America’s approach to racial integration of schools can be divided into roughly three periods: hostility, embrace, and finally, indifference.
The period of embrace came in the late 1960s, more than a decade after Brown v. Board of Education declared school segregation unconstitutional. Pressured by civil rights groups and empowered with new laws, the federal government began demanding school desegregation through executive action and court mandates. This worked to integrate schools, especially in the South, and improved the education of Black students.
But this period was fleeting. By 1974, a narrowly divided U.S. Supreme Court limited courts’ ability to order integration across school district lines, which assured stratified schools in metropolitan areas, like Detroit, with a predominantly Black city surrounded by whiter suburbs.
Not surprisingly, then, there remains a substantial degree of segregation across schools.
But what if the country had never given up on the goal of integrated schooling?
“Dream Town,” a new book by Washington Post education reporter Laura Meckler offers something of an answer, almost an alternate history. The book tells the story of Shaker Heights, Ohio, a town of roughly 30,000 outside of Cleveland. The schools there are unusual because officials voluntarily adopted a busing program in the 1970s to ensure racial balance across schools. Ever since, schools there have maintained a mix of Black and white students, as well as those from both low- and high-income families.
Meckler, who herself grew up and attended schools in Shaker Heights, asks what happens to a community that never gave up on integration. Her answer offers a tantalizing window into what might have been if the country as a whole had taken the same approach.
But contrary to the book’s title — which Meckler says is aspirational — the answer speaks to both the power of school integration and its limits.
The schools have had long-standing test score gaps between Black and white students. Throughout the district’s history, this fact has been a source of attention and frustration. It’s also contributed to classroom-level segregation, with fewer Black students in advanced courses.
More recently, Meckler reports, Shaker Heights has undertaken a number of efforts in the name of racial equity. Most significantly, it de-tracked advanced courses through ninth grade — in a bid to racially integrate the schools on the inside and not just the outside. Meckler documents the benefits and challenges from this move.
Chalkbeat spoke to Meckler over Zoom about the lessons from the Shaker Heights’ experience and her own takeaways from the book. “Is this a story about people who tried and failed because there is this yawning achievement gap? Or is this a story of something more optimistic and more hopeful?” she asks rhetorically at one point.
The interview had been edited for length and clarity.
What makes Shaker Heights schools worth writing a book about?
For decades, Shaker schools have been held up as an example of the success of school integration. This is a place that voluntarily bused students starting in the 1970s, absent a court order, absent really any external pressure, and has maintained that commitment ever since. So it’s worth asking how that has gone.
Why did Shaker Heights voluntarily integrate its schools in the seventies? And how did it go about doing so?
One person gets the lion’s share of the credit: the superintendent, Jack Lawson, who arrived in the mid-1960s. At first, the two junior highs were out of balance racially and then more significantly there was one elementary school that was overwhelmingly Black.
This was in the context of a conversation around school integration happening all over the country, the civil rights movement happening around the country. He decided this was the right thing to do. What followed was a community embrace of the plan and that was, in some ways, the even more remarkable thing.
His original idea was to essentially distribute the students who were at this predominantly Black school to the majority of white schools. The Black parents were not particularly happy about that. But what really got the plan changed was white parents who said, “This doesn’t seem right. This should be a two-way busing plan.” They volunteered to bus their own kids into the predominantly Black school. That ultimately changed the plan into a two-way busing plan.
How has Shaker’s approach to integration changed since then?
This program was popular in the beginning and then it started losing some of its luster and the numbers were going down. The district really worked hard to try to get volunteers into this program.
The time when it really changed was in 1987 when there was a conversation about facilities. They didn’t need nine elementary schools anymore. They ended up closing four of them and in the process redrawing the boundaries so that all of the schools were racially balanced and it was no longer dependent on volunteers. You went to the school that you were assigned to and some kids of both races were bused in order to make that happen.
This was again done voluntarily. But there was nervousness on the part of school leaders about whether they might be pressured into doing it. Even though they have this voluntary magnet program, many of the elementary schools were still out of balance. There was pressure from the state of Ohio to try to get schools better integrated. And there was a big court case unfolding right next door in the city of Cleveland, which ended with mandatory busing. There was nervousness that Shaker Heights would be pulled into the Cleveland case. They felt like they needed to do a better job with their own community in part to forestall that.
Is that approach what essentially still exists today?
That is exactly what exists today.
So has the Shaker Heights school experience worked? What have been some of the successes and challenges faced by the schools?
As I was reporting and writing this book it was constantly in my mind: What is my ultimate conclusion here? Is this a story about people who tried and failed because there is this yawning achievement gap? Or is this a story of something more optimistic and more hopeful?
Where I landed was that this is a hopeful story, because while they haven’t actually solved these problems — not by a long shot — this is a community of people who are still committed to trying to do this work. That is not nothing, given the pressures that communities everywhere face.
In most of America, wealthy kids are going to school with other wealthy kids and poor kids are going to school with other poor kids. Is it a shock that you end up with school districts where you are filled with kids from families with high needs who don’t have the same kind of resources, and that they struggle?
Can you describe the challenges of classroom-level segregation in Shaker Heights?
They have had upper-level classes dominated by white students and lower-level classes dominated by Black students, which has been the case for a very, very long time.
Some of the interventions have actually backfired. For instance, one of the things they did to try to get more Black kids into upper-level classes is create an open enrollment policy. You don’t need a recommendation to get into the upper-level classes. But the result was that more white kids got into the advanced level classes. More of the white parents were like, “Okay, I’m gonna take advantage of this.”
All this is a precursor to what happened in 2020, which was a pretty remarkable step: They decided — right in the middle of the pandemic — in the summer 2020, that they were going to de-track fifth through ninth grade.
So how’d it go?
Well, it was pretty rocky, certainly at the start. A lot of teachers felt that they hadn’t been prepared.
Keep in mind this was the fall of 2020: These were rough times for schools. They started remote, and then we ended up with these horrible hybrid situations where some kids were being taught in the room and other kids were being taught online. That takes an already practically impossible teaching situation and makes it even harder.
There were complaints from high-achieving students and their parents saying that they weren’t being challenged in the same way as they were before.
The place that school officials were mostly worried about — and I think for good reason — was middle school math. Essentially, you had everybody in honors eighth-grade Algebra I, regardless of whether you had had pre-algebra, regardless of whether you had done well in your math class the year before. That’s not easy.
On the flip side, I watched several classes and I saw a few moments where you can see what this is supposed to look like and where the potential is.
One example: I was in seventh-grade math class. It was near the end of the unit and the teacher asked all the students to write down on a piece of paper, every topic they could remember covering during that unit. There was this white girl, she’s writing on and on — a whole page. She ran out of space. Next to her was this Black boy who was basically writing nothing and just sort of staring out the window. She looked over at him and said, “Wow, you haven’t written anything.” That prompted him to start writing.
That’s a small thing. But it shows that being in a room with somebody else who is more focused on the assignment, and taking it seriously, that kind of positive peer pressure — maybe that made a small bit of difference for that kid in that moment.
Has Shaker Heights maintained de-tracking?
Beyond the anecdotes, is there any data to support one way or another whether de-tracking has been successful in some measurable sense in Shaker Heights?
There is some data that is promising, and that school district officials are feeling optimistic about. Specifically, one of their key measurements is what percentage of students show competency in Algebra I in eighth grade. What they found is that the percent that are showing competency has risen both for all students and also for Black students.
I take it there has not been an external or academic evaluation of Shaker Heights attempt to de-track, right?
Do you think white students in Shaker Heights have benefited from attending racially diverse schools?
Absolutely. I think that attending racially diverse schools, and schools that are diverse in other ways as well, is beneficial for all students. It’s important for all of us to be in schools that reflect the world that we live in. By being around people who are different than we are, it helps give us different perspectives — that includes different perspectives on the academic work we’re doing in a class discussing a novel or discussing something in history. Race is such a defining factor in this country that having people who are different races is enormously beneficial just from a purely academic point of view. But beyond that, from a social point of view, there’s enormous value to being with people who are different, who help us see the world in different ways. It also prepares us to live in the diverse world that we will all be launched into eventually.
It seems like there were instances, throughout Shaker Heights’ history, where integration or de-tracking was prioritized on racial justice terms by progressive officials, without paying particular attention to what Black families said they wanted. Is that fair?
One of the problems that the school district has is they don’t always know what Black families want, because the Black families tend to be the least engaged in terms of community feedback. That’s a challenge for school districts to really engage with your community. You need relationships with your community, on the day-in, day-out basis.
Anecdotally, from some of the interviews I did with Black families, I didn’t necessarily find a great desire for de-tracking, I found much more of a desire for the schools to address issues of implicit bias and low expectations.
And, it’s worth saying, the district has been trying to address issues of implicit bias too. But turning to your own experience growing up in Shaker Heights, how did that shape how you viewed the schools and how you reported this book?
Growing up in Shaker Heights, I was all in and on message about the Shaker successes in terms of race. I felt it was a special place. I knew from a very young age that the community had been committed to integration. I knew the story of the busing plan. I was proud of being a part of a community like that. The way I viewed it was: “The rest of you out there in America, you have problems with racism, but we’ve got this figured out.” This was somewhat of a naive view. I certainly was aware of the disproportionate racial makeup of the advanced classes that I was in. I wondered why that was, but I did not have a sophisticated understanding of it.
Reporting this book allowed me to look back on that from my own personal point of view. It allowed me to realize that, even if I was sitting there in a calculus class, not understanding what the teacher was saying, and feeling like I’m not smart, that’s fundamentally different from a Black student who is feeling the same way in that class, but also has this extra layer of “Oh, and people are going think I don’t belong in this class.” I never thought for a second that I didn’t belong in the classroom. Of course, I was in the advanced class — where else would I be?
Beyond my own personal experience, coming back it was very interesting to me to see how the community shifted over the last maybe 20 years from that glow of “We’ve got this figured out, and we’re an integration pioneer” to “Hey, is this really working, and are we really delivering this racial equity that we advertised?”
What do you think the lessons for the rest of the country are from Shaker Heights?
The first lesson is that if you want to do this kind of work — if you want to try to address these issues of racial and economic diversity — it takes an enormous amount of work and commitment. This is a year-in, year-out, decade-in, decade-out commitment that you’re signing up for because I don’t know if these issues will ever be “solved.” It’s something you have to continually work at.
The second thing I would say: One of my takeaways was that a lot of this comes back to a sense of belonging, and whether we are creating spaces where students and parents really feel like it is their place, their space. I think Shaker has done some of those things and could do more along those lines. That’s not something you can initiate a program — “Let’s have a belonging program.” Maybe you can, but it’s much deeper than that. It has to do with everything you do.
Am I right to read your title, “Dream Town,” as half earnest, half ironic?
I certainly don’t mean the title to imply that this is a place that is perfect. The title for me is meant to be almost like a verb. To dream — a place that is dreaming. So it’s a little less like a slap in the face kind of thing like, “Oh, you think this is a dream town?” Obviously, everyone can interpret it as they see fit, but in my mind it’s more of an aspiration.
Matt Barnum is interim national editor, overseeing and contributing to Chalkbeat’s coverage of national education issues. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.