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Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh

reviewed by Eva Foldes Travers - October 26, 2009

coverTitle: Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh
Author(s): Gerald Grant
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674032942, Pages: 240, Year: 2009
Search for book at Amazon.com

The Milliken decision that struck down a metropolitan desegregation plan in Detroit was the beginning of the end of legal efforts to desegregate American schools. In Hope and Despair in the American City: Why there are no bad schools in Raleigh, Gerald Grant makes a compelling argument that the residential segregation that characterizes virtually all urban districts and their suburbs leaves inner city students in schools isolated by race/ethnicity and social class. The twin goals of desegregation and equal educational opportunity thus are largely unattainable.

Based on extensive field research in Raleigh/Wake County, North Carolina, which he describes as the rare example of a district where true integration and educational achievement have occurred, and Syracuse, New York, which he describes as a typical example of a district that fails its students, Grant skillfully analyzes why the educational outcomes in these two cities differ so significantly.


Grant's book is a welcome addition to the literature on the possibilities of school integration and urban educational reform.  It is accessible to a general, informed audience, written in a similar style to Kozol's Savage Inequalities (Kozol, 1991).  Combining vivid vignettes from the Wake County and Syracuse districts, and including detailed accounts of the unfortunate history of housing policy and the Supreme Court's desegregation decisions, the book illustrates the "hope and despair" that its title suggests.  


Grant's case study of Raleigh's successful implementation of a desegregation plan that goes far beyond busing students is a powerful counter narrative to the failure in most urban areas to achieve meaningful desegregation and enhanced education. In 1976, citizens in Raleigh and the adjoining suburban district, voted to merge and create the Wake County District. In the Wake County district, integration of students has been an ongoing goal. In the face of Supreme Court decisions that have dismantled court-ordered and voluntary desegregation plans, the Wake County district has maintained an integrated and growing school system, where people want to move.

Initially, in the newly created Wake County district, where whites outnumbered Blacks, the policy was that no school was allowed to have more than 40% Black students. After court rulings that race was not allowed to be considered in assignment of students to schools, the school board ended the use of racial criteria for pupil placement. Instead the district decided to use socioeconomic status as the criteria for integrating students in Wake County schools. No school could enroll more than 40% of students receiving subsidized lunch.

In order to achieve racial and then social class balance in Wake County schools, powerful incentives were designed by a succession of superintendents and school boards. These incentives furthered educational quality and parental engagement and made integration an attractive policy. The district developed a significant number of high quality magnet schools; it spent millions of dollars upgrading schools; and it instituted a choice program for parents. By 2006 almost half of district schools were magnet schools to which parents were happy to bus their children.

To improve the quality of education, the district set high expectations for student performance. In 1998, it set a goal that by 2003, 95% of students would score at or above grade level in grades 3-8. While in 1994, 71% of 3rd graders passed the state math and reading tests, by 2003, 91% of students in grades 3-8 had done so. Growth in test results was not limited to certain schools. Increases occurred in all schools—hence the subtitle, "Why there are no bad schools in Raleigh."

Grant attributes these gains, in large part, to the redistribution of social capital, as discussed in Coleman's seminal work. "The social (class) component of the student body is more highly related to achievement, independent of the student's own social background, than is any other school factor" (Coleman, 1966, p. 325). Poor students, many of whom are minorities, benefit from being in classes with students from more affluent backgrounds. For instance, if a school does not use tracking to segregate low income students, they interact with peers who are engaged in school, learn new norms of behavior, and have teachers with high expectations for their students.

While race is typically correlated with social class (and Grant often refers to them in combination), he argues that social class is a more powerful predictor of school success than race. Simply moving bodies, whether on the basis of race or socioeconomic status, however, is not sufficient to achieve meaningful integration or impressive test score gains. The sizable gains in test scores in Wake County were accompanied by a variety of other reforms that I believe are critical in the process of school improvement.

1. School Leadership: The district set high standards for principals. Principals attended rigorous training workshops, where, among other things, they were taught how to use data to improve their schools. The district established a Wake County Academy for aspiring principals.

2. Teacher Collaboration/Support:  Teachers increasingly worked in teams, supported by a teacher leader. They shared best teaching practices and used data to support their teaching approaches.  In addition, teachers could choose the school(s) where they wanted to teach.

3. Support for Low Performing Students: The district moved toward giving these students extra resources and supports, including tutoring and in many cases double periods of reading and math in elementary schools.   

4. Parental Engagement:  District leadership encouraged parent involvement inside and outside of school. They developed behavioral contracts with parents. They enlisted an unusually large percentage of parent volunteers from all income levels.

In addition, civic engagement supported the goals of the Wake County School District. The Wake Partnership, an annual conference of thousands of parents, business leaders, politicians, and principals, drew members of the community together to examine system outcomes and set goals. When a small but vocal group of dissatisfied parents argued for a neighborhood school policy and attempted to change the composition of the School Board in 2007, the current School Board was handily reelected. More than 90% of parents agreed that, my child is getting a "superior education" in the Wake County district (p. 188). There are no identifiably bad schools in Raleigh.  

Recently, the 40% rule has been hard to maintain in some schools, as increasing numbers of low-income Hispanic students have enrolled in the district. Test scores have fallen slightly, but the district remains committed to integration. "The overwhelming majority of Wake parents were convinced that busing was worth it" (p. 170).

In contrast, Syracuse is a classic example of a northern urban school system where efforts to desegregate were minimal. Due to a history of legislation and regulatory procedures, such as redlining, residential segregation was maintained. Syracuse and its suburbs never merged their systems. Middle class families, whose children once attended Syracuse schools, increasingly moved to the suburbs. Housing segregation ultimately locked poor and/or Black and Latino students in inferior urban schools.

Moreover, the suburbs resisted responsibility for improving educational opportunity for students in the city. Scattered attempts to improve schools and efforts to remake Syracuse into a vibrant city largely failed. The city was increasingly poverty stricken and left to fend for itself.  The powerful educational reforms initiated in Wake County did not occur in Syracuse. As a consequence, educational outcomes for students in the district were dismal.  The passing rates for students on state tests were very low and the drop out rate was high.  

Court decisions in the 1990's systematically dismantled desegregation plans, as districts under court order were declared unitary and school integration based on racial criteria was ruled unconstitutional. Wake County's decision to use socioeconomic criteria, in concert with parental choice for pupil placement, is a powerful combination that has maintained integration in the district.

In Wake County, the political will of the community has ensured that the goal of integrated schools and an integrated society lives on. But how typical is the confluence of facilitating factors in the Raleigh case? I fear the answer to that question is not hopeful.

Grant acknowledges the Raleigh/Wake County case cannot be easily replicated. He suggests two alternatives to foster the kind social class integration that he believes must be present to provide inner city students with equal educational opportunity. The first is to give hefty vouchers to students in "failing" inner city schools (as defined according to NCLB) to transfer to good suburban districts. The second is to develop more voluntary one-way busing programs, like Boston's METCO plan, that bring inner city students to suburban schools. Promising ideas. Unfortunately, I am not convinced that the political will to create viable numbers of these alternatives presently exists.


Coleman, J. S.  (1966). Equality of Educational Opportunity. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Kozol, J. (1991), Savage Inequalities. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 26, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15812, Date Accessed: 5/17/2022 4:32:17 PM

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About the Author
  • Eva Travers
    Swarthmore College
    EVA TRAVERS is a Professor Emeritus, Swarthmore College. At Swarthmore, she taught Urban Education and Educational Policy and for over twenty years was Chair of the Program in Education, later Department of Educational Studies. She was a Senior Research Consultant at Research For Action, a nonprofit educational research organization that has done extensive research on School District of Philadelphia. Her research has focused on urban education, teacher education/quality, and civic education in Hungary. Currently she is completing a longitudinal study of women's personal and political development that she began when the women were high school juniors in 1970.
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