Commentary: At local faith-based schools, compelling models of integration

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The legal team that successfully argued "Brown v. Board (from left) George E. C. Hayes, Thurgood Marshall, and James Nabrit Jr.

By Jeffrey S. Dill

School segregation is an intractable problem in the American educational system. It is part of our nation's inheritance from slavery and centuries of racial discrimination. It leads to unequal school resources, a persistent black-white test score gap, and many other educational challenges. Research shows that integration (both racial and social class) can help reduce inequities in educational outcomes.

So why are schools still so segregated? These are undoubtedly highly complex issues, but segregated housing patterns are a key reason. Efforts to overcome segregated housing through busing or other attempts at forced integration are often met with community resistance, which, at its best, might reveal a variety of anxieties about integration and, at its worst, racism.

Most of this public conversation about integration is directed at public education, which aligns with segregated housing patterns and largely bears the burden of these racial inequities. But what about private schools? Aren't they a part of the problem because they're just for rich white kids?

In fact, not all private schools fit that stereotype, and in some cases, we might find compelling models for integration among private schools, even among religious ones. That may be an even more surprising claim because we tend to think of our religious institutions as places of significant segregation, and many religious schools in the South functioned as segregation academies in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. But that's not necessarily the case in many local religious private schools in the Philadelphia area.

Take Delaware County Christian School (DCCS), a prek-12 private, Protestant Christian school (enrollment 710) in the western suburbs. Forty percent of its student body are students of color (20 percent black, 18 percent Asian, 2 percent multiracial and Latino). That means that DCCS has greater diversity than almost all of its nearby neighboring public school districts. Marple Newtown, where DCCS is located, is 87 percent white. Nearby Haverford Township is 85 percent white, and Radnor and Lower Merion are closer to 75 percent. There are notable exceptions: Upper Darby and Norristown have no racial majority; Chichester and Upper Merion have about 40 percent students of color; William Penn or Southeast Delco are majority students of color.

Some private schools have the luxury of recruiting students to "round out" their diversity. Many religious schools don't have the same resources (42 percent of students at DCCS receive financial aid), yet they are more diverse than many of their nonreligious private counterparts.

Some diverse schools that have large populations of students of color tend to be fairly segregated on the inside, with white students gravitating to certain courses/levels and activities, and students of color to others. While DCCS is far from perfect - you might find segregated tables in the lunchroom on any given day - students mix together in AP classes and chapel services, on the football team and in the school play, in the choir and on the field hockey team, and in social activities outside of school.

Why? It's a school that draws families around a shared commitment - the Christian faith - that crosses racial boundaries. In other words, a common religious belief enables students and families to overcome barriers that otherwise divide them. Religious faith may not be the only common denominator that cuts across racial differences - an educational philosophy like Montessori, or a special focus like the arts or STEM might serve the same purpose - but it seems to be an important one.

Other Protestant Christian schools in the area share DCCS' demographics: Phil-Mont Christian Academy in Erdenheim has no racial majority and 73 percent of its students receive financial aid. At the Christian Academy in Brookhaven, 58 percent of its enrollment are students of color and 49 percent are on financial aid. Both also draw diverse families around a common faith commitment. The City School, a Protestant Christian school in Philadelphia, doesn't have quite the same racial diversity (76 percent black), but it has a high degree of social class integration, with 45 percent of its students eligible for free and reduced lunch. Many Catholic schools in the area are similar. For example, Visitation BVM in Kensington and St. Martin of Tours in Oxford Circle have no racial majority and serve economically disadvantaged communities.

Racial integration is never easy because differences - in culture, family background, practices, income - are real and significant. But a common faith tradition provides a shared resource from which to draw. This is not to say that private religious schools are the panacea for the problems of segregation, but they should be part of the conversation.

Jeffrey S. Dill teaches sociology in the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University in St. Davids. jdill@eastern.edu

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