When the Fences Come Down: Twenty-First-Century Lessons from Metropolitan School Desegregation

When the Fences Come Down: Twenty-First-Century Lessons from Metropolitan School Desegregation

When the Fences Come Down: Twenty-First-Century Lessons from Metropolitan School Desegregation

When the Fences Come Down: Twenty-First-Century Lessons from Metropolitan School Desegregation


How we provide equal educational opportunity to an increasingly diverse, highly urbanized student population is one of the central concerns facing our nation. As Genevieve Siegel-Hawley argues in this thought-provoking book, within our metropolitan areas we are currently allowing a labyrinthine system of school-district boundaries to divide students--and opportunities--along racial and economic lines. Rather than confronting these realities, though, most contemporary educational policies focus on improving schools by raising academic standards, holding teachers and students accountable through test performance, and promoting private-sector competition. Siegel-Hawley takes us into the heart of the metropolitan South to explore what happens when communities instead focus squarely on overcoming the educational divide between city and suburb.

Based on evidence from metropolitan school desegregation efforts in Richmond, Virginia; Louisville, Kentucky; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina; and Chattanooga, Tennessee, between 1990 and 2010, Siegel-Hawley uses quantitative methods and innovative mapping tools both to underscore the damages wrought by school-district boundary lines and to raise awareness about communities that have sought to counteract them. She shows that city-suburban school desegregation policy is related to clear, measurable progress on both school and housing desegregation. Revisiting educational policies that in many cases were abruptly halted--or never begun--this book will spur an open conversation about the creation of the healthy, integrated schools and communities critical to our multiracial future.


I began riding a bus to middle school in the fall of 1991. Each morning, at about 6 A.M., it picked us up, rolling over the hilly terrain of Richmond’s east end before heading toward the city center. I learned a lot about urban geographic boundaries during those rides—where they were, what they represented, and to whom they applied. I knew, for instance, that when the driver collected the only three white students (myself included) in the heart of an eight-block historic zone, an island of relative white affluence amid government-designed black segregation and concentrated poverty, all of us coming of age on that bus received a message about race and opportunity in our United States.

I learned more about geographic boundaries at my regional high school, a specialty program for government and international studies housed, at the time, on the top floor of Richmond’s historic Thomas Jefferson High School. Schoolchildren from eleven participating school districts rode buses far and wide—crossing many a boundary along the way—for the educational opportunities provided by the school. I too crossed over those boundaries as I traveled to athletic games or to stay with friends in suburban and rural communities. A consciousness around the metropolitan dimensions of race, advantage, and opportunity crystallized during those trips.

Toward the end of high school, I became aware of a 1973 court case that, decided differently, would have dramatically reshaped my burgeoning understanding of Richmond’s metropolitan landscape. The untapped possibilities of Bradley v. Richmond’s failed city-suburban school desegregation plan fueled a decades-long desire to more fully understand what could have been—and what still might be, given the right mixture of political or legal grit—in my community. That desire formed the basis for this book.

I owe an incredible debt of gratitude to many people for helping to make the book possible. A heartfelt thanks goes to Dr. Gary Orfield for his unflagging support and instruction over the course of the original research, as well as for the tremendous amount of wisdom, optimism, and . . .

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