For most of its recent history, D.C. was a city that lost residents to the suburbs once kids reached school age. Now as as young families flock to gentrifying areas, schools are becoming focal points of debates about the future of the District. We explore the changing education landscape in our region and evolving debates about how to serve the needs of an increasingly diverse population.


  • Michael Petrilli Vice President for National Programs and Policy, Thomas B. Fordham Institute


  • 13:06:44

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, who governs the internet and who wants to influence control of it internationally? But first, for most of its recent history, D.C. was a city that lost many residents to the suburbs once kids came into the picture.

  • 13:07:18

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThose who could afford the higher home prices moved to better school districts in Montgomery, Arlington and Fairfax counties. But now, young families are part of the gentrifying wave in neighborhoods across the city and many are choosing to stay when their kids reach school age. As the system seeks to serve an increasingly diverse population, schools are becoming the focal point of debates about the future of the District.

  • 13:07:43

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore the changing education landscape is Mike Petrilli. He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He's also the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, that's a think tank focused on K-12 education policy. He's also an executive director or executive editor or the journal, "Education Next." Mike Petrilli, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:08:08

    MR. MICHAEL PETRILLIThanks so much for having me, Kojo.

  • 13:08:10

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. Mike Petrilli is the author of the book "The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent's Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools." If you've looked at the trend of middle class parents choosing to stay in cities and send their kids to local public schools, many of whom want their kids to study with a diverse group of students. Can you talk a little bit about that?

  • 13:08:35

    PETRILLISure. Well, this is a brand-new thing that's happening, Kojo, here in Washington D.C. and a few other places around the country. you know, we know that there have been some middle class and upper middle class families in these cities but generally they've either sent their kids to public schools in little enclaves with other middle class kids here and upper Northwest in Ward 3 or sent their kids to private schools.

  • 13:08:58

    PETRILLIBut what seems to have happened just recently in the last three or four or five years, is that these middle class families are staying and they're starting to send their kids to neighborhood public schools and public charter schools for the first time. And what's happening as a result is that some of these schools on Capitol Hill and Columbia Heights and other neighborhoods, these schools' demographics are shifting and in some cases quite rapidly.

  • 13:09:20

    NNAMDIAnd it's not only happening here in the Washington area or in the District of Columbia. This shift back to urban public schools is happening in places like Brooklyn and Denver, Co. and other areas?

  • 13:09:33

    PETRILLIAbsolutely, and in almost all of our great cities you see this happening, that many Gen X parents and Millennial parents want to live in the city. Many of us grew up in the bland suburbs, we don't want that same blandness for our own kids and frankly cities are much, much safer than they were 10 or 20 years ago. Suddenly living in a city is something that families can imagine. The big question is whether we can make the schools work for us.

  • 13:10:00

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number. Was diversity important to you in choosing a school? 800-433-8850, did you make the choice to send your kids to your local public school? Why or why not? You can also send email to or send us a tweet @kojoshow. This issue of diversity, many people believe they know the answer to but you discuss the benefits of a diverse school length in your book. Can you talk a little bit about that?

  • 13:10:31

    PETRILLISure. Well, first of all, we know from years of research that diverse schools are very important for both poor and minority kids. Let's start there. back from studies going back to Brown versus Board of Education and the big desegregation fights we know that the worst place for a low income student or a minority student to be is in a classroom that's racially isolated or isolated by class.

  • 13:10:57

    PETRILLIIn other words, where all of the kids are poor and minority and there's lots of different ideas about why that might be. We also know from years of research that these diverse schools seem to, at least do no harm academically to middle class or to white students, and do a lot of good when it comes to creating attitudes that are less prejudiced, helping young people grow up to be more comfortable in America's multi-cultural society. So there seem to be clear benefits for all kids for going to the diverse schools.

  • 13:11:27

    NNAMDIYour book is titled "The Diverse Schools Dilemma," why dilemma? What's the dilemma?

  • 13:11:33

    PETRILLIWell, the dilemma is that many of us very much want to send our kids to these kinds of diverse schools. We don't want to contribute to "white flight" or to our segregated school system. However, we wonder whether these schools can serve the needs of all of their kids and the big question, for me, comes down to the challenge of academic diversity.

  • 13:11:52

    PETRILLIOn average low income kids tend to come into school way, way behind and so schools have to focus a lot of energy on helping those kids get up to basic standards. And the question is, can they at the same time help other kids who might be ready for challenge? And what I find in the book is that it is possible but it is hard to do. It takes thoughtful strategies and it takes a lot of leadership at the school level.

  • 13:12:17

    NNAMDIThe issue you're just talking about, whether schools with kids of varying achievement levels can serve all kids. You did find some schools who are doing that and some that are not, correct?

  • 13:12:31

    PETRILLIThat's right. I mean, the, I look at some of the schools in Tacoma Park where we were living and where we were trying to decide whether to stay or not.

  • 13:12:37

    NNAMDIYes, you and your wife faced that decision yourselves when you decided to have kids.

  • 13:12:40

    PETRILLIThis is based on our own personal struggle and in Tacoma Park the schools are quite diverse, about 40 percent of the kids are low income, about a third of the kids are white, the others are African-American and Latino. And in the schools in Tacoma Park, what they try to do is they have the kids spend part of the day with other students at a similar achievement level.

  • 13:12:59

    PETRILLISo all the high achievers in one classroom, all the low achievers in others. The problem is, is that tends to break kids by class. The high achievers tend to, on average, be the middle class, upper middle class kids. The low achievers, the lower income kids. Whereas one parent told me that the kids who live in houses versus the kids who live in apartments.

  • 13:13:17

    PETRILLINow, nobody in that school wanted to have these segregated schools so they'd make sure that the kids are mixed altogether for other parts of the day. So by achievement level for math and reading, all mixed together for social studies, science, art and music, gym class, that sort of thing.

  • 13:13:32

    NNAMDIWe're talking with Michael Petrilli, he is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. He's also the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which is a think tank focused on K-12 education policy. Michael Petrilli is also executive director of the journal, "Education Next," and author of the book "The Diverse Schools Dilemma: A Parent's Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools."

  • 13:13:56

    NNAMDIOnly about 14 percent of white students in this country attend what can be called multi-cultural schools. So are we in fact talking about a small percentage of schools and students?

  • 13:14:07

    PETRILLIWe are, we are. The most common that parents will make, in particular white parents, when faced with this decision is they will move to a suburb that is predominantly white and send their kids to majority white schools. We certainly many African-American middle class families also choosing to send their kids to schools that are predominantly middle class. So to have parents choose schools that have a high percentage of poor children, this is certainly the path less chosen.

  • 13:14:36

    PETRILLIBut I think we're going to see more of this as families decide that they want to live in the city and they want to see if they can make these schools work. I should also say that in a metro area like D.C. you've also got many suburban communities that are becoming increasingly diverse as many poor and immigrant families move straight to the suburbs and skip the cities altogether.

  • 13:14:55

    NNAMDI800-433-8850, was diversity important to you in choosing a school? You can send us email to or go to our website, and join the conversation there. How diverse is the school your kids attend? What effect do you think it is having on them both, educationally and socially? 800-433-8850, you mentioned that how the suburbs are changing, suburbs and suburban schools used to be the least of worst places in the country but in our area and elsewhere that's changing pretty rapidly.

  • 13:15:31

    PETRILLIAbsolutely, you know, you want to find diverse schools you go to places like Silver Spring, like parts of Alexandria, like Gaithersburg, all around the metro area you can find that. So this is much more than just an urban story. I personally think that the story of change is what's, is very fascinating and the gentrification story therefore is interesting. And what you see happening at some of the schools in the city is that you see the demographics shifting quickly and I think this is going to bring opportunity but also a lot of conflict.

  • 13:16:01

    PETRILLIThere's certainly schools including some on Capitol Hill, for example, where there's a sense that African-American families that have been using those schools for a long time but may live out of boundary, in Anacostia, that they are getting pushed that squeezed out by families that are now claiming spots in those schools and they live in those neighborhoods. And so I think we're going to see some real conflict in the years ahead as this plays out.

  • 13:16:22

    NNAMDIYou can already find schools on Capitol Hill that almost exclusively white.

  • 13:16:26

    PETRILLIThat's right. I mean, you've got some schools, Brent Elementary, for example, where you look, their fourth and fifth grades are mostly African-American, their preschools are almost all white. And so these schools are, rather than just becoming nicely integrated they're really flipping from black to white. I think most of us would agree that we'd like to keep that from happening. We'd like to find a way to create integrated schools not just push out one population for another.

  • 13:16:52

    NNAMDIHere's Kate, in Arlington, Va. Kate, you're on the air, go ahead please.

  • 13:16:56

    KATEHi, Kojo. this is a really interesting topic for me. we have two children and we actually choose outside of our, we're in Arlington, and we choose outside of our neighborhood school to send our two boys. In part because that was going to introduce them to more diversity.

  • 13:17:15

    NNAMDIHow's that been working out for you and for them?

  • 13:17:19

    KATEWe love it and I actually have a bit of a reputation for being a big proponent of their high school and the idea of making a choice to go there.

  • 13:17:29

    NNAMDIDo they like their school?

  • 13:17:31

    KATEThey love their school and they actually were the ones who choose it. we talked about, it was sort of our preference that they would choose that high school but we told them that they could look at the neighborhood school as well and both of them came back and said, "No, we want to go to Wakefield."

  • 13:17:47

    PETRILLISo that's working out well for you. care to comment on that at all, Michael Petrilli?

  • 13:17:50

    PETRILLII'm not surprised, you know, I talked to a lot of parents who made this choice to send their kids to diverse schools and they would say, you know, that there may have been, there may been trepidations at first, there may have been at times stressful because, you know, when you're getting to know kids from different backgrounds who, you know, have maybe come from challenges that your own children don't understand at first, that might introduce some stress but in the end it's really good for kids to get to know kids from all different backgrounds and that our job as parents is not to shield our kids from anything that could be a little bit stressful.

  • 13:18:21

    NNAMDIKate, thank you very much for your call. We move onto Tony, in Washington D.C. Tony, your turn.

  • 13:18:27

    TONYHi, yes, a couple of points. One, I wanted to find out whether one of the things that comes up after there's more diversity in the schools, is there a sort of virtuous cycle in that school tests and so on improve? And secondly for the kids who are from the, in this case, you know, the white kids are the minority, is there a problem being an early adopter in terms of, you know, some of these schools don't have the academic standards yet and so those could maybe disadvantage when they apply for college or in other ways?

  • 13:18:58

    NNAMDIOne thing, one at a time. I'd like to, I'm not familiar with the phrase virtuous cycle but Michael Petrilli, you might be?

  • 13:19:05

    PETRILLISure. I mean, so I guess the question would be, does this lead the school to improve? Well, if you introduce a group of middle class or upper middle class students to a school, most likely they will perform quite well on tests. Because we do know that there's this huge link between demographics and achievement on tests. So you will start to see the test scores go up for sure.

  • 13:19:25

    PETRILLIYou know, is that virtuous? In general, yes. the question though is whether or not the school has a good strategy for serving the needs of all these different kids. One thing that can happen in these schools is that as middle class families come in they have different things they'd want for their kids than perhaps lower income parents want.

  • 13:19:42

    PETRILLISo, for example, a lot of upper middle class parents are leery of a lot of heavy handed discipline and structure. And on the other hand, many, not all but many lower income families are more comfortable with that and want something fairly traditional and back to basics. Well, that can create some conflict at a school. You know, whose needs get served and how do you navigate those differences? And so it's -- again I think there's opportunity but there's also a lot of challenges involved.

  • 13:20:07

    NNAMDIDorothy in Alexandria, Va. You're on the air, Dorothy. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:20:12

    DOROTHYThank you, Kojo. I just wanted to comment that although I'm not a parent myself I grew up in the 1970s in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio that was undergoing rapid integration at the time that I attended it. And I found that to be a very good experience and one that has carried with me I think through my life. I wound up going to a prestigious eastern college that had kids from all over the world, but they were all sort of, you know, wealthy -- I'll say men's because in that age it was wealthy men's daughters. It was a women's school.

  • 13:20:51

    DOROTHYAnd I think that although many of them had had -- you know, they had read Moby Dick three times by the time they got to college, they had not experienced the world in a sense as I had.

  • 13:21:06

    NNAMDIAnybody who reads Moby Dick three times in high school has not experienced much else in the world but go ahead.

  • 13:21:12

    DOROTHYYeah, exactly. And, I mean, some of the experiences weren't positive. It was a difficult transition at times but just learning how to navigate, you know, the hallways that you weren't supposed to walk down if you were this color or that color and doing it anyways and learning how to just get along with people. And I actually even did some speaking in the community to parents at that time.

  • 13:21:42

    NNAMDISo you thought that overall it was a good experience for you.

  • 13:21:45

    DOROTHYPardon me?

  • 13:21:45

    NNAMDIYou thought overall it was a good experience for you.

  • 13:21:48

    DOROTHYExcellent, excellent experience.

  • 13:21:50

    NNAMDIBut you raise two issues that I'd like to raise with Michael Petrilli. The first is that Dorothy said she went to school in Cleveland in the 1970s when there was a great deal of discussion about school segregation. And even though a lot of public schools today are 100 percent black or white, school segregation is not discussed that much in policy circles anymore. What is that?

  • 13:22:11

    PETRILLIThat's right, Kojo. It does seem like this has fallen off. I think there's a sense among many education reformers that we tried desegregation and it failed. It failed because the desegregation stopped at the edges of the cities, that the courts would not go along with forcing suburban districts to be a part of these. And so that led to this -- in part to this big wave of white flight. And the big urban systems became 100 percent black or minority because all the white families left.

  • 13:22:38

    PETRILLIAnd so the focus in more recent years has been saying, okay if we're going to have schools that are 100 percent black or Latino or mostly poor kids how can we make those schools effective schools? And many of the charter schools and other schools we hold up as models are schools that are in effect segregated schools. They're getting great results but they are segregated. I think you're starting to hear a new conversation again about this topic and saying, hey maybe we have another opportunity, particularly as we see these demographic changes in where people live with both cities and suburbs getting more diverse that we might have another crack at this.

  • 13:23:11

    NNAMDIThe second part of it is that Dorothy's experience seems to equate essentially what we think of as diversity today.

  • 13:23:18

    PETRILLIYeah. Yeah, I mean, she -- you know, I read about this in the book about my own experience in a desegregation program. In my case it was outside St. Louis, Mo. And like Dorothy, much of that was quite positive with some stressful moments as well. But I think I learned a lot from it too. Now what -- I don't know if this was Dorothy's experience, in my experience, you know, I didn't actually get to spend much time with the kids from the city, the African American students who were bused in from the city, in classes because they by and large were attending remedial courses and I was in the advanced courses. And so we never saw each other.

  • 13:23:52

    PETRILLIBut there were opportunities, you know, on the track and field team and in the extracurricular activities to at least have some of those interactions, which was better than we would've had otherwise.

  • 13:24:02

    DOROTHYWell, what I would add though is that this was a suburban community. And it was -- and remains a community very committed to diversity. And so as a suburb I think it had an opportunity, which it used well, to address integration community wide through a variety of housing -- their housing programs and a variety of other means. It, you know, today still has a lot of difficulties. The schools are more black than white at this point but I think that it's a little simplistic to -- I mean, these are kids who are moving in from the city, many of whom had gone to school together. For many years knew each other, stayed a little cliquish because, you know, they were in a new environment and they already knew these other kids.

  • 13:24:54

    DOROTHYBut it's -- I guess what I'm saying is it's a comprehensive kind of issue and so we need to address it comprehensively.

  • 13:24:58

    NNAMDIWell, I think you might be hearing a few proposals along that line in a second because Michael Petrilli, school's chancellor in the District of Columbia Kaya Henderson said recently the D.C. schools are slated to have boundaries redrawn. But you see some of the shifts we're talking about as an opportunity for policymakers to make, well, perhaps bolder decisions. What are some of your proposals?

  • 13:25:22

    PETRILLIWell, that's right. I mean, what we're seeing is if we do nothing what's going to happen is what's happening already to some schools on Capitol Hill, which is that they're going to shift from being all black to all white in such a matter of years because we have this boundary system where if you live in the boundary of a school system you have a right to send your kids there. If you have a neighborhood that's now gentrified and become mostly, you know, upper middle class white families and they all send their kids to the local school, well, then that school's going to be entirely white.

  • 13:25:50

    PETRILLIIf you want to keep that from happening then you need to put some policies in place beforehand. So for example, we could have some zones in the city that are school-choice zones. Say on Capitol Hill you could tell parents, you may not have -- you don't have a right to go to the closest school to you but we'll guarantee you that you'll get to go to one of the schools on Capitol Hill. And you will make -- you know, write out your preferences and we'll enter that into a computer and the computer will match those preferences, but also consider the demographics to try to make sure that each school has some degree of diversity.

  • 13:26:21

    NNAMDISo instead of simply having a simple boundary system we would kind of re-jigger the boundary system to essentially engineer schools that have more socioeconomic balance.

  • 13:26:31

    PETRILLIThat's right. And many cities across the country have been doing this for years. Used it do this on race and that's now been judged to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. But you can still do it based on class. You know, in my own views it doesn't make sense to do that citywide because there's, for the foreseeable future, going to be big pockets of D.C. that are still so segregated where you're not going to be able to create integrated schools. But on Capitol Hill in say Columbia Heights and other parts in the center of the city up towards Petworth, up towards Mount Pleasant, I think you could create a couple of different zones where you put some of these policies in place.

  • 13:27:06

    NNAMDIAnd you're also talking about creating magnet or charter schools in strategic locations to draw both middle class and poor students alike.

  • 13:27:14

    PETRILLIThat's right. And this is already happening, especially on the charter school side. We see a growing number of charter schools that middle class, upper middle class families are choosing, sometimes schools that were not designed necessarily for those families, that were really designed to be for D.C.'s low income kids. But, you know, the middle class families have discovered them and their demographics are shifting too.

  • 13:27:34

    PETRILLIThe charter schools of course don't have boundaries and they can locate themselves in the parts of the city that might be, you know, close to public transportation or, you know, in the middle of the city where lots of different kinds of groups can get to them. I think that's an important part of their solution.

  • 13:27:49

    NNAMDIHere is Selma in Falls Church, Va. Selma, your turn.

  • 13:27:53

    SELMAHi, yeah, first time caller. I just wanted to say that I grew up in Falls Church, Va. and went to high school there. And then I went away to the Midwest and went to school in Michigan. And now I work for a nonprofit in Falls Church working with high school kids at Falls Church High School. And the school is so diverse and growing up. Me and my friends just benefitted so much. I mean we learned different cultures, organically and naturally and it wasn't weird.

  • 13:28:23

    SELMAYou know, we would go, like, to a friend's house and they were from Bangladesh and, you know, and their food was -- you know, my friend's mom would always be offering footies. You need to take off your shoes and how to show signs of respect. And I think there's so much goodness in a diverse school. And this area is so diverse that I just think some people don't realize that being a part of a school or an environment like that benefits, you know, even long term after you graduate.

  • 13:28:52

    SELMAI now know how to -- if I approach somebody from a different country or different culture it's not weird and it's not hard. It's just natural and there's just a lot of benefits too. And so I just wanted to call and kind of say someone who grew up in the system. You know, my parents were immigrants and I -- you know, and all that stuff. And growing up in the system I really benefitted from my diverse school. I don't know how well I would have done if it was segregated and all those things. So...

  • 13:29:17

    NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. I think though that one of the points that Michael Petrilli is making will be underscored by our next caller, Frank, because Frank is going to emphasize the socioeconomic balance that you want to have. Frank, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:29:33

    FRANKOh, yes. Thank you. Yeah, I think way too much we focus just on pigment -- skin pigmentation and skin. I mean, I -- color and really you have to be socioeconomic and -- because, you know, when I grew up, when I was in school in the late '60s, could not have possibly gone to a less diverse school. But I went to one of these elite northeastern universities, which of course celebrated diversity from everything. And that was good. It was a very good learning experience.

  • 13:30:05

    FRANKExcept what I learned is quite too often when people speak of diversity, and even your guest here, very good, very smart sounding gentleman, but how many times haven't you said all African American or all white. And the follow on to that from the other dangerous side of "diversity" is that diversity is quite often a code word for conformity of thought but diversity of skin color. And I...

  • 13:30:35

    NNAMDIWell, allow me to have Michael Petrilli, since we're running out of time, underscore exactly what kind of diversity he's talking about.

  • 13:30:41

    PETRILLIYeah, and that's a really important point. You know, I think what I say in the book is that in this day and age the racial diversity piece is easy. I mean, parents say they want their kids to be in schools that are racially diverse, diversity of cultures. I think what trips up a lot of parents is the economic diversity. In other words, how comfortable are you sending your kids to school with kids who are coming from poverty and bringing in some challenges with them associated with that. And I think that's where the real dilemma is.

  • 13:31:10

    PETRILLIYou know, you look at any of the upper end private schools like Sidwell where of course the Obama girls go, you know, and they're incredibly diverse. They've really made an effort to make sure there's many, you know, children of color there...

  • 13:31:21

    NNAMDI...from a racial standpoint.

  • 13:31:22

    PETRILLI...from a racial standpoint. But they are not so economically diverse and they're not so academically diverse. Everybody at those private schools has been screened to make sure that they are ready to learn at high levels. So the big issue is okay the school down the street from you in the city has a lot of kids coming from poverty. They come into school way behind. Can that school make it work for those kids and for your kids at the same time?

  • 13:31:44

    NNAMDIFrank, thank you very much for your call. Michael Petrilli, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:31:48

    PETRILLIThank so much for having me, Kojo.

  • 13:31:49

    NNAMDIMichael Petrilli is author of the book "The Diverse Schools Dilemma: Parents Guide to Socioeconomically Mixed Public Schools." He's a Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He's also the executive vice-president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute which focuses on K through 12 education. He's an executive editor at the Journal Education Next. We're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll be talking about the squabble, if you will, over who governs the internet taking place at an international conference that was supposed to be talking about telephones. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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