Local Officials Push Back On Report Of Segregated Schools

Jan 27, 2021

Graph of Black-White Segregation in Virginia, from The Commonwealth Institutes website.
Credit Commonwealth Institute

According to two studies released last November, school segregation is getting worse across Virginia, and in particular in the Harrisonburg area.  But local officials say it’s more complicated.  In part one of a two part report, WMRA’s Bridget Manley digs into the specifics of the studies.

The two studies - one by the The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, the other by Virginia Commonwealth University - both show deepening racial segregation in schools across the state, and both listed Harrisonburg as one of the most highly segregated in Virginia.

But local school authorities say the studies - particularly the one written by The Commonwealth Institute - combine county and city data, and don’t consider geographical and cultural differences that are unique to our area.

Kathy Mendes is a policy analyst for The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis.
Credit Commonwealth Institute

Researchers with The Commonwealth Institute say they intentionally combined school districts, because their research indicates school segregation in Virginia is largely occurring across school district lines.

KATHY MENDES: So, in the report, we compare schools in the metro area, in Harrisonburg city, to the larger metropolitan area, which includes Rockingham County.

Kathy Mendes is a policy analyst at The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis.

MENDES: So, just looking at Harrisonburg a little more closely, the share of students in Harrisonburg city who are Black is around 11%. By comparing that to the metro wide share of students that are Black, is 5%. So they are overrepresented in Harrisonburg City.

Deb Fitzgerald is a member of the Harrisonburg City School Board.

DEB FITZGERALD:  I think its one of those great examples where you aggregate data so much - in this case they aggregated it by adding two localities together that are super different together - and then putting a label on it, and drawing conclusions about it that turned out to be… I wouldn’t say wrong, because if you look at the metropolitan statistical area as they defined it, it is pretty segregated.  You know, parts of the county look really different than parts of the city.

Deb Fitzgerald is a member of the Harrisonburg City School Board.
Credit Deb Fitzgerald

Those differences are reflected in the distribution of populations and cultures that highlight why the study can be misleading.  For instance, Harrisonburg is an official refugee resettlement community under the Church World Service. Meanwhile, much of Rockingham County is zoned for agricultural use. Both make the Harrisonburg metro area wildly different than other areas around the state. 

Mendes said that their study outlined ways that neighboring urban and rural school districts can work together to address decades of official segregation policy.

MENDES: So the first is race-conscious, voluntary, local and regional integration policies that prioritize equity and diverse learning environments. And the regional piece of that is really key, because we have these relationships between localities that can be hard to negotiate, right? So, that can look like regional magnet schools, managed choice programs, and and/or local redistricting of school attendance boundaries.

Fitzgerald says that there are a lot more factors to consider now when proposing consolidation of systems.

FITZGERALD: There is a whole bunch of back policy and regulations that determines how much money we get from our local funding authority, how much money we get from the state, how much money we get from the federal government, and that depends on who gets enrolled where. So the level of complexity that you would introduce if you would, say, deliberately try to combine the school systems in some way, for the goal of making the systems be more desegregated…I don’t even know how you’d start there.

Oskar Scheikl, in this pre-pandemic activity photo, is superintendent for the Rockingham County School System.
Credit Oskar Scheikl

OSKAR SCHEIKL: What I wonder is whether an integration of school districts, if the entire government structure isn’t integrated, would even make any difference.

Oskar Scheikl is the Superintendent for the Rockingham County Public School System. He says that the sheer distance between county and city high schools make it unlikely that students would go that far every day to school.

SCHEIKL: If you then had to decide where each student should attend, I’m not sure that East Rockingham, for example, out in Elkton would have any additional integration because you’d have to, you know, send kids all the way from the city to that high school, which would be a bus ride that’s way longer than what students would have, that might even be able to walk to school right now, because they are much closer. So, I think it’s a tricky proposition.

In tomorrow's follow-up report, we'll take a look at how addressing the problem of affordable housing helped Harrisonburg helped integrate schools as a result.  And we'll also explore how the city and county are addressing student diversity now, and future plans as Harrisonburg builds a second high school