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Podcast: The diverse schools dilemma

Michael Petrilli is the personification of a trend that began in the ’90s. After years of so-called “white flight” from the urban core, white professionals started returning to the cities. Crime was down;  being hip in the city was up.


Once these yuppies had kids, they wanted to send their kids to local inner city schools. But alas, those local schools weren’t so great.

It was Petrilli’s own quest to find public schools in the Washington, D.C., area that were both high-quality academically and made up of diverse students that led him on a journey that recently culminated with publication of his book The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent’s Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools.

Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a former education department staffer under President George W. Bush, was in Denver this week to talk about his book. In an event sponsored by A+ Denver and a host of other ed reform groups at the Tattered Cover, Petrilli said he learned a great many lessons during his journey.


He believes that while there are pros and cons to gentrification of urban areas, the influx of new people into the urban core represents “the best opportunity in at least a generation to create integrated schools.”

However, it’s not that integrated schools naturally start to sprout. He has seen instances of white upper middle class newcomers (in some circles dubbed the “Caucasian invasion”) transforming schools, in part enticed by free pre-K options, and sending their kids there – but at the expense of lower-income minority families. Over time, a school that was once almost 100 percent students of color can become nearly all white.

“Instead of integrating, (the schools) are mostly gentrifying,” he said. “We say, ‘Yikes. That’s not what we were hoping for.”

Petrilli said it’s critical to create deliberate school designs that truly result in quality, diverse city schools.

“Shame on us if we miss this chance,” he said.

“Differentiation” a farce

The fundamental challenge for a highly diverse schools is how do educators truly meet the needs of every student? He called the strategy known as “differentiation” a farce. He said asking a teacher to meet every student’s unique learning needs represents “a huge burden” for the teacher.

Michael Petrilli

Michael Petrilli

“Kids are all over the map,” he said. “In schools that have economic diversity, the spectrum tends to be much wider.”

Grouping by ability seems to be one answer, but only if the system is flexible and students are moved up and down based on ability – not on skin color or class. He also said “blended learning,” or the creative use of technology for learning, also has a lot of potential to reach kids at different achievement levels.

Petrilli also learned that black parents often want a different type of school environment than white parents. So-called progressive white upper middle class families say they want art and music and more creative approaches to schooling. Working-class African-American families often want something more traditional and back-to-basics, with uniforms even.

“If you are trying to design a diverse school, what upper middle class parents want might be quite different than what minorities want…or what they need.”

DSST a model of integration

He held up DSST as an example of an integrated school model that is able to meet the needs of both sets of parents. It is rigid in some respects, but also gets results –  sending kids to colleges such as MIT.

“(DSST) has some trappings of a “no-excuses school,” but it attracts the upper middle class due to its academic success,” Petrilli said.

He said he also agreed with pumping money into early childhood programs for low-income students, rather than creating “middle class subsidies.”

Eliminating school boundaries

Petrilli even endorsed the idea of eliminating school boundaries all together (especially in areas just starting to gentrify) and moving entirely to a system of choice. He suggested the right mix of students could be cultivated through preferences based on achievement and socioeconomics.

“Some would call social engineering. I would argue it’s also maintaining some choice… if you want a diverse school.”

Ironically, the crowd listening to Petrilli was predominantly white, an observation made by Denver Public Schools board member Happy Haynes, who noted that if another person of color entered the room, the number of minorities in the house would increase by “100 percent.”

She asked about integration within classrooms, noting that schools that appeared integrated on the outside were “seriously segregated by classrooms.”