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How School Officials and Housing Developers Can Partner to Desegregate Communities

Integration has remained a goal of school officials for decades, but actually making progress has proven complicated. In theory, students who live in a neighborhood attend that neighborhood’s school. Given the nation’s racial and ethnic diversity, that premise should result in integrated public schools, but instead deeply entrenched housing segregation subverts that reality. Rather than experiencing the many benefits that diverse classrooms have on learning and long-term well-being, students learn in segregated classrooms and attend segregated schools in segregated communities, often with little recourse.

For decades, school officials interested in integration have tried different solutions, such as open enrollment and magnet schools. But policies and practices like redlining, predatory lending, housing discrimination, and exclusionary zoning have exacerbated and entrenched school segregation by reproducing neighborhood segregation. In short, our existing neighborhoods produce school systems that mirror housing segregation. Where families live shapes their educational opportunities.

“We can foster integrated schools through integrated housing, particularly in areas of the country that are growing.”

Megan Gallagher, Principal Research Associate in Urban’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center and Center on Education Data and Policy

As municipalities across the nation grow and shift, policy decisions around both housing and education will affect whether existing segregation becomes further entrenched. Yet these decisions are often made in silos, with housing stakeholders and education stakeholders rarely discussing local issues together. What if instead of accepting neighborhood segregation as given, school officials could work with housing developers and housing-focused organizations to address segregated communities?

Urban Institute work explores this question by giving education and housing stakeholders the tools to work together within their local contexts. There is no silver bullet, given the wide range of policy environments and local histories nationwide, but creating more sustainable integrated schools must start with a foundation of collaboration and understanding between these two sectors.

“We can foster integrated schools through integrated housing, particularly in areas of the country that are growing,” said Megan Gallagher, a principal research associate in Urban’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center and Center on Education Data and Policy. “Districts and urban planners could use the same language and the same tools, because in a lot of ways, they're currently working in parallel universes, but their decisions are affecting the same families.”

Understanding the current barriers to school integration

Just a few blocks away from Yale University sits New Haven’s highest-performing public school, the Worthington Hooker School. With the highest English, math, and science test scores in the system, the school has long enticed families to move to its district. But Worthington Hooker doesn’t look like the rest of New Haven’s public schools.

In a city that’s nearly 30 percent white and 5 percent Asian, New Haven’s public school enrollment consists of 83 percent Black and Latinx students. Meanwhile, enrollment at Worthington Hooker is about 60 percent white and Asian. These disparities are caused in no small part by long-standing housing segregation, with the school sitting in the affluent East Rock neighborhood, where the median home sales price is more than $500,000.

Generally, school officials rely on an array of strategies—offering school choice programs, redrawing school attendance boundaries, and increasing transportation options—to overcome housing segregation and integrate public schools. Depending on local context, one, two, or all three of these strategies may not be effective or even viable.

New Haven largely relies on an intradistrict school choice program, which has produced some success stories, but most of New Haven’s public schools still don’t represent the community at large. A no-busing rule specific to Worthington Hooker largely prevents students from other neighborhoods and districts from attending the high-performing school and exacerbates demographics disparities. According to Marquelle Middleton, director of school choice and enrollment for New Haven Public Schools, at least six families—all Black families—from another district with more affordable housing have been offered seats in the past year but have turned them down because they couldn’t get their child to or from school.

School choice, according to Gallagher, is largely considered to be “a market-driven strategy” that brings free market forces into public education to offer families multiple options. By giving families more choice in where their child goes to school, the thinking goes, schools will not re-create the surrounding housing segregation by default. But there are clear shortcomings.

First, to get to the school they’ve chosen, families still need physical access, whether that is the ability to walk to a nearby school or access transportation options, which, as Worthington Hooker shows, are not always available. Second, a family might pull their child out of the public system altogether.

Some withdraw from the system because they don’t get into their school of choice, which Glenn Carozza, assistant superintendent for school choice, planning, and assignment in the Wake County Public Schools in North Carolina, has seen happen time and again. In Wake County, a new charter school recently opened outside the county lines, and many families decided to move their students into the new school instead of attending their neighborhood public school. “It's this balancing act of trying to understand how much you can let choice dictate how your schools are going to look and feel,” Carozza said.

Other families may decide to leave their neighborhood school because of families from other schools or districts choosing to attend. Dunia Fernandez, program and policy development adviser for the Los Angeles Unified School District, calls this the “unspoken racism” of school integration efforts. According to Fernandez, these parents may feel that their neighborhood school is now serving students from outside the community, and that change isn’t welcome.

Beyond school choice and transportation, redrawing school assignment boundaries is the other main tool school officials have at their disposal. But this option, too, is fraught. School officials have to seek political backing from local families to redraw the lines, which Middleton has never seen in his five years in New Haven. And even if overcrowding or new school construction necessitate boundary adjustments, community input often leads to new boundary lines that reinforce stark segregation.

Ultimately, the current tools at school officials' disposal are limited because none address the root cause of school segregation—housing segregation. But education stakeholders do not have to work toward integration alone. By using data to better understand local relationships between housing and education, school officials can partner with housing stakeholders to address housing segregation and provide students with a diverse, holistic learning experience. 


Putting housing and education data to use

“I think it’s getting neighborhoods to understand that it's about the whole child, not just the test scores.”

Glenn Carozza, Assistant Superintendent for Wake County Public Schools

In Wake County, Carozza has begun working with a local housing affordability work group that brings together realtors, businesses, and city and county staff members. Currently, local leaders tend to prioritize higher-value developments that can bring in more affluent people, leading to more tax dollars. But the group has commissioned studies that have shown that teachers, child nutrition workers, bus drivers, and first responders—all integral to a functioning community—are being priced out of certain areas of the county. To Carozza, these findings show that more affordable housing is paramount, not just to help him with integrated schools but to better serve the entire community.

For school officials, housing stakeholders, and policymakers, these findings and on-the-ground experiences demonstrate that the most effective strategies for school integration may originate from increased collaboration to do the following:

  • Align district and locality integration goals and use shared data tools to explore potential solutions. Currently, school officials rarely engage in long-term planning with other stakeholders. Lack of budget, time, and local coordination creates barriers to cross-sector partnerships. Fostering local relationships between housing and school stakeholders may help identify opportunities for these organizations to partner in ways that encourage long- and short-term equity goals.
  • Develop tools to plan for population changes, both increases and declines. The Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest in the country, has lost roughly 250,000 students over the past decade. Los Angeles school officials, including Fernandez, are using this opportunity to find creative solutions to integrate schools and explore partnerships with local housing authorities and cities to leverage their school enrollment projections data and resources to build affordable housing for families with children.
  • Establish inclusionary zoning in housing development to encourage developers to create housing affordable for all income levels. Inclusionary zoning includes incentives for developers to include affordable housing units in their developments. A study conducted on inclusionary zoning in Montgomery County, Maryland, found that if students eligible for public housing assistance were allowed spots in higher-performing schools, they achieved better education outcomes. Additionally, more affordable housing near schools can allow the people who work at the school—teachers, bus drivers, and other staff members—to actually live in the community.

Granted, these strategies all require not only buy-in from school officials and housing stakeholders but also political will from the local community. Both Carozza and Middleton stressed how important it is to explain to families the many benefits of diverse and integrated schools, whether that’s through the marketing of success stories or just countering discriminatory perceptions. When school officials can generate buy-in from their local communities to create integrated schools with a range of educational offerings, students can thrive in the classroom and after they graduate.

“Instead of just looking at a successful person as their grades on their papers, it's how do you create a full person,” Carozza said. “I think it’s getting neighborhoods to understand that it's about the whole child, not just the test scores.”  


This data tool uses data from 2011–15 five-year American Community Survey estimates for racial demographic data, housing tenure for both renters and owners, and population counts by age. Low-Income Housing Tax Credit data and Public Housing Development program data come from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) provided planning area and school attendance zone data. In partnership with CMS, this tool shares aggregated data about student attendance, demographics, and socioeconomic status within Charlotte public schools. We use school-level data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ Common Core of Data, accessed through the Urban Institute’s Education Data Portal. These data include directory and demographic data about CMS schools and information about the charter and magnet status of schools and counts of teachers in the CMS schools. Two schools included on the map—Olympic High Relief School and New Southeast Relief School—opened after the most recent year of available data and do not display data. Test score data are sourced from the Department of Education’s EDFacts Initiative and accessed through the Education Data Portal. For more information on the data used in this tool, see our Data Catalog


This feature was funded by the Urban Institute's Housing Matters initiative. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders. Funders do not determine research findings or the insights and recommendations of our experts. More information on our funding principles is available here. Read our terms of service here. Learn more about Housing Matters’ funding principles here.

RESEARCH James Carter, Tina Chelidze, Katie Fallon, and Megan Gallagher

DESIGN Brittney Spinner

DEVELOPMENT Rachel Marconi

EDITING David Hinson

WRITING Wesley Jenkins

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