Cities across the country are grappling with persistent school segregation. While some argue that public school choice increases the problem, there are ways that cities can use carefully designed school choice initiatives as a vehicle for integrating schools.
One promising example is in San Antonio, Texas. San Antonio Independent School District’s (SAISD) chief innovation officer, Mohammed Choudhury, is using a growing network of in-district charter schools and magnet programs to intentionally diversify the city’s notoriously segregated public schools. SAISD is one of fourteen districts within San Antonio city limits, many of which serve higher-income areas. This governance structure can exacerbate the problem; families with means can easily opt in to more affluent districts and schools. Currently, SAISD’s student body is 90 percent economically disadvantaged. And research shows that concentrated poverty in school is linked to gaps in academic achievement.
When Choudhury joined SAISD in April 2017, creating socioeconomically diverse and integrated schools was a key goal. He had previously worked in Dallas ISD, which has a budding integration program. Choudhury is also is a product of Los Angeles Unified, which he says “knocks it out of the park” in terms of fulfilling the original promise of its magnet schools. We recently talked with Choudhury to learn more about San Antonio’s approach to desegregation. Note: this interview has been condensed and edited.
What do you hope to achieve with “controlled choice” in San Antonio ISD?
While we continue to figure out how to do high-poverty schools well at scale, we also need to stop recreating them. You can see from how other cities’ school choice systems played out, especially with specialized schools, that choice will exacerbate segregation if it’s unregulated. If you don’t put in smart guardrails, you’ll just create and maintain “islands of affluence.”
A few new specialized schools had already launched before my office was started, and you could see the patterns: popular programs were beginning to skew toward enrolling majority affluent and/or white students. Coming in, I was entrusted with revamping our school choice efforts and with ensuring that the process was equitable. While we expand the notion of best-fit schools for every child, we’re going to ensure that some of these school models are diverse by design.
How did you choose this approach?
As part of launching the Dallas ISD Office of Transformation and Innovation, my team created brand new open-enrollment schools and designated some as socioeconomically diverse pilots. These schools were very successful and became popular there. So I came to San Antonio knowing I was going to replicate that work here.
San Antonio is very segregated. This is not healthy for a variety of reasons. There is also a growing demand for specialized schools as the city’s urban core redevelops. When you look at the growing range of families moving into the city, one serious question we have asked ourselves is whether middle-class families will opt into SAISD schools at the expense of historically disadvantaged students, especially since trends have revealed that they are not willing to enroll en masse into high-poverty neighborhood schools.
We are working to disrupt this reality, but that will take time. What I know to be true, however, is that middle-class families are willing to opt into a blank canvas, a new school. But we are trying to do this carefully, so these schools aren’t just for middle-class families in the way it has played out in many other cities.
How do you select the schools that would be good candidates for a diversity by design model?
Good candidates for school models with a “50/50” student selection process are usually schools where the location is not tied to a strong community base that wants a neighborhood preference exclusively. This might also be a place without a lot of housing stock, or lots of rentals, or is in the urban core, downtown; a place where people across the street won’t be angry if they don’t have a neighborhood preference. This works well for a school that is new or reopened, so the diversity by design aspect is a key component of the school.
The “priority radii” approach, or what we describe as schools with “better and smarter” attendance zones, works well when we don’t want the local families to miss out on the opportunity across the street. For example, we may set a 2.5-mile radius preference to capture students living in public housing and in million-dollar homes.
But both types are designed with the explicit goal to ensure that the school is socioeconomically diverse.
How do you make sure it will work?
If you’re going to pursue controlled choice, then I would argue that three major conditions need to be in place.
First is the location and instructional model for a campus. Find locations where you can specifically pull in both middle-class and historically disadvantaged families. For example, siting schools near the city center of San Antonio enables us to better attract a broader range of families. Campuses located within the most economically segregated areas of our city have a more difficult time fulfilling a diversity by design school model. Unfortunately, one of the reasons for this is that families can succumb to false stereotypes and perceptions about schools within high-poverty communities.
The instructional model matters immensely. In San Antonio, families are attracted to advanced learning and inquiry-based learning, Dual Language programs, and the Montessori school model.
Second, you have to design for it. Whether you leverage a “50/50” enrollment model, “priority radii” approach, and/or another assignment system, you have to control for it, because, on its own, a “free market” approach will exacerbate segregation and inequities.
Finally, it is crucial to prioritize transportation to the greatest extent possible. Choice isn’t choice without transportation, especially for families who are economically disadvantaged.
How do you make sure that schools hit their enrollment targets?
One thing to keep in mind with controlled choice efforts is that the regulations and processes must live with the administration. We have learned lots of lessons, and you need to have a thoughtful, intentional plan in place. For example, you should develop rules of prioritization, or “backup rules,” tied to specific timelines that trigger automatic enrollment for waitlisted students when enrollment targets aren’t met. At a certain point in the enrollment period, we won’t hold seats anymore because we need to ensure that the campus is fully enrolled.
So with all of that, the marketing and community engagement must both be an “air and ground” effort to reach our families. Thinking and working like an organizer is a big deal to me. You have to win hearts and minds, and make sure that the enrollment process is easy for families living on the Eastside and Westside [the most economically disadvantaged areas of San Antonio]. If my team does marketing and engagement well, it should be an empowering process no matter where you live in the city. Whether you live in the Westside or in an affluent census block in the North, we should see enough students enrolled from all socioeconomic “blocks” in our choice schools and programs.
How do you make sure this isn’t just an exercise in meeting quotas?
Don’t do this work if you are not going to make integration front and center. The real work starts after the bell rings. For the educators who are involved in our diversity by design efforts, this is not something that they shy away from. As we chose these schools, we made sure that the school leaders and educators were on board—it’s on their shoulders to not only have amazing academic programs, but integrated programs.
For any school participating in this work, the staff have to be very intentional about how they group kids and not create tracking wings or build separate programs for middle-class kids. Every detail matters. For example, voices and decisions of the PTAs must reflect the full diversity of the campus. At the central level, you must develop systems to ensure that diversity by design schools intentionally foster a climate that values student differences in order to truly unlock the promise of socioeconomically diverse schools. In SAISD, we have performance agreements in these schools that call out and assess how well campuses are narrowing achievement gaps. We are also piloting social and emotional learning surveys for students at those campuses.
What would you say to leaders in other cities who want to get started?
Just start with one school. When launching a brand new open-enrollment school, you can design for it on the front end.
Start with your existing choice programs: What do they look like currently? Are you letting the free market decide, or do you have equitable guardrails in place that prioritize students from different backgrounds, especially your most historically disadvantaged communities?
When engaging with the community, show the numbers, show them what has happened. Show the trends and why it’s a problem. Highlight the research regarding the benefits of diverse schools. Explain that you want to make sure a new school isn’t just Montessori, for example, but will also be socioeconomically diverse and integrated—and why that matters.
Engage on the front end, but don’t drag it out. At the end of the day, as a leader, you either believe in it or you don’t. Undoing segregated attendance zones is a whole other battle that is not going to be solved overnight. But with new open-enrollment school models and redesigned school choice initiatives, why not? You run them. What’s keeping you from doing it? You can just do it.
While socioeconomic and racial segregation persists, neighborhood-based school assignment can continue to compound the problem. Carefully designed school choice programs offer one path forward to reduce racially and economically isolated schools and provide all students, regardless of background, the opportunity to thrive in an environment that is the right fit for them.
This work is being done by districts, charter management organizations, and single charter operators all across the country. And, like Choudhury points out, it can start with just one school.