By David Hinojosa, J.D., and Erica Frankenberg, Ed.D., IDRA Newsletter, April 2017

As many schools across America have re-segregated along racial and ethnic lines, several school leaders are looking for solutions that can help reverse course. Recognizing the several academic and social benefits stemming from diverse students learning together, some school districts in the South have turned to using students’ socioeconomic backgrounds (SES) to help integrate schools.

The Century Foundation reports that, nationwide, 32 of the 91 schools and districts using SES strategies are located in the southern federal Region II (Potter, et al., 2016). The IDRA EAC-South has assisted several districts with school integration plans and is available to assist others in Region II* with technical assistance in this area.

Since the late 1960s, the South has been the most desegregated region of the country for Black and White students; however, this progress has been rapidly unraveling over the past three decades (Orfield & Frankenberg, 2014). Latino students, who now out-number Black students in public schools in the South, attend 90 percent to 100 percent minority schools at higher rates than Black students. Many districts in the South were once under court orders to desegregate, but a number of these cases have ended.

Districts still valuing diverse schools must be cognizant of applicable legal standards that curtail some types of voluntary efforts. But importantly, the Supreme Court found in 2007 compelling reasons that school districts would want to adopt policies to (1) reduce racial isolation, and (2) create diverse schools. These reasons are supported by research, described below, and also were foundational to the guidance released by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice in 2011 about race-conscious policies in K-12 schools.

When school segregation or, conversely, diversity are discussed, race and socioeconomic status are often used interchangeably. Research finds that the vast majority of schools that almost entirely consist of Black students and Latino students also are schools that have a majority of students from low-income families (Orfield & Frankenberg, 2014).

Further, some of the research on why diverse student composition is important for students’ outcomes includes both racial and SES factors as part of the analysis, illustrating how closely the two dimensions of diversity are linked.

The social and educational benefits that flow from racial and socioeconomic diversity are critical indicators for school districts to consider as part of their strategic plans. In an analysis of preschool classrooms, a researcher found that there were learning benefits associated with the racial composition of classrooms in addition to those that accrue from having students from diverse socioeconomic households (Reid, 2016).

See related podcast #172 on Using Socioeconomic Status for School Integration

Other research shows a range of benefits for White students and students of color from intergroup contact, including lower racial prejudice, development of critical thinking skills, and the likelihood that students will live and work in more integrated settings as adults (Siegel-Hawley, 2012).

Although some school districts struggle with properly supporting their high-poverty, high-minority schools with essential resources (Imazeki & Goe, 2009), studies have found the class composition of peers to be a school-related factor influencing achievement. A study of Montgomery County, Maryland’s economic desegregation policy found that low-income students assigned under the district’s plan to low-poverty schools performed better five to seven years later than peers from similar households attending schools with higher levels of student poverty (Schwartz, 2010). A congressionally-commissioned review of studies from the last decade reached a similar conclusion (GAO, 2016). Taken together, these studies point to the importance of carefully assessing multiple dimensions of school diversity (Ayscue, et al., 2017).

Importantly, research shows that SES diversity policies must be carefully designed, implemented, supported and monitored to be a successful tool for desegregating schools (Frankenberg, 2014). Further, to reap the benefits of diversity described above, it is important to attend to within-school mechanisms that often stratify students by class and race into different and segregated classrooms in schools that are diverse. Exposure to diverse students in classrooms is essential for these benefits to accrue for all students.

School districts design and implement different types of diversity policies, and the details are critical for the ultimate success of the policy. For example, some policies apply to the initial assignment of all students through the use of drawing attendance boundaries to create SES integration (examples: Wake County, see Williams & Frankenberg, 2011; Eden Prairie, Minn., see Eaton, 2012) or controlled choice policies that allow families to submit choices, and the district manages these choices along with considering other factors, such as socioeconomic and/or racial diversity, proximity, and siblings, to make final school assignments (such as Louisville, see Frankenberg, forthcoming).

Other policies are much more limited in scope in that districts make initial student assignments without regard to diversity but consider the effect on school diversity when evaluating a student’s transfer application, such as Beaumont ISD in Texas. In other districts, socioeconomic diversity policies might apply to a selected subset of schools, such as magnet schools or selective schools in Chicago. These latter policies, not surprisingly, are less effective given their weaker design (Reardon & Rhodes, 2011).

School districts have used a variety of approaches to defining diversity using factors either at the individual level, such as free and reduced-price lunch eligibility, English learner status, eligibility for other governmental programs, preschool attendance (for kindergarten students), or race.

Districts also have considered the socioeconomic characteristics of small geographic units, like block groups in terms of their median income, educational attainment, and race. The availability of data and GIS tools provides a wealth of potential options for districts.

Because these policies are voluntarily adopted, it is important to continually engage with the community to maintain support for diversity as a goal and for the means the district is using to accomplish this goal. Thus, gathering many different types of data to understand the status of school diversity and segregation both in neighborhoods and schools is an important first step.

Engaging early with the community, in multiple settings, is also critical. Districts have found community meetings, public education campaigns, conducting surveys and focus groups, and even creating citizens’ committees to assist the district to be useful tools. Engaging with multiple partners in the community, such as the media, faith communities, civil rights groups, and business communities, will ensure that various constituencies are part of developing the plan. Some districts have found it useful to engage with outside consultants to help to bridge any divisions and add transparency to the process.

With growing interest and increasing understanding of the benefits of diverse schools, the IDRA EAC-South and other equity assistance centers are planning a series of technical assistance services to help school districts further diversity. Please contact us at for further information.


Ayscue, J., & E. Frankenberg, G. Seigel-Hawley. (March 2017). The Complementary Benefits of Racial and Socioeconomic Diversity in Schools (Washington, D.C.: National Coalition on School Diversity).

Crosnoe, R. (2009). “Low-Income Students and the Socioeconomic Composition of Public High Schools,” American Sociological Review, vol. 74, 5: pp. 709-730.

Eaton, S. (February 2012). Not Your Father’s Suburb: Race and Rectitude in a Changing Minnesota Community (Cambridge, Mass.: One Nation Indivisible).

Frankenberg, E. (2014). “Assessing the Status of School Desegregation Sixty Years After Brown,” Michigan State Law Review, 677-709.

Frankenberg, E. (forthcoming). “Assessing Segregation Under a New Generation of Controlled Choice Policies,” American Educational Research Journal.

Governmental Accountability Office. (2016).  Better Use of Information Could Help Agencies Identify Disparities and Address Racial Discrimination (Washington, D.C.: GAO).

Imazeki, J., & L. Goe. (August 2009). The Distribution of Highly Qualified, Experienced Teachers: Challenges and Opportunities (Washington, D.C.: National Comprehensive Center on Teacher Quality).

Orfield, G., & E. Frankenberg. (2014). Brown at 60: Great Progress, A Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future (Los Angeles, Calif.: Civil Rights Project).

Palardy, G.J. (2013).  “High School Socioeconomic Segregation and Student Attainment,” American Educational Research Journal, vol. 50, 714-754.

Potter, H., & K. Quick, E. Davies. (2016).  A New Wave of School Integration: Districts and Charters Pursuing Socioeconomic Diversity (New York: The Century Foundation).

Reardon, S.F. (2016). School Segregation and Racial Academic Achievement Gaps, CEPA Working Paper No.15-12 (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis) 2(5), 34-57.

Reardon, S.F., & L. Rhodes. (2011). “The Effects of Socioeconomic School Integration Policies on Racial School Desegregation,” in Integrating Schools in a Changing Society, by Frankenberg, E., & E. DeBray (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press).

Reid, J. (2016). “Racial/ethnic Diversity and Language Development in the Pre-School Classroom,” in Frankenberg, E., Garces, L., & Hopkins, M., School Integration Matters (New York, N.Y.: Teachers College Press) pp.39-55.

Rumberger, R.W., & Palardy, G.J. (2005). “Does Resegregation Matter? The Impact of Social Composition on Academic Achievement in Southern High Schools,” In J.C. Boger & G. Orfield (Eds.), School Resegregation: Must the South Turn Back? (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press) pp. 127-147.

Schwartz, H. (2010). Housing Policy Is School Policy: Economically Integrative Housing Promotes Academic Success in Montgomery County, Maryland (New York, N.Y.: The Century Foundation).

Siegel-Hawley, G. (2012). How Non-Minority Students Also Benefit from Racially Diverse Schools (Washington, D.C.: National Coalition on School Diversity).

Swanson, C. (2004). “Sketching a Portrait of Public High School Graduation: Who Graduates? Who Doesn’t?,” In Gary Orfield (Ed.), Dropouts in America: Confronting the Graduation Rate Crisis (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Education Press) p. 29.

Williams, S., & Frankenberg, E. (2011). “Using Geography to Further Racial Integration,” In E. Frankenberg, & E. DeBray (Eds.), Integrating Schools in a Changing Society: New Policies and Legal Options for a Multiracial Generation (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press) pp. 223-231.

David Hinojosa, J.D., is IDRA’s National Director of Policy and he directs the IDRA EAC-South. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at Erica Frankenberg, Ed.D., is an Associate Professor of Education and Demography at the Pennsylvania State University, and co-director of the Center for Education and Civil Rights.

*Region II covers Washington, D.C., and 11 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

[©2016, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2017 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]