In RISD's latest edition of "School Times", RISD spells out several reasons for reconfiguring schools, with the existing junior high buildings being home to grades 6-8 in what will be called middle schools.
- New state requirements adding Pre-K classes will stress the capacity of our existing elementary school buildings.
- The junior high buildings were originally built for three grades (7-9) so capacity issues will be less in those buildings than adding Pre-K to the elementary school buildings.
- The state curriculum (TEKS) is bundled in grades K-5 and 6-8, so physically organizing our schools the same way makes it easier to meet state mandated curriculum.
- Opportunities for sixth graders to participate in athletics and fine arts is greater in the junior highs than in the elementary programs.
Those are the advantages RISD says moving sixth graders into true middle schools would bring to RISD. There is one advantage that RISD doesn't mention that I think is important. It's an issue that few people want to talk about. It's controversial. It's complicated. It's messy. It's the elephant in the room in all issues dealing with education, housing, poverty, and public safety. It's racial segregation.
It may not be a fit matter for polite conversation anymore, but the RISD was under court order from 1970 until 2013 that imposed judicial supervision on various district operations to ensure that the district operated in a non-discriminatory manner. "The Wheel" covered the story about the time the court order was lifted.
The district celebrated at the time, but it seemed to me the celebration was premature. The order was lifted not because integration had been achieved, but because the segregation that remained was not due to how the RISD operated, but due to larger societal forces beyond the control of the RISD.
Everyone is in favor of the concept of neighborhood schools. The consequence of this is that if the neighborhoods are segregated, neighborhood schools will be, too. You can see the result in the racial/ethnic makeup of RISD's schools. The most segregated schools are those neighborhood elementary schools. The least segregated schools are RISD's four high schools, all four of which have an admirable diversity of enrollment.
Forced busing of children to achieve integration is a non-starter. Redrawing district boundaries to reduce segregation is almost equally unpopular. Magnet schools are the tool of choice today. Magnet schools draw families willingly rather than force them to attend certain schools. But because magnet school enrollment is voluntary, achieving racial/ethnic/socio-economic diversity is tricky. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some families of higher socio-economic status are using the magnet schools (e.g., MST, Arapaho Classical) to escape neighborhood schools with lower socio-economic attendance (e.g., Dover, Richardson Heights). If this behavior is real and widespread, RISD might be causing the decline of neighborhood schools in the name of fostering diversity.
That brings me to a little-discussed benefit of moving the sixth graders up to middle schools. Moving an entire grade out of our (more segregated) elementary schools into our (less segregated) middle schools achieves the goal of (slightly) more integration without busing, without redrawing of attendance boundaries, without any of the flashpoints that often prevent progress in breaking down our legacy of racism. There, I said it, at the risk of mucking everything up.
There's a grade configuration committee made up of 40 RISD stakeholders studying this issue. Like I said, I expect them to recommend moving sixth graders up to middle school. If they don't read this blog article, that is.