Seven Lessons Learned from a First-of-Its-Kind School Integration Initiative


Happy diverse group of college students sitting outside

Nearly 70 years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court, opportunity remains segregated in America. While the K-12 public school student population grows more diverse, many schools remain divided along racial, ethnic, and economic lines, according to a 2022 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The Bridges Collaborative, a first-of-its-kind school initiative of The Century Foundation, aims to change that. Since 2020, more than 60 schools and districts, charter schools and charter management organizations, and housing organizations have been working to desegregate and integrate schools. An interdisciplinary team of AIR researchers and experts is studying this initiative-in-progress for insights. They are conducting a continuous improvement study and developing member profiles, an indicators report, evidence-based resources, and a dynamic, interactive map. This work is supported by the AIR Equity Initiative, a $105 million investment by AIR to address segregation and inequity by race and place.

AIR’s Megan Sambolt, principal researcher, and Crystal London, researcher, shared seven lessons AIR has learned from the Bridges Collaborative initiative so far.

Desegregation alone does not automatically provide equitable learning opportunities and environments for all students. That requires integration, which means that policies, practices, staffing, and funding are aligned toward providing all students with a high-quality education in diverse classrooms.

  1. Many communities with rich histories of success in desegregating their schools are facing new challenges. One key reason? Gentrification. Over time, more affluent people have become attracted to these neighborhoods. When lower-income families and families of color are priced out of affordable housing, neighborhoods become less diverse. This makes it harder for schools to draw students from both high- and low-opportunity communities.
  1. There’s a difference between desegregation and integration. Desegregation simply ends the unlawful practice of segregating schools by race. But many schools that are “desegregated” on paper are, in essence, two schools within a school. Schooling experiences are totally different for students of color and white students.

    Desegregation alone does not automatically provide equitable learning opportunities and environments for all students. That requires integration, which means that policies, practices, staffing, and funding are aligned toward providing all students with a high-quality education in diverse classrooms. 
  1. Socioeconomic disparities often drive schools’ desegregation efforts. Race isn’t the only differentiating factor for schools interested in advancing equitable opportunities and outcomes. Socioeconomic status, including family income, educational attainment, employment, and geographic location, matters as well. Without taking these factors into account, schools can be racially integrated, but socioeconomically homogeneous.
What the Research Tells Us

The research is clear that school integration is one of the most effective ways to tackle the achievement or opportunity gap. In studies of schools under court orders to desegregate, the achievement gap disappeared, particularly the longer students are in integrated schools. Integration is good for all students.

“Recent findings from longitudinal studies of adults who were educated in integrated schools show that the academic and social-emotional benefits of diverse schools are lasting. This has been a new impetus to integrate schools. Many school districts believe they are not doing enough when it comes to equity.”

—Megan Sambolt
  1. Residential and school segregation are inextricably linked. The Bridges Collaborative has the unique goal of building bridges with leaders of education and housing organizations, who often struggle to engage with one another. This unusual opportunity to collaborate is spurring interest among the participating leaders in expanding engagement with other partners, such as children and youth services agencies and real estate developers. (Watch this short video on the history of school segregation and AIR’s theory of change on integration that reflects systems-level connections between schools and housing.)
  1. There are valid and reliable indicators to assess desegregation and integration. Using publicly available data, AIR has developed an interactive map (coming soon) that captures important contextual and demographic characteristics in the states, districts, schools, and communities where the Bridges Collaborative is working. This map shows differences across the collaborative for a variety of indicators, including:
  • Attendance and chronic absenteeism;
  • School leadership and staffing;
  • Course-taking patterns;
  • Advanced Placement enrollment;
  • Referrals to gifted and talented programs; and
  • Exclusionary discipline practices.

The interactive map also features a dissimilarity index, a demographic measure of desegregation that compares racial representation across districts and schools. In the future, the map will include indicators of desegregation and integration from the housing organizations participating in the Bridges Collaborative.

  1. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to integration. Charter management organizations and charter schools participating in the Bridges Collaborative are the most similar in their integration efforts. Almost all of them take a “diverse by design” approach, using lotteries to attract students and allotting a percentage of spots based on racial and socioeconomic factors. Some school districts take a similar approach when they open specialized or magnet schools in communities that have not been well served. These schools often combine targeted enrollment with educational models that have wide appeal to create new, desegrated schools.
Effects of Exclusionary Discipline

A recent AIR study found that more severe suspensions have negative effects on academic outcomes, attendance, and future behavior. AIR’s research for the Bridges Collaborative shows that Black students are disproportionately disciplined.

“Exclusionary discipline that removes students from the classroom can result in temporal segregation effects, especially at the rates we’re seeing for Black students.”

—Crystal London

In the 2017-18 school year, Black students constituted about 15 percent of total enrollment in U.S. public schooling, but they accounted for more than 31 percent of in-school suspensions, almost 33 percent of out-of-school suspensions, and 37 percent of expulsions, according to the Civil Rights Data Collection. Black students also accounted for almost 42 percent of school days missed due to out-of-school suspension.

For the same year, this phenomenon of disproportionality did not occur for White, Hispanic, or Indigenous groups of students. Furthermore, for Black students, disproportions in total enrollment and exclusionary discipline representation are unchanged for previous data collection years, dating back to 2000.
  1. Integration largely occurs school by school, not districtwide—and progress can be fleeting. Few districts are attempting to integrate all their schools. Those that are trying face steep obstacles. For example, districts with largely homogeneous student populations find it difficult to diversify their schools. Some districts also have experienced major setbacks in their integration efforts, due to leadership changes and politics.
Megan Sambolt
Principal Researcher