School as Anchors of Diversity

Posted on by Kfir Mordechay

Across the metropolises of the United States, gentrification is making neighborhoods hardly recognizable. In a short time, what was once a minor force of urban change, gentrification is now sweeping through many cities like a tsunami. By some estimates over the last 15 years, nearly 20 percent of neighborhoods in the 50 largest cities have experienced major gentrification. From New York to Los Angeles, there has been a large influx of middle class families. Some have even begun to do what had long been unthinkable in the post-war decades of white flight from central cities to the suburbs; enroll their children in urban public schools. This process presents a unique opportunity and an enormous challenge. How can our cities and schools welcome gentrification while protecting existing residents?

While in many cases throughout the country schools in gentrifying neighborhoods remain segregated by race and class, in Washington DC something different is happening. Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics, Common Core of Data, and the Census, our recent study analyzed school enrollment and segregation trends between 2000 and 2015 in Washington DC’s most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. We found that during this period, DC’s fastest gentrifying areas saw a tenfold increase in the white population from approximately 5% to almost 50%. In the classroom, white enrollment in the same areas increased from 1% to 8%. This indicates that white families are beginning to embrace their local public schools.

It also means that racial segregation in these increasingly diverse neighborhoods is declining. Between 2007 and 2014, the amount of hypersegregated traditional public schools, where 90% or more of students are minorities, fell from 67% to 41%. Charter schools saw a more modest decline, from 77% to 70%. Often, when families of color are replaced by gentrifier families with fewer children and little interest in public schools, overall enrollment declines, in DC we found that not to be true.

In fact, DC schools in gentrifying areas saw significant growth, with Black enrollment up 72%, White enrollment, though still small, increased more than tenfold, and the Hispanic enrollment tripled. As this pattern plays out in gentrifying urban communities around Washington and elsewhere, it raises the possibility that long-segregated schools in American’s urban centers could begin a path toward integration.

While neighborhood gentrification presents a positive opportunity to integrate previously segregated communities and schools, this could pose a potential risk of displacement to long-time residents, particularly renters. Some cities and school districts, such as Denver, Portland, Raleigh, New York City and Philadelphia, have begun to develop policies to protect existing, vulnerable communities while welcoming the arrival of this new wave of gentrifiers.

In one of the nation’s most expensive housing markets, with widespread gentrification and the largest school system in the country, New York City is home to some of the most racially segregated schools. Recently the city has released a plan to make its’ schools more representative of the changing demographics of the city. Their strategies include increasing the number of dual language programs and the creation of magnet schools that offer a wide range of distinctive programs and partnerships to attract students of all backgrounds. In addition, the Department of Education is planning to award magnet grants to schools that are more diverse. Simultaneously, in 2017 the NYC City Council approved the “The East Harlem Neighborhood Plan”  to address the affordable housing crisis across the city. The plan is part of a comprehensive, community-focused effort aimed at identifying opportunities for the creation of new mixed-income housing and the preservation of existing affordable units. 



Another example of a city with rapidly shifting demographics is Denver, Colorado; where the board of education and city officials are setting a good example as they begin to tackle these challenges. To address declining enrollments and combat school segregation The Denver Board of Education recently established a citywide “Strengthening Neighborhoods Initiative”. This initiative developed recommendations to increase integration across the schools such as quantitative targets for school integration, partnerships with transportation and housing authorities, and community outreach.

Source: Denver Public Schools

If school systems can figure out how to create diverse schools amid gentrification, it is possible that historically segregated schools could begin to accrue the benefits associated with desegregation. Desegregated schools are associated with numerous positive outcomes, including academic achievement, enhanced critical thinking and communication, the ability to navigate multiple cultures,  and a greater likelihood of living and working in diverse environments later in life. It is likely that the benefits associated with desegregated schools would extend to individuals as well as neighborhoods.

If the goal is to create stable and diverse neighborhoods and communities, we will want to encourage middle-class families to invest in urban neighborhoods and the public schools that come with them. Smart policies that link housing and schools are needed to make sure that urban school systems get this rare opportunity right. Although greater housing production and preservation is necessary in neighborhoods struggling to offset the housing market pressures, this alone is not enough. In order for gentrification to be a shared opportunity, efforts at meaningful integration across the lines of class and race are just as important. Schools, as neighborhood anchors, will serve to ultimately integrate these newly multiracial communities.


Kfir Mordechay is an Assistant Professor at Pepperdine University and a Researcher at the UCLA Civil Rights Project.

TOWERS OF POWER: Snapshot of a Future I Want To Inhabit

Posted on by Shirl Buss, PhD.

I am an urban designer and educator.  One of the most joyful things I do is facilitate architecture and urban planning studios for elementary school children in public schools through Youth in Arts and UC Berkeley’s Y-PLAN. Like many adults today, I am asking myself how—in my professional role—can I positively contribute to the #MeToo movement for and with the children in my life? How might I, when I work with young people, respond proactively to the gender inequities and injustices that we are witnessing every day?  How can I help both boys and girls express their own power, free from the…

School Facilities Belong in the Nation’s Infrastructure Portfolio

Posted on by Mary Filardo and Jeff Vincent

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recently issued its 2017 report card rating 16 different categories of infrastructure. ASCE includes public school facilities in their infrastructure rating—grading them a D+. However, state and federal plans to rebuild and modernize America’s infrastructure, often omit schools from our nation’s infrastructure portfolio.     Public school buildings and grounds need to be fully included in state and federal planning and funding for the nation’s infrastructure.    First, just like other major water, transit, or port infrastructure, school facilities projects require long range planning and forecasting to ensure efficient use of land and other…

School facilities and student physical activity

Posted on by Hannah Thompson, PhD

National experts recommend that, for optimal health, youth get at least 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) a day - which is the kind of movement that gets you sweating and breathing harder. However, youth are far from meeting this recommendation. And, unfortunately, significant disparities exist by age, sex, race/ethnicity, and income. The Institute of Medicine has, logically, identified the school setting as an ideal venue for increasing access to physical activity among diverse youth. Image Credit: Hannah Thompson However, many obstacles get in the way of students getting MVPA at school. We know that with limited funding, resources,…

Tardiness and Poor School Facility Conditions are Interconnected

Posted on by Amanda Eppley, CC+S

The California Department of Education’s new California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS) provides loads of insight for state and local leaders into what makes for healthy school environments…and what doesn’t. A perpetually overlooked aspect of school health and overall school climate is the condition of a school’s facilities and grounds. Here at the Center for Cities + Schools, we’ve looked at this issue in a number of studies  – and we have found alarming patterns of underinvestment in California’s K-12 facilities , which raise serious questions about whether or not children are attending school facilities that are healthy, safe, in good repair,…

Detroit Students Promote the Campaign for Healthy Schools

Posted on by Shirl Buss

The Center for Cities + Schools in collaboration with Wayne State University’s Volunteers, Administrators and Coaches (VAC) have been implementing Y-PLAN Initiatives over the past nine years.  For the past two years students have been engaged in a multi-year effort to promote healthy eating and active living in the schools, housing developments, and neighborhoods in the urban core of Detroit.   As part of this effort, the children ages 4-14 at Brewster Homes and Parkside Village, created posters as a public awareness campaign to increase healthy behavior and healthier school environments.   Students, like young illustrator Martez Vance (pictured here), worked…


Posted on by Anne Robertson

By BROCK HICKS   The number—and the proportion—of students enrolled in public charter schools (independently run public schools) is increasing nationwide, particularly in urban school districts. The public policy debate in education on the pros and cons of charter schools remains tenuous and divided. Market-oriented educational reformers favor charter schools as the answer to the problems in urban public school systems; public and private funds available for constructing and running charter schools continue to increase. However, charter schools have many critics. For example, in 2016 the NAACP and the Black Lives Matter Movement passed resolutions critical of charter schools and…

City – School Partnerships A Natural Home for Health Equity:

Posted on by Cailin

Y-PLAN Richmond and the Shift Towards Health in All Classrooms As featured on the Build Healthy Places Network blog.  August 30, 2016 | Deborah L. McKoy and Megan Calpin In 2015, sixty students peered out at a local landfill as a community elder and environmental justice activist spoke about the persistent health problems caused by the city’s industrial heritage. The students are in their local high school’s health academy, and are beginning to ponder the future health and sustainability of their community. Richmond stands at a crossroads of an environmental justice and health equity movement. The land beneath their feet…

Strengthening Health Career Pipeline Diversity in Sacramento

Posted on by Diana and Lilian

As graduate students in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, we’re surrounded every day by our colleagues - members of a new wave of health workforce.  Training this new wave of individuals has never been more important; it is projected that, in order to meet increased demand due to the aging and growing population, as well as retiring workforce, California’s health care system will need almost 500,000 additional workers by 2020. There is not only a need for additional, trained health workforce members, but also a need to ensure that this new workforce is racially/ethnically representative of the larger population.…

Join us for the Y-PLAN Japan 5th anniversary celebration!

Posted on by Marceline Graham

Y-PLAN Japan was launched with the TOMODACHI Softbank Youth Leadership Program at UC Berkeley in 2012. The TOMODACHI program seeks to build U.S. Japanese relations and offer relief to residents of Japan directly affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami in 2011. To date, 700 students from Japan’s Tohoku region have participated in this exciting program committed to revitalizing their home communities. Join us on August 7th at Andersen Auditorium, UC Berkeley, to celebrate 5 years of Y-PLAN Japan and youth action for change!  Register here This evening celebration welcomes past participants, partners, host families, and others seeking to: Learn about TOMODACHI youth accomplishments since…