Charter schools looking for ways to increase student diversity

Mar 20, 2016

As with the rest of the country, most white and black children in St. Louis go to separate schools.

It’s a topic our We Live Here team has been digging into while producing a show on the region’s long-running program to chip away at school segregation.

While attempts to integrate classrooms have typically focused on traditional school districts, in recent years charter public schools have started joining the conversation.

“Part of a good public school is having a lot of diversity and being able to expose kids to all different types of individuals and helping them become more well-rounded,” said Doug Thaman, executive director of Missouri Charter Public School Association.

But reaching that end is complicated.

Legal workaround

In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that schools couldn’t explicitly use race when seeking to further integration. As a workaround, some educators across the nation started considering students’ socio-economic status.

For instance, President Barack Obama proposed budget includes $120 million in grants to advance school integration along economic, not racial lines.  So far, though, only eight charter schools or networks in America consider socio-economic status when making student assignments, according to the Century Foundation.

Students work on a classroom assignment at City Garden Montessori. Administrators at the charter public school in south St. Louis are looking for ways to maintain diversity.
Credit Courtesy City Garden Montessori

One promising approach, Thaman said, is a weighted lottery.

When charters schools have more applicants than spots available a lottery is used to decide what students get a seat. Under a weighted lottery preference could be given to students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a common measure for poverty.

Two years ago the federal government told charters they could hold a weighted lotteries, but only if it’s allowed under their state’s law. And in Missouri, it’s unclear if that would be legal.

“Our belief at this time is that it would take a legislative change,” Thaman said.

He added that charter school advocates could ask lawmakers for a policy change as soon as next legislative session.

A demographic shift

The prospect of a weighted lottery is especially appealing to Christie Huck, executive director of City Garden Montessori School. The high performing charter sits in the south St. Louis neighborhood of Botanical Heights and pulls students specifically from the surrounding area.  

“What we’re determined to do here at City Garden is to show that we can have excellent, outstanding schools that serve children of all backgrounds,” Huck said.  

Christie Huck, executive director of City Garden Montessori School, wants the option to give low-income students better odds of winning the charter school's enrollment lottery.
Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio

Yet maintaining diversity at the school, which had a little more than 200 students last school year, is getting harder and harder. Wealthier families attracted by the area’s stately brick homes and walkability have started changing the demographics in that part of the city. Property values have gone up in part because parents are attracted by City Garden’s success.  

Huck said she sees the shift in her classrooms. This year, roughly one in three Kindergarteners are children of color or qualify for free or reduced price lunch. That’s compared to about half - both in terms of race and income - in previous years.

The school is trying to do a better job of marketing itself to minority and low-income families. On top of that, Huck is looking for ways to promote affordable housing in the area.

“We’re looking at how we convene different stakeholders in these neighborhoods to fight for the diversity that exists here,” Huck said. “It also shows what’s possible in our region. I think the inequity and segregation that exists across the St. Louis region is one of our greatest challenges.”  

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