The buses were always second hand," Harrington recalled. "We got the hand me downs. We were told you had to be twice as good to get just as far."

After his freshman year at Apex Consolidated High School, Harrington was moved to Apex High School to be part of its first integrated class.

"A lot of the kids we knew from everyday life, but we didn't go to school together [until then]," said Harrington.

The consolidation of Wake County and Raleigh City Schools in the 1970s helped integrate schools. So did a system of bussing black kids to white schools. 

But now, decades later, and having seen two kids of his own go through Wake County Public Schools, Harrington says the work that started when he was a kid has not been fully realized.

"I still think that it's segregated," said Harrington.

Distribution of WCPSS Schools based on percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch.
Credit Courtesy of Jim Martin

School board data shows that 40% of elementary schools in Wake County have concentrated affluence or poverty. So, this summer, the Wake County Board of Education has announced a push to reverse that trend of segregation.

"I think many of us feel like we sort of successfully put our finger in the dike to quit leakage, but we really were unable to reverse the trend of re-segregation," said Jim Martin, a member of the board. "It's time to try to do something different."

Martin was part of a cohort of board members elected earlier this decade, ousting previous members aligned with the Tea Party movement who touted "neighborhood schools" and did away with the county's once heralded diversity policy. The board has spent years reversing trends set in motion during that era.

In August, Martin and the board moved forward with a plan to assigning schools a score based on an economic health index and comparing that score with the county average. The target is to get schools' score within 20 percentage points of the county's for elementary and 15 for middle and high schools. In Wake County, working towards economic diversity in schools increases racial diversity as well.

Percentage of K-12 students who are not white (WCPSS 2010-12)
Credit Courtesy of Jim Martin

For many people, integration recalls the system of bussing from the 1970s that moved students like Randy Harrington, to new schools. Martin calls that a cheap, technical solution.

"So much of that [bussing] was done on the backs of minority children," said Martin. "I don't think anybody would advocate for that. I sure don't. I think the biggest challenge that we have before us is how do we create opportunity in opportunity poor areas?"

Martin talks about making robust afterschool programs available and streamlining transportation for students to take advantage of programs that already exists, and starting new programs.

"Could [we], as a starting point, for example, take our 25 schools that have the largest English as a second language population and in those schools, teach both languages to all students?" poses Martin.

Integration in 1970s Wake County was pushed though, in part, by the local business community, who saw the possibility through better, integrated education. And those benefits are now empirical.

"We know from decades of social science research that school segregation is related to unequal educational opportunities and unequal educational outcomes," said Jenn Ayscue, who researches school integration at NC State University. "On the other hand, we know that students who attend integrated schools have a number of benefits academically, socially, and in the long term."

She says integration leads to higher academic achievement, increase in friendships across racial groups, decrease in prejudice and stereotypes, improved communication and critical thinking skills, higher levels of civic engagement, a greater economic returns in the long-term with higher paying jobs and higher status jobs, lower incarceration rates, and better health outcomes.

School Fund versus Percent Free and Reduced Lunch **(Fund numbers ending 6/30/2019)
Credit Courtesy of Jim Martin

However, the landscape for integration work has changed in recent years. Wake County is far more diverse than it used to be. When the Brown vs Board Supreme Court decision came out in 1954, it really only pertained to black and white students. North Carolina's Latinx population, for example, has grown enormously over the past three decades.

Homeschooling, private and charter schools have also added another level of complexity, demographically and financially. By the numbers, charters, in particular, are often quite segregated, which some attribute to kind of educational white flight.

Despite these challenges, the Wake County School Board's move has started to gain traction.

"On the surface, I'm excited," said Letha Muhammad Director of Education Justice Alliance, a grassroots organization that helps parents build advocacy skills around education. "I can come into my children's schools and see the segregation. But, in order to get at the real change, it has to be done through collective or collaborative effort between the district and the folks that are most directly impacted."

Muhammad says the board will really need to get community buy-in from all parents, not just from the affluent or white parents. This is especially important because of the proliferation of options outside of the public school system.

Wake County demographics over time
Credit Wake County

"Let's create the space that allows people to fully participate in this process, to make schools better for all of our children," said Muhammad. "Because everybody wins, right? When we have segregated schools, we don't win, right? But when we have schools that are a beautiful mix of all of us in the building, [where] all of us are able to fully thrive and be our best selves in that space, everybody wins."

The Wake County School Board is spending this school year looking at several different routes to increase diversity. The Board has said it will start introducing some of those smaller changes as soon as the coming school year, but the larger efforts could take years to implement.