(Part II) Can Schools in Gentrifying Neighborhoods Become More Diverse, Too?

This piece was written by Kyle Spencer and produced by the Hechinger Report where it was originally published. It is reproduced here with permission. Click here for Part I, which chronicles the efforts of organizations in San Francisco, CA to come up with a cooperative approach between cities in the midst of gentrification and school districts in less gentrified communities.

School board member Shamann Walton says these projects are also an opportunity to invest in schools that are often neglected. “We want to make sure our schools grow and get better with these new developments,” he said, noting that the city is working to integrate schools in other redeveloping communities as well.

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As part of that broader effort, the school district has introduced Mandarin-immersion programs and strong science departments , features that are popular with middle class families, at schools in and around the transforming Bayview neighborhood. Among these schools is the STEM-focused Willie L. Brown Jr. Middle School, which will open this fall. School officials have tried to encourage middle class parents to enroll their children at Willie L. Brown by guaranteeing them a slot – a sort of “golden ticket” – into their high school of choice if they attend the school. It’s a big sell in a school district with a highly competitive high school entrance process.

Malcolm X is also getting attention from the school district. It got a boost a few years ago when it was placed on a list of schools in need of intensive support. That allowed the district to pump money and resources in, adding a full-time literacy coach and a district facilitator to keep track of how students are doing and what strategies are working to keep them on target.

In turn, the school hired a new principal and got grant money to purchase new iPads for each classroom. It retooled its reading program to be more appealing to both reluctant and voracious readers and to better serve students at all reading levels. The new system includes book bins inside each classroom, allowing students to choose what they want to read, rather than an all-class system, in which everyone reads the same book.

School officials also tried to create a sense of community by instituting features common in upper middle class schools such as game nights, science nights and movie nights. The school added a robotics program, a garden in the schoolyard and, this year, fourth and fifth graders spent months designing an expansive outdoor classroom.

Working with the National Organization of Minority Architects and the Center for Cities and Schools, students spent months determining the décor for the outdoor classroom, building planting beds, walkways and walls.

On a recent morning this past spring, the school’s revitalization efforts were on display. Inside their classroom, 10 fourth graders were musing over the ideas they had come up with for a playhouse that will accompany the outdoor classroom. Some wanted the playhouse to be decorated with large geometric shapes. Others thought it should include thick, painted plywood flowers. There was talk of a superhero theme, and a discussion of flooring options.

Buss, with the Center for Cities and Schools, stood by a cardboard panel that incorporated all of the student’s ideas. As they waited to vote, they were given one last chance to promote their ideas.

“Do you want to talk about your idea?” Buss asked a boy sitting at a table near the front of the room. “You’re lobbying for it. Talk it up.”

The boy mumbled something nearly inaudible. And Buss went on to the next student, who wanted to incorporate several themes into one playhouse, a collaborative idea that had been bantered about earlier in the day.

“If we do that, we can have a floor,” the girl, Genesis Martinez said. “And we can put the flowers on the floor.”

(Continued on next page)

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