Easing Future Segregation In Harrisonburg Area Schools

Jan 28, 2021

On online screenshot of last November's report from the Commonwealth Institute.
Credit Commonwealth Institute

The effort to fight racial segregation in schools will continue into the future.  What are local officials doing to address the problem?  WMRA’s Bridget Manley has this follow-up report.

[A teacher conducts an online class]

Even as most students are still studying virtually this year, school officials continue to look at ways they can decrease segregation in their school systems and provide opportunities for every student, both virtually and after students return to the buildings. 

Schools in Harrisonburg are relatively integrated, thanks to a series of zoning laws that inadvertently led to citywide housing changes.

Credit Deb Fitzgerald

DEB FITZGERALD: For Harrisonburg, especially over the last twenty years, the biggest impact on who lives where, the issue of affordable housing and all the rest, has come from the impact of student housing that’s been repurposed into housing for lower income families.

Deb Fitzgerald is a member of the Harrisonburg City School Board. She says that in the mid-2000’s, the city of Harrisonburg changed zoning laws to stop the spread of quick housing for students at James Madison University, requiring builders to obtain a special use permit.

But the city provided a three year window before that would take effect, and builders scrambled to take advantage. A student housing boom - around three thousand new “beds” - in the following years made older housing undesirable to students who saw newer, flashier apartments.

FITZGERALD: A lot of it was repurposed for young families, many of them - at that point in time, many of them refugee families, some of them immigrant families, some of them just young families, right? You wouldn’t necessarily want families to be raising kids in repurposed student housing, but it - that’s the way the market and the drivers and the incentives and the effects of all of this change in the rules -that’s the way it played out.

As a result, city schools saw increases “across the board” at all schools, because most former JMU student housing was spread across the city.

In Harrisonburg, most schools have similar ratios of black and white students, but there are some variations.  Waterman Elementary School has the lowest share of Black students, with only 4%, while Stone Spring Elementary School has the highest share of Black students - 13.9%.  For comparison, Black residents make up about nine percent of the city's population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Michael Richards is superintendent for Harrisonburg City Public Schools.
Credit HCPS

MICHAEL RICHARDS: Our schools are very evenly distributed in terms of demographics.

Michael Richards is the Superintendent of Harrisonburg City Schools. He says he's been fighting segregation inside schools during his career.

RICHARDS: When you dig deeper into segregation in schools, you come to these more subtle areas of concern. And so, one of those, for example, has to do with what I might call “program segregation.” So, what you really want to see is that your numbers in terms of advanced academics and gifted education, for example, also match your demographics.

It’s a problem many schools systems are facing across the county, and Richards says it’s an action item they have built into their strategic plan.

RICHARDS: We need to do a lot more in terms of ensuring that our advanced academic programs, our gifted programs, and so forth have demographic representation that matches our community.

Oskar Scheikl is the Superintendent for Rockingham County Public Schools.  He says that a diverse teaching force is also essential for integrating schools. 

OSKAR SCHEIKL: So we, as an institution, you know, we can make efforts to maybe have a more diverse workforce, you know, that’s what we sometimes talk about. How can we get a teaching force that reflects the community? And again, of course that’s very different in the city than compared to the county.

Oskar Scheikl
Credit Christopher Clymer Kurtz

But what about the new, second high school in the city, with construction currently halted due to the pandemic? According to Richards, the new high school will have a S.T.E.M. focus, while the current high school will have a fine arts focus.

RICHARDS: And so, what we decided to do, because of the issue of potential segregation - the haves and have nots - we decided to share the two schools. And so, any student would be able to avail him-or-herself of the facilities at either of the schools.