From the Field

Q&A: Meckler on the Long Arc of Voluntary School Desegregation in Shaker Heights

In the 1950s, a group of civic-minded Black and White community members launched an effort to voluntarily integrate Shaker Heights, Ohio, a wealthy Cleveland suburb founded four decades earlier with deed restrictions meant to keep out Black, Catholic and Jewish families.

In a new book titled Dream Town: Shaker Heights and the Quest for Racial Equity, Washington Post education correspondent and Shaker Heights native Laura Meckler chronicles the evolution of the city’s pathbreaking crusade to integrate its neighborhoods and its schools as it continues to evolve in dramatic new directions today. FutureEd Director Thomas Toch recently spoke with Meckler about the Shaker story and its implications for policymakers and practitioners trying to bring students of different races together in public schools and ensure that every student is taught to high standards.

Why is the Shaker Heights story important in the annals of school desegregation?

Historically, it’s a rare example of a community that did a voluntary desegregation plan at a time when much of the country was fighting court-ordered desegregation. There’s an important story to tell about how that happened. And preceding that plan, Shaker did a lot of work on housing integration, which is also an important part of the story because as we know, housing and school segregation patterns are deeply intertwined.

But it’s important to look at the Shaker experience through a contemporary lens because the city has continued its commitment to school desegregation, over many decades, and continues to have racially balanced schools. School integration peaked in the late ’80s, and then court orders started going away, and then there was a lot of resegregation. But Shaker has maintained its commitment. And finally, [the Shaker story] challenges us to think about what’s needed beyond integration. Shaker shows that just putting kids into the same buildings is a necessary but not sufficient answer to segregation.

How is the city’s founding relevant?

To understand how remarkable it is that Shaker became a national model of racial integration, it’s important to understand that the city started as an elite suburb for wealthy Clevelanders looking to escape the city. It was designed as an exclusive place. A lot of that exclusivity was about money, and exacting architectural standards, and about how the streets were laid out and such. But beyond that, it was also about who was let in. Shaker had covenants on deeds. Particular groups of people were not overtly kept out, but you had to get permission from the Van Sweringen Company [the city’s developer] if you were going to buy a vacant plot to build on or sell your property. And everybody understood that to mean that they were going to keep out Black buyers, largely Jewish buyers, although some did get in, Catholics. These were the targets of these covenants, and those were in place for a long time, not just, of course, in Shaker Heights, but all over. I devote an early chapter to understanding the Van Sweringen story, to understand where Shaker started, to understand how remarkable the journey has been.

Yet Shaker launched one of the nation’s only voluntary school busing programs to promote racial segregation in the 1970s. And then, a decade later, redrew its school boundaries to racially balance its schools. What was the catalyst of these sort of extraordinary developments?

School desegregation was preceded by a community-wide conversation about housing integration, which was really about preventing wholesale White flight. It was about maintaining neighborhoods where Black families were moving in, controlling that integration, and keeping the neighborhoods racially balanced. That started in one neighborhood. It spread to others. And eventually, it spread to the city. It became part of the city’s identity. The schools in the mid-1960s already have some racial diversity.

Who led the work?

A very forward-thinking school superintendent named Jack Lawson arrived with a commitment to school integration. He started out by changing the boundary lines to racially balance the city’s two junior high schools.

When that went all right, he set out to desegregate the one city elementary school, of nine, that was overwhelmingly Black—Moreland. Desegregating schools was in the air [nationally]. Brown v. Board of Education was 15 years old. Nobody thought that it applied to the North. But the civil rights movement was raging.

Lawson’s plan was to bus kids out of Moreland and then use the space in Moreland as a special-services school that the rest of the district’s students would rotate through. But the parents in Moreland were absolutely opposed to that. From the beginning, they said, “We will not accept a plan of one-way busing.” Lawson was sticking to his strategy when near the last minute White families volunteered to bus their kids into Moreland, creating a voluntary, two-way busing plan. That was a critical moment in Shaker’s history, where you had White families standing up and saying, “We want be part of this.”

The next major step towards school integration was in the 1980s.

Shaker did voluntary busing for over a decade. But the program lost popularity. The pull of neighborhood schools exacted its power.

The school district tried other things, including magnet schools to pull White students into predominantly Black schools. That had some success. But then, in the 1980s, the district needed to close elementary schools and they did it in a way that racially balanced the remaining schools. They decided to close four schools and balanced the remaining five by redrawing boundary lines. And it’s been that way ever since.

You alluded at the beginning of our conversation to the current challenge of integrating schools being necessary but not sufficient. What happened that leads you to say that?

Well, there has been a yawning racial achievement gap for many, many years in Shaker, and disproportionate placement of White kids in upper-level classes and Black kids in lower-level and regular classes. And while there’s been a lot of work in Shaker to try to address them, the problems persist.

How does this tracking of students largely by race into different academic paths shape students’ school experiences?

I think it’s really toxic. It delivers a message to the White kids that, “You’re the smart ones,” and to the Black kids that, “You’re not.” And it’s particularly problematic at the younger grades. Starting in fifth grade until recently in Shaker, there was enriched math and ELA and regular math and ELA. The enriched kids left the room and went to the basement, for a different teacher, which took up a substantial portion of the day. And those classes were heavily racialized.

Meaning, they were mostly White kids?

Yes, mostly White kids in the enriched classes and mostly Black kids in the regular class. If you’re a Black kid sitting in the room, and you see all the White kids get up and leave for enrichment, how does that make you feel? We’re talking fifth grade. We’re talking about 10-year-olds here, 10 and 11-year-olds.

And how are the White kids getting into those classes? Some of it may be a genuine read of their academic achievements. Some of it may be what the parents want, parents who have the connections and the knowledge about what’s going on and the moxie and then the confidence to go to the principal and say, “I want my kid in enrichment.”

One initiative to try to increase Black enrollment in upper-level classes was to create an open enrollment program in advanced classes, allowing any student to sign up for them. But a lot of White families with kids in the regular classes ended up taking advantage of open enrollment. And the more White families who flee regular classes, those remaining start saying, “Well, maybe I should be in the honors class too. This doesn’t look like the place that I belong.” And they leave for honors. While the Black kids in the regular classes are saying, “Well, I guess this is where I belong. I don’t belong in honors.” It’s really problematic.

One of the more profound takeaways for me from the book was the idea that belonging is really important, the question of, “Do you feel like this is a place for you?”

That gets signaled to people in all sorts of ways. David Glasner the current superintendent, tells a story about one of the things that prompted his urgency on the matter. He walked into a fifth or sixth grade classes in the upper elementary school, and all the kids were Black. And a colleague of his asked one of them, “Where are the White kids?” And the kid said, “Oh, they’re enriched.” If you think about that for a second, he not only knows that all the White kids are in the enriched class, but just that phrase, not, “They’re in enriched,” or, “They go to enriched,” but, “They are enriched.” It’s their identity. And if they are enriched, and you’re not in that class, what does that mean? That means you’re not enriched. What a message to send the kids.

What was Glasner’s response?

The incident helped convince him to launch a major de-tracking initiative, an effort to collapse regular and honors classes all into honors classes from grades five through nine, to reduce the segregation of Black and White students within schools at the upper elementary, middle school, and first-year high school grades while keeping the district’s Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs.

The project started in fall 2020 and the school district’s official rationale for ending curriculum tracks was to respond to increased racial segregation within classrooms during the pandemic. The district tried to keep students in small groups during the school day to limit the spread of the coronavirus once they got back into classrooms, resulting in the mostly White students in honors math and English also taking art, gym and nearly every other class together. But in reality, Glasner and the school board had already signaled that they wanted to do de-tracking.

De-tracking refutes decades of practice in public education. How is Glasner’s plan working out?

Implementation was really, really rough. And it was probably a mistake to do it at that moment, to be honest. Teachers and students had so much on their plates. Online learning was already impossibly difficult. They would later transition to hybrid learning where some kids were in the room and some kids were online, even harder to do. This had to be near one of the true low points for the American school system.

The idea of adding in another thing, I think, was really, really difficult. On top of that, teachers had no time to prepare. You have to differentiate your teaching on steroids when you have a wide range [of ability] in your class. And you need time to think about how you’re going to do that. Students and parents also did not have time to prepare.

The school district did not do much to explain what was happening. They just sort of ripped off the Band-Aid, almost in secret, and people didn’t understand it. Some people thought that AP was going away, which it wasn’t. Some people didn’t know anything at all about it. And there were so many questions that they tried to answer, but they didn’t do a very good job with community engagement. Even the heads of the district-wide PTO organization didn’t get a heads-up about it. There wasn’t a Q&A document on the website. There were just a lot of failures of communication.

How have White parents with kids in honors classes responded?

There were some high-achieving families who were really angry about it, and still are. They felt like this was lowering the standards. Some people left the district. Though it doesn’t look like it’s led to a huge enrollment slide. But there were a lot of people who were unhappy with it, and it was a very big adjustment.

Still, there were some promising results in 2022-23. Algebra 1 was traditionally taught to most Shaker students in the ninth grade. Now, under de-tracking, it’s taught to every eighth grader and last spring about half of Black eighth graders showed competency in Algebra 1, a higher percentage than in the previous two years. The school district is very encouraged by that data. On one hand, you’d say, “But only half.” On the other hand, you’d say, “Yeah, but most of the half that passed that test would never have even been in the class under the previous system because so few Black kids were put into honors math.”

So, it seems as if teachers are raising their expectations for students.

I visited a lot of classes. I saw some that frankly looked like they were kind of being taught at a somewhat low level, reading the book out loud, watching a movie version of the book in class, lots of time in the room to do your homework, which may be good if you’re not going to do your homework at all. But if you’re a kid who is going to do your homework, well, you’re using up a bunch of class time that could be used for an engaging conversation with, basically, study hall. So, it’s not great.

On the other hand, I saw some classes where I thought that you could see the promise of de-tracking. I saw this American Experience class where kids were each studying a different decade. And everyone was working together in racially diverse groups. The class looked like Shaker, as people say there.

And there was a seventh-grade math teacher who was just working magic. At one point, she divided the kids into small groups and asked one to take a worksheet with high-, middle-, and low-level questions on it—multistep problems, two-step problems, and one-step problems. “I want you to just think about where you are today,” she said. “Pick the problems that are right for you right now.”

Most kids took the top problems, the hardest ones. A couple took the middle ones. One kid took the bottom ones. And they all did it together in the group. They were all working, and she’s circulating, talking to everybody in the exact same tone. And that’s what I think differentiation looks like. There were kids doing more advanced work, and nothing was stopping them from doing it. But the other kids were part of it.

One could imagine that without training, teachers would not only not do a great job in a classroom with students working at widely varying levels, they would also be resentful, you’d create morale problems.

Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely. There were a lot of teachers who were like, “What are you doing? How can you be doing this right now?” There were also a lot of teachers who wanted it to work, who believed in it philosophically, but were like, “I don’t know how to do this. They tell me I should be teaching ninth-grade physical science at the honors level. And normally at my honors classes, I’m talking about quantum theory and stoichiometry. There’s no way I could teach this right now. The kids don’t have the math they need to do it.”

To what extent do you think Black Shaker students benefited from attending school with White students in Shaker and vice-versa?

The Black families I’ve talked to, the Black kids I’ve talked to, Black graduates, say that there’s real value to being in a diverse community. There are specific advantages to being in a well-funded district, a district that has a lot of opportunities. Beyond that, there are definitely Black families in Shaker who would rather have a neighborhood school than be bused to a diverse school. So, there is some tension there. I don’t want to dismiss that.

A lot of people I talked to said that they like being in a community with diversity. They learn about other people. They say that the real world is going to be a diverse world. The advantages are not that different for Black families as they are for White families—the advantages of embracing and celebrating diversity. The things I heard from Black families are very similar to the kinds of things I heard from White families about why they value diversity.

You attended Shaker schools in the 1980s. What was your experience?

It was incredibly valuable for me. I grew up in a racially diverse neighborhood. The family next door was racially-diverse—two White parents, six kids, five of them adopted, and four children of color. My best friend was biracial. That experience of being close to that family from, really, birth, was very, very formative for me. I grew up with a somewhat rose-colored view of what Shaker was doing around race, but it formed core values for me about the value of diversity, integration, and shared community, that are with me today.

In terms of my education, I had friends who were Black and who were White. The classes that I took were predominantly White, because I was in advanced classes once I got out of elementary school. So, I also experienced that side of it.

I do recall at the time wondering why Shaker was not putting more Black kids into these advanced classes. But that concern was somewhat tempered by two things. One was the fact that I sort of assumed that the regular classes were also good, that everyone was getting a good education because Shaker had such a strong reputation for educational excellence. And I think the academic gap between Black and White students wasn’t as large as it grew to be over subsequent years. And I also think that as a kid I had my own insecurities about fitting in, about whether people thought I was smart enough to be in this room. I never really stopped to think, “Well, maybe I’m actually the one with the privileges here. I’m the one who doesn’t have to worry. Even if I feel lost in calculus, I don’t have to worry about people wondering whether I should be in the class.”

But I remember when I got to college, it was so racially homogenous. I was shocked by it. Even though maybe I knew it intellectually, it was very surprising to me how few Black students there were in my freshman class at college. There were 36 Black students—I remember that number—in my freshman year at Washington University [a selective school with more than 8,000 undergraduates], which is shameful.

You point out in the book that though the early Black parents moving to Shaker were mostly well-educated professionals who had resources and were committed to the highest quality education, over time the socioeconomic status of Black families declined in Shaker and some wealthier Black parents grew concerned about the shift and left Shaker.

Yes, over time the Black population has grown poorer as the White population has grown somewhat wealthier.

Lower-income Black families are moving into Shaker for the exact same reason everybody else is. They want a good education. But different families bring different capacities to be involved with their kids’ schools, to have the time and the energy to do the informal things that help make schools work for their kids, or to be comfortable being in a school, showing up and challenging teachers and principals and demanding things that other people do.

A lot of Black kids who are in upper-level classes have talked about feeling lonely and feeling isolated, that they sort of exist in two different worlds. And that’s hard to do. So there are some upper-income, high-achieving Black families who worry both about their kids feeling a sense of loneliness, and there’s also some fear that their kids will be sort of pulled down if their friend groups are not doing as well. They sometimes worry, “Do I want my kids to feel like they have to choose between their social life and their academic life?”

They also fear that their kids will be judged and discriminated against in the judgments made about them.

I’ve talked to so many students and parents who had stories about people making assumptions about them and having lower expectations that could clearly seem based on race and on the implicit biases that all of us carry. One Black dad told me the story of a parent-teacher conference with his elementary school kid. His daughter was a very good reader, and the teacher was like, “And she’s reading.” And he and his wife replied, “Yeah, we know.” The teacher says, “Isn’t that great? Do you want to me to bring her in, so you can hear her read?” And the dad is thinking, “No, no, we know that she can read. I’m a university professor. My kid knows how to read.  I’m happy she can read. But I want to know what we’re going to do to challenge her, to get her to the next level.”

Did you come away from your work on the book with a sense of what Shaker Heights should do next in the name of racial integration?

They’re pregnant with de-tracking. They need to make it work. If high-achieving families of all races do not feel their kids are being challenged, they’re not going to stick with the school district for long.

At the same time, if the achievement levels of kids of both races do not get brought up, then what’s the point? So, there’s a lot riding on this.

They also need to double-down on their family and community engagement center, which helps families who are struggling. Often, those things are viewed as extras when, in fact, I think it’s central to kids’ success. Just how do you succeed in school if your family is struggling with basic needs?

And it’s important that they continue to work on issues of belonging. They probably should work harder at hiring more Black faculty. They need to be thinking about ways that everybody can feel like the Shaker school system is a space for them.