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Today Carly Sitrin of Politico has an article about the South Orange-Maplewood district’s transportation mess, with angry parents crowding school board meetings to complain that their long-held busing option has been suddenly taken away without warning or consultation.
Sitrin’s article is behind a paywall. Here are the highlights:
- The “progressive bastions” of South Orange and Maplewood (SOMA) have worked for years to integrate schools, particularly Seth Boyden Elementary School, which disproportionately serves Black children. But a tweak to the algorithm that determines school assignment and a decision to no longer bus children who live less than two miles from school “threatens to hamstring the initiative, alienate parents and potentially impact the program’s success.”
- While the change only affects 126 children, “it has ignited distrust between some parents and school leaders who say they support integration but feel that denying children reliable and safe transportation will likely increase the burden on low-income families that lack access to a car or other ways to get their kids to school.”
- Parent Meghan Mortenson said “because her son and younger daughter will be attending a school that’s 1.9 miles from their home and because the school’s before- and after-care programs are full,” she has to stop working at her teaching job in order to transport her children. “If you’re going to take your child out of their neighborhood school, then how are you not going to help them get to the school that you’re putting them in?,” she said.
- Some in the SOMA community aspire to be role models for the nation in their desegregation quest. “We are a community that has committed to progressive values of racial equity and integration for 25-plus years in a sea of racially isolated communities,” said Nancy Gagnier, executive director of the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race. “If we can’t do it, if we can’t prove that it can be done and be a model, it’s a problem for the rest of the country.”
- Previous integration attempts in SOMA, said Nichole Nelson, a graduate of Yale University’s doctoral program in history who researched integration efforts in South Orange and Maplewood, “were focused more on … moving Black people to white neighborhoods, instead of reinvesting in Black neighborhoods.” This method, she says, rests on white Americans’ comfort level and hasn’t helped the Black community.
- Michael Alves, “a giant in the world of school desegregation efforts,” designed the new algorithm, which emphasizes income levels and removes parent choice from school assignments. (It does factor in distance from a school, race, and any siblings already attending other schools in the district.) Superintendent Ronald Taylor says “parental choice does introduce some self-segregation” so the only way to restrict that segregation is by eliminating parent choice. “We want our families to be happy, but at the same time we cannot offer even a single exception, because that would be inequitable and against the policy of the board and also against the spirit of intentional integration,” he said.
- “The algorithm is not flawless. According to the one-year review, wealthier students were more likely to attend their neighborhood schools than poorer students who were more likely to be assigned to schools outside of their neighborhood.” Also, low-income Black students were traveling the longest distance to schools, an average of 1.3 miles.
- Everyone was delighted with the program until July 5th when some parents learned their children would no longer be eligible for courtesy busing (when a district provides transportation for K-8 students living less than 2 miles from school and 9-12 students living more than 2.5 miles from school). Here’s Taylor: “But hearing from parents who said they feel were blindsided by the decision and burdened by the loss of busing has the school board ‘researching,’ whether to bring it back.” Also, notes Sitrin, “how the district and parents respond to the busing change will be pivotal. Angry parents venting in Facebook groups, packing school board meetings and authoring op-eds could drive how the rest of the country views South Orange-Maplewood’s integration program.”
- “This is a community that has really been so dedicated to this. We’re not perfect at it. And change has been slow and for many people it didn’t happen for them,” Gagnier said. “But we’re not giving up.”