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Even More Racially Isolated than Before: Problematizing the Vision for “Diversity” in a Racially Mixed High School

by Anjalé D. Welton - 2013

Background/Context: The term racial diversity is interchangeably used in the literature with other terms such as racially mixed, integration, and desegregation in reference to policies to design and practices to implement racially heterogeneous communities, districts, and schools. Scholarship that promotes the democratic potential of racially diverse schools argues that the policies for doing so if implemented systematically can extend equitable resources to all students and dismantle negative racial and social class stereotypes through cross-cultural interactions. However, the social justice oriented goals of a racially diverse school will never fully materialize if institutional and structural barriers as well as racial attitudes and perceptions only allow a privileged few to connect to opportunities and result in a school that is merely diverse in terms of student enrollment.

Purpose: Attaining racial heterogeneity is just one goal of racially diverse schooling. Students’ academic and social opportunities, engagement, and connectedness to school should also be considered. Thus, this article expands upon research that critically examines definitions of “true” diversity and calls for a policy vision for diversity that goes beyond achieving heterogeneity in student enrollment and also considers what structures and relationships are necessary to provide equitable opportunities for all students. In order to further problematize the concept “diversity”, the author used Brown High School (BHS), a racially and socioeconomically diverse comprehensive high school located in a predominately White, affluent southern part of a major metropolitan area, as a critical case. The school community as a whole appreciated its racially diverse student body, but as the case study demonstrates “appreciation” for diversity did not resolve the institutional, structural inequities and racial attitudes that resegregated students of color who transferred to BHS in search of better opportunities to structures within the school that were nearly or as equally isolating as their previous racially segregated, low performing schools.

Participants: Seventeen students of color were interviewed and among this sample 7 identified as Latina/o, six African American, one of Asian decent (Vietnamese), and three self-identified as multi-ethnic (Latina/Chinese, Latino/White, Latina/White). Nine faculty (the principal, two assistant principals, four teachers, one tutoring center director, and one college and career counselor) were nominated by students to also be interviewed.

Research Design: This study employed qualitative case study methods to illuminate the complex relationships that unfold within the high school of study.

Data Collection and Analysis: School level demographic and achievement data, observations, school documents, and field notes of student led focus groups also helped frame the high school context. All data was collected during the 2009-2010 school year. An initial round of open coding and then several iterations of focused coding were used to uncover consistent themes, issues, and story lines.

Findings: The school administration unveiled a school improvement plan that would enable the school to capitalize on its growing student diversity by ensuring all students have meaningful academic and social connections to school. Despite the school improvement team’s efforts to hold school community wide discussions about what changes should be made to support the increasingly diverse student body, most students of color who transferred to BHS were consigned to the lowest course and programmatic tracks, creating very disparate structures of opportunity within the high school. A complex set of factors contributed to inequities within the high school. There were vast inequities between schools across the district; thus, students of color from lower performing schools transferred to BHS already at a disadvantage in academic preparation. Also, some faculty were reluctant to change their practices to accommodate the increasingly diverse student body and harbored negative racial attitudes and stereotypes. Finally, any strategies put in place to address the inequities were very unsystematic and instead piecemeal and programmatic.

Conclusion/Recommendations: In order to fully capitalize on the democratic benefits of diversity, leaders must be willing to re-organize and alter school structures so that every student is equally connected to opportunities. Also, while it is important for school leaders to engage discussions with faculty and the community about the importance of racial diversity, dialogue is only one step, as leaders must also then take action towards implementing systematic supports to address inequities. Furthermore, faculty should consider how their own racial identities and social constructions about diversity impact student experiences and make faculty dialogue about race and cultural difference an integral part of the school improvement plan. Ultimately, when racially diverse schools are not strategic about ensuring all students are connected, students of color within these settings can become even more racially isolated.

Diverse educational settings are one way to mend de jure as well as de facto racial inequities that are more structural in nature. Whichever terms are used in the research—“diverse,” “racially mixed,” “desegregated,” or “integrated”—all terms are semantically linked and envision racial diversity as a means to democracy. There are two very specific social-justice-oriented goals to achieving racial diversity via school desegregation policies: extending equitable resources to all students and facilitating positive interactions across race and social class lines. Optimistically, racially diverse schools can serve an even greater democratic purpose by dismantling students’ negative racial and social class stereotypes through cross-cultural interactions (Mickelson & Nkomo, 2012; Wells, Holme, Revilla, & Atanda, 2009). Because of this promise of equity, students of color continue to cross race and social class lines to leave behind their low-performing, racially isolating, high-poverty neighborhood schools for racially mixed and predominately White schools that have more perceived resources and networks to help build and pursue their educational aspirations (Huidor & Cooper, 2010; Wells & Crain, 1997).

Ultimately, the underlying assumption is that racial diversity has the potential to offer all students better social, cultural, and educational opportunities—quintessential elements to promoting democracy. However, the paradox is even once racial diversity is achieved, efforts to maintain the true benefits of diversity are tenuous, given there are still unresolved institutional, structural, and even racial attitudes and perceptions that undermine the democratic goals of diversity. Thus, the purpose of this case study is to problematize the idea of “diversity” by closely examining Brown High School (BHS), a racially mixed school sought after by students of color (primarily Latina/o and African American) who choose to transfer because of its overall academic reputation and perceived educational opportunities, as well as faculty members’ and students’ espoused appreciation for “diversity.” The racially diverse student body at Brown High is a departure from transfer students’ former low-performing, high-poverty, high-minority neighborhood schools. Nevertheless, while Brown High has democratic possibilities of promoting diversity, the school serves as a critical case to uncover and understand how this idealism and vision for diversity can be compromised as most students of color, who transfer to Brown in search of better opportunities, are ultimately re-sorted to structures within the school that are nearly or equally isolating as their previous racially segregated, low-performing schools.


As stated earlier, racially mixed schools can only serve as vehicles for social justice and democracy when systems and structures are in place to fully maximize the educational and cross-cultural benefits of diversity. In order to critically examine how “diversity” is framed in this case study, the following sections present key tenets and goals for achieving diversity as well as clarification of related terms and definitions presented in the research. The review then concludes with an overview of common mechanisms that exacerbate, not alleviate, inequities in racially mixed settings. Sorting mechanisms such as educators’ race-neutral constructions about race, as well as resegregation (i.e., tracking), pose a threat and undermine the potential benefits of diversity.


Educational research that endorses policies and practices that aim to achieve and sustain racially diverse school settings base its arguments on specific, yet complex rationales. Previous U.S. Supreme Court cases that thrust issues, such as race-based voluntary integration (Parents Involved v. Seattle School District) and affirmative action (Fisher v. University of Texas as well as Grutter v. Bollinger)1, to the national policy discourse continue to drive education and social science research in support of the “diversity rationale,” which purports that diversity has specific democratic functions, given that racially mixed settings facilitate interactions between students of various ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds and prepares students to live in a more diverse, global society (Carter, 2010; Gurin, Nagada, & Lopez, 2004; Mickelson & Nkomo, 2012; Wells et. al, 2009).

In support of the diversity rationale, research asserts that students of color who attend racially mixed (typically racially balanced or predominately White) versus racially isolated (homogeneousness of color and low-income) schools develop a sophisticated set of navigational skills in order to survive and thrive in racially diverse settings. For example, Black students who attend integrated k-12 schools are more likely to seek racially mixed settings in their future adult, social and work lives (Braddock & McPartland, 1989; O’Connor, 1997; Wells et al., 2009). Furthermore, Black and Latina/o students attending either racially mixed or predominately White schools report not being a member of the dominant group (White and middle-to-high income) for which the institutional structures of schooling is primarily designed, prepares them for the competitive environment they will encounter in future postsecondary education and work settings where they are typically in the minority (Gándara, 1995; O’Connor, 1997; Wells et al., 2009).

As such, students of color attending integrated k-12 school settings learn how to navigate “different cultural and social terrains” by sophisticatedly understanding “how things work in dominant and mainstream social institutions, organizations, places, and cultural spheres,” as well as draw upon the assets of their own personal cultural identities (Carter, 2005, p. 173; Gándara, 1995; Yosso, 2005). Even though students of color learn to be “culturally flexible” because of the multitude of class, cultural, and ethnic identities that they encounter in mixed race schools (Carter, 2010, p. 2), the assets they develop in these settings come with a cost, as students of color must exert additional energy and strain to negotiate structural inequities and institutional constraints that are a product of racism—additional roadblocks their White peers do not face (Yosso, 2005).

Still, regardless of a students’ racial and ethnic background, lessons can be learned from the interactions and racial differences, as well as contentions that unfold in racially diverse settings. For example, Wells, et al. (2009) found that alumni of desegregated high schools, upon reflection, were grateful for the unique experiences and lessons that their racially diverse schooling offered them. Despite the unremitting racial tensions and inequities within the desegregated high schools Wells et al. studied, graduates of these schools suggested that their racially mixed schooling experiences made them more open-minded, less prejudical, and less fearful about race-related issues in their adult and work lives (also see Holme, Wells, & Revilla, 2005).

Another argument in favor of racially diverse schooling is that presently, U.S. schools and surrounding communities are ever more racially and socioeconomically isolated due to “structural inequality” such as persistent racial and social class disparities in employment and housing, White flight to predominately White schools and neighborhoods, and community and political resistance to school desegregation policies (Hochschild & Scovronick, 2003; Minow, 2004; Orfield, 2002; Wells, Duran, & White, 2008, p. 2542). The extreme racial isolation of U.S. schools that Brown v. Board left unresolved is now coupled with concentrated poverty (Orfield & Lee, 2005). Research signifies schools where over 50% of the student population is non-White and economically disadvantaged as high poverty, high minority (Orfield & Lee, 2005; Reddick, Welton, Alsandor, Platt, & Denyszyn, 2011). Even though homogenously White and affluent schools are technically segregated, this term is more commonly used in research literature to reference schools with a majority of Black, Latina/o, and low socioeconomic (SES) student population. Black and Latina/o students specifically, when compared to Asian and White students, are 60% more likely to attend a high-poverty, high-minority school (Orfield & Lee, 2005).

Students attending high-poverty, high-minority schools confront distressing educational inequities and consequences such as lower teacher quality (Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin, 2009; Jerald, Haycock, & Wilkins, 2009; Mickelson, 2003), a higher risk of dropping out of school (Balfanz & Legters, 2004; Zuckerbrod, 2007), limited college preparation and matriculation (Martin, Karabel, & Jaquez, 2005; Rumberger & Palardy, 2006; Solorzano & Ornelas, 2002; Teranishi, Allen, & Solórzano, 2004), and experience higher disciplinary infractions and suspensions (Gregory, Cornell, & Fan, 2011) than peers attending integrated or predominately White, affluent high schools. Segregated Black schools typically have less advanced placement course offerings and less material resources such as technology and safe building infrastructures than their racially diverse and predominately White counterparts (Mickelson, 2002). Moreover, high-poverty, high-minority schools are greater targets of punitive school performance labels and school closure practices generated by mandated school reform policies such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and state accountability systems (Kirshner, Gaertner, & Pozzoboni, 2010; Valencia, Valenzuela, Sloan, & Foley, 2001). This stigmatization provokes student distress over stereotypes placed upon their schools and negatively impacts parent and community perceptions about high-poverty, high-minority schools (Kirshner et al., 2010; Reddick et al., 2011). Regrettably, as the percentage of students of color increases, specifically Black students, these aforementioned inequities in resources and opportunities are further exacerbated (Mickelson, 2002).

Consequently, given the bleak schematization of high-poverty, high-minority schools in the research literature and political discourse, students of color2 and their parents with the information networks and understanding of how to do so, can seek educational opportunities elsewhere. Thus, various school choice policies enable students to transfer from high-poverty, high-minority schools with the assumption that racially mixed and predominately White school settings will provide ideal educational possibilities and outcomes (Huidor & Cooper, 2010; see Schneider, Teske, Roch, & Marschall, 1997; Wells & Crain, 1997).

In contrast to academically challenged resource-strained, high-poverty, high-minority schools, racially diverse/desegregated schools have definitive short-term and long-term academic benefits and outcomes (Mickelson & Nkomo, 2012; Wells, 1995). The short-term benefits of desegregated schools include improved student achievement based on standardized test scores (Rumberger & Palardy, 2006) and higher high school graduation rates than students who remain in high-poverty, high-minority high schools (Freivogel, 2002; Trent, 1997). Even more promising than snapshot increases in standardized test scores are the gains in academic achievement that desegregated schools yield as students in these settings progress along the educational pipeline. For instance, the more time Black and White students spend in desegregated elementary schools, the higher their standardized test scores will be in middle and high school (Mickelson, 2002). Also, students who attend desegregated elementary schools are more likely to be placed in higher academic tracks in high school. In terms of long-term benefits, students who opt to attend desegregated schools have a higher probability of matriculating to and completing college (Teranishi et al., 2004; Teranishi & Parker, 2010; Trent, 1997). Black students who attend desegregated k-12 settings are also more likely to select a STEM field as a college major (Braddock, 1987). Hence, the short-term and long-term academic benefits of desegregated schools is largely attributed to the advantages in both resources (material and human capital) and academic opportunities (advanced course offerings and college preparation), privileges that are commonly limited in high-poverty, high-minority schools (Mickelson, 2002).


Finally, research interchangeably uses several terms related to racial diversity, thus it is important to delineate these terms and clarify their definitions (Horsford, 2011; Mickelson & Nkomo, 2012; O’Connor, Hill, & Robinson, 2009). The term integration is primarily used to reference the level of student racial balance, heterogeneity or diversity in a school (O’Connor et al., 2009). The Brown vs. Board of Education, 1954 decision determined separate could never be considered equal and, in response, integration policies have primarily focused on achieving racial distribution within schools (Moody, 2001). As such, Perry (2004) posits desegregation is less about physically intermixing students of various racial and social class backgrounds, and concentrates more on the process of removing the legal barriers of racial segregation.

In the research literature, to desegregate and integrate not only synonymously refer to subverting racially and socioeconomically isolated schools, but also the strategic process of designing diverse school settings via inter-district desegregation or intra-district (within district) transfer policies (see Diem, 2012; Holme & Wells, 2008). However, there is criticism that intra-district provisions under NCLB are not a viable option because, in many urban school districts, there are few schools available that are not “in need of improvement.” Research commonly typifies school integration as Black and Latina/o students transferring from urban segregated schools to suburban, predominately White, and affluent schools (Huidor & Cooper, 2010; Wells & Crain, 1997; Wells et al. 2009).

Yet, school integration policies primarily focus on achieving a racially heterogeneous student enrollment within districts and schools (Moody, 2001; O’Connor et al., 2009). Achieving student diversity should not stop at racial heterogeneity, and additional policies and structures should be in place to ensure that meaningful social, cultural, and academic interactions take place. According to Mickelson and Nkomo (2012), integrated education should be globally defined as “an important building block that cultivates the social cultural and attitudinal predicates of cohesive, just, multiethnic, democratic societies, rest on a long philosophical tradition linking democracy” (p. 199). Thus, most schools are merely desegregated to the extent that members of two or more groups are physically situated in the same school building. However, schools rarely accomplish integration where all student groups are equally connected to opportunities a school has to offer (Hewstone, 2000). As the following section demonstrates, attaining a racially mixed student body is one goal, but sustaining the full benefits is quite another, given the number of institutional, structural, and even attitudinal barriers that pose a challenge to diversity.


Although, racial diversity is important, the schoolwide racial composition (percentage of students of color versus White students) should not be the sole determining factor for success, given schools in themselves are inequitable sorting mechanisms that can undo much of the potential benefits of diversity (see Noguera, 2001; Noguera & Wing, 2006). Unfortunately, high schools specifically exhibit a number of mechanisms in which they balkanize students and reproduce race and social class inequities (Bourdieu, 1977; Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990; Bowles & Gintis, 1976; Conchas, 2006). Valenzuela (1999) contends that school structures, such as institutional policies and practices, can be subtractive and “de-capitalize” students from networks necessary to successfully navigate high school (p. 29). The overall organization of the high school, variation in responsibility among administrative staff, decentralized nature of decision-making within departments, and inconsistent policies and implementation of placement in advanced courses and special programs are structural forces that largely reproduce inequities for low-income students and students of color (Noguera & Wing, 2006). Even when communities make concerted efforts to racially integrate schools and exude community pride in achieving racial heterogeneity, inequities in educational opportunity amidst the newfound racial diversity are still inevitable (Mickelson, 2001; Noguera & Wing, 2006).

Social Constructions About Diversity

Although inequities in racially mixed schools are primarily institutional in nature, educators’ social constructions about race and social class shape school policies and practices that can, in turn, create disparate opportunity structures for low-income students and students of color. In racially changing schools, any schoolwide strategic efforts to foster inclusivity are often met with resistance from faculty and parents who aim to preserve the inequitable status quo (Cooper, 2009). Frankenberg (2012) found that teachers in racially transitioning schools had difficulty changing their attitudes about race to match the recent increase in student diversity. Hence, teachers’ awareness about race was “lagged” and was suited to how the school used to be, but did not reflect the level of awareness necessary in the face of racial change (Frankenberg, 2012, p. 468). Furthermore, in racially changing schools, when teachers and administrators are uncomfortable with or unsure of how to meet the needs of a newly diverse student body, they often engage in colorblind practices by either avoiding discussions of race altogether or engaging in deficit-oriented beliefs and practices that negatively impact opportunities for students of color to learn (Evans, 2007; Pollock, 2001).

It is important to take notice of how race is socially constructed in schools. The way in which a school community chooses to talk or not talk about race creates racial boundaries and contributes to the reproduction of race-based inequities (Lewis, 2001; Pollock, 2001). According to Pollock (2001), educators are normalized to expect that racial gaps in achievement will appear, and because these inequities have become common, we fail to address them or are colormute by not acknowledging or discussing how race matters. Oftentimes, because of our failure to openly discuss race or discomfort with using racial terms, we instead use “coded” and typically deficit-oriented language. Also, even when educators assign colorblind, coded language, such as geographic (e.g., north side versus south side) or achievement-based signifiers (e.g., at-risk) that may be “perceived as genteel” and less political language, these codes still carry implicit racial and social class connotations (Buendía, Ares, Juarez, & Peercy, 2004, p. 856; Pollock, 2001). Hence, colorblind, coded language inevitably reproduces inequities as educators assign deficit-oriented instructional and curricular distinctions to racial and class-based labels, deciding what “type” of instruction students need based on labels (Buendía et al., 2004). Regrettably, school reform policies encourage educators to engage in and assign race-neutral, shorthand categories and achievement labels that negatively stereotype and essentially pigeonhole low-income students of color into these categories of failure (Buendía et al., 2004; Kirshner et al., 2010; Leonardo, 2007). As Pollock contends, educators’ propensity to categorize, label, and code “a description of any achievement pattern immediately prompts an explanation of who is to blame for it” and always “involves a particularly charged location of responsibility” (p. 6).


In addition to educators’ social constructions about race and social class, course and programmatic tracking within the high school—i.e., second-generation segregation or resegregation (see Mickleson, 2001, 2002; Mickelson & Heath, 1999)—is also a reproducing mechanism that stratifies low-income students of color into the lower rungs of academic and social life (Oakes, 2005; Solórzano & Ornelas, 2002; Yonezawa, Wells, & Serna, 2002). Even within high schools that outwardly appear to be integrated, low-income students and Black and Latina/o students are typically tracked to remedial courses, underrepresented in advanced courses, and overrepresented in special education, dropout prevention, and disciplinary programs (Braddock II & Dawkins, 1993; Kelly & Price, 2011; Martin et al., 2005; Solórzano & Ornelas, 2002). Also, even when controlling for multiple variables, such as achievement, family background, peer groups, gender, attitudes, and effort, Black students, when compared to their White peers, are more likely to be found in the lower tracks (Mickelson, 2002). Furthermore, the “hidden” rules associated with inclusion in advance courses and academic programs are typically undisclosed to low-income students and students of color, and, instead, students who have powerful networks to access academic resources are ascended to advanced courses (Martin et al., 2005; Solórzano & Ornelas, 2002). As such, low-income students of color are often hesitant to enroll in advanced courses because of the chilly environment they may encounter as one of few students of color in these courses (Yonezawa et al., 2002).

Lastly, high-SES students and their parents often monopolize access to advanced courses and academic programs, which can limit access for low-SES and students of color to enriching educational opportunities (Kelly & Price, 2011; Tilly, 1999). Kelly and Price (2011) contend, “The local benefit for high-SES students hoarding access to upper track classes within a school reinforces inequality in society at large through differential accumulation of educational skills and credentials.” (p. 565). Furthermore, high-SES parents highly regulate their child’s schooling and influence their way into gaining their child’s access to high-track classes (Lareau, 1989; Noguera & Wing, 2006). Subsequently, the overrepresentation of low-income Black and Latina/o students in the lower academic tracks within integrated high school settings is especially concerning considering advanced courses are one gateway to rigorous college preparation and matriculation (see Cabrera & La Nasa, 2000).


Schools are designed as a public right and democratic space for educational equality, opportunity, and advancement (Willis, 1977). However, despite this lofty goal, the democratic possibilities for racial diversity go to the wayside when subsequent policies, systems, and practices are not in place to ensure that all students are equitably connected (both academically and socially) to school (see Noguera, 2001). Even though educational research demonstrates how racially mixed schools yield an increase in academic resources and benefits for primarily African American students (since limited studies consider how other groups of color are impacted by segregation) this same research criticizes surface-level examinations of racially mixed schools and suggests that racial diversity is futile when “studies show that social forces such as discrimination, racism, and inequality permeate the school’s social context and countervail students’ racial boundary crossing” (Carter, 2010, p. 2).

Scholarship on student diversity suggests that research move beyond the study of the racial composition of the school, urging that critical examination of interactions within school is necessary. Attaining racial heterogeneity is just one element of integrated schooling. Students’ level of connectedness to school should also be considered. Thus, this case study aims to critique underlying assumptions of racial diversity by extending its critique beyond a face-value examination and instead contextually examines the structural and relational complexities that unfold within a racially diverse school. This case study also explores how opportunity is structured for students of color who transfer from homogeneousness of color schools to a conceivably desegregated/racially mixed high school.


Since Brown High School’s composition is racially heterogeneous, as a qualitative case study it provides a distinctive opportunity to assess the assumptions of racially diverse schools presented earlier in the review of the literature. Qualitative case study features “descriptions that are complex, holistic, and involving a myriad of not highly isolated variables . . . that are to be gathered partly by holistic observation” (Stake, 1978, p. 7). Accordingly, a case study offered a methodological purview in which to contextually observe a demographically diverse high school setting. Even more specifically, research that employs case study methods lends itself to illuminating the complexity of a context by critically unveiling relationships that have formed or even relationships that have not taken shape within the context (see Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). Hence, qualitative case study methods aided in revealing the complex circumstances within the context that reproduces inequities for students of color in a racially diverse high school setting such as BHS. However, one significant limitation of this study is that it is a single case design; therefore, cautionary considerations are made to not overgeneralize the presentation of the findings, discussion, and implications.

All data for this case study was collected during the 2009 to 2010 school year. At the time of data collection, I was an assistant coordinator for a university–school partnership (i.e., the partnership). Prior to data collection for this study, the administrative team at BHS approached the partnership about facilitating a professional development with school personnel to address school improvement issues regarding Brown High’s growing student diversity. I became intrigued by how Brown High’s overall value of its racial diversity seemed to be counter to the experiences of the students of color who transferred to the high school, and as such requested permission from the administration to study the phenomenon.


Because the context and circumstances of Brown High as a case study are so unique, precautions were taken to maintain the anonymity of the school’s location (city and district) and pseudonyms were used for students and faculty members who elected to speak with me. In order to adequately capture the multiple perspectives of the issues presented in this case study, I used a variety of data sources—triangulation—such as interviews of students and faculty members, observations, school-level data, and school documents, as well as field notes of student focus group data. School-level data was primarily retrieved from the 2009–2010 Texas Education Agency (TEA), Academic Excellence Indicator System (AEIS). Individual, semistructured interviews with students and faculty were audio recorded and lasted approximately 90 minutes (which included follow-up conversations). Also, I conducted approximately 120 hours of observations (school improvement team and faculty meetings, parent/community meetings, student-led focus groups, and hallway and cafeteria interactions).

Finally, in order to help inform the school improvement plan BHS’s administration asked students leaders to conduct focus groups of 300 students to gather student perspectives on how to improve academics and campus life. The student-led focus groups served as a youth participatory action research project (Irizarry, 2009), in which the students developed the questions, facilitated the student focus groups, conducted the analysis, presented the data, and then offered solutions. I assisted the student leaders in the data collection and analysis of the student focus group data. The student leaders presented their data to BHS faculty. Observations and field notes of the student-led focus group proceedings (the focus groups were not audio recorded) and the student leaders’ presentation of their findings to faculty also helped contextualize this case study.

I used several analytic processes to qualitatively code and analyze the data. First, I initiated open coding in the initial reading of field notes of the observational data and interview transcripts line-by-line noting consistent themes, issues, or story lines (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995). Through the process of focused coding, I eliminated codes that no longer fit the overall story, and identified subcodes by making connections across themes. During the entire coding process, I had a peer critically examine my initial and final themes presented in the subsequent findings.


The school administration randomly preselected a list of students as potential participants. I met with the listed students individually to determine if they were interested in participating in the study. I also connected with and invited students to participate in the study by “hanging out” in the high school cafeteria and hallways. I invited approximately one-third of the student sample via the “hanging out” method. With assistance from school administration and my own recruitment via personal connections with students, 17 students of color agreed to participate in in-depth interviews.

During the interview student participants were asked to self-identify the following: racial/ethnic background, gender, grade point average (GPA), course enrollment (AP or non-AP), grade level, and the highest level of education in their family. Among the 17 students of color who participated, 7 identified as Latina/o, 6 African American, 1 of Asian descent (Vietnamese), and 3 self-identified as multi-ethnic (Latina/Chinese, Latino/White, and Latina/White) (see Table 1). Also, because one of the foci of the case study was how students of color who transfer were connected to BHS, students were also asked the type of school they previously attended and what mechanisms they used to gain access to and enroll in BHS. Cataloguing the previous school attended helped determine each student’s neighborhood school community as well as policies and patterns students used to transfer to BHS.

Table 1 Student Participant Profiles



Grade Level

Race/ Ethnicity*


Non-AP or AP

Family Education Level (highest)




Half White and half Mexican

4.1 GPA

Enrolled in all AP courses

Will be first in the family to graduate college




Emigrated from Mexico in 2nd grade; Spanish is 1st language

Top 15th percentile

Enrolled in all AP courses

Will be first in the family to attend college




Half Hispanic and half Chinese

3.8 GPA

AP English; the rest of classes are non-AP

Parents and one sibling has a college degree




African American

3.7 GPA

Enrolled in all AP courses except Physics

High school; Will be first in the family to attend college





3.4 GPA

Enrolled in AP English only

Father received an 8th grade and mother received a 3rd grade education




Emigrated from Guatemala to U.S. in 3rd grade. Spanish is first language

3.1 GPA

Enrolled in all AP courses

Mother is completing her PhD in Plant Ecology




Family grew up in Mexico

Mostly A's & B's

AP French, Psychology; the rest of classes are non-AP

Parents did not graduate HS




African American

3.0 GPA

Enrolled in all non-AP courses

Comes from a family of educators





Mostly B's

Enrolled in all AP courses except Physics

 High school





Above B average

Enrolled in all non-AP courses

Parents dropped out of high school in 9th & 10th grades




African American

Average grades

Enrolled in all non-AP courses

Mom attended some college




African American

2.9 GPA

Enrolled in all non-AP courses

Mother attended community college; Father did not attend college




Mother is White, father is Mexican

2.8 GPA

Enrolled in all AP courses

Mother graduated from high school, father graduated from college




African American

Mostly B’s and a few C’s

Enrolled in all pre-AP with the exception of History

All family members attended college





Does not know his GPA, mostly B’s & C’s

Enrolled in all non-AP courses

Mother dropped out of school in 9th grade





Mostly C's

Enrolled in all non-AP courses

No one in his family completed high school




African American

1.8 or 1.9 GPA

Enrolled in all non-AP courses

Father graduated from college; mother is attending community college

*Race/ethnicity is presented exactly as student self-identified.

**Participants placed in order in terms of highest reported grade point average (an approximate).

While Brown High’s surface-level diversity was evident, faculty members also helped contextualize this case study, serving as informants about the level in which students of color were truly connected to school. Based on a community nomination method (Foster, 1991), I asked each student participant at the end of the interview to recommend at least one adult or institutional agent (Stanton-Salazar, 1997) who made them feel connected to school and educational opportunities. Institutional agents have the capacity and commitment to transmit directly, or help students negotiate the transmission of institutional resources and opportunities. I tallied the students’ nominations and selected the top ten most recommended institutional agents and, ultimately, nine consented to participate. The students nominated the principal, two assistant principals, four teachers, one tutoring center director, and one college and career counselor (see Table 2). Interviewing faculty members who students identified as exceptional at relationship building meant these institutional agents were more attuned to whether or not students of color were making quality academic and social connections to school amidst Brown High’s surface level diversity.

Table 2. School Personnel (Institutional Agents) Participants



Years at BHS

Dr. Gonzalez



Mr. Matthews

Assistant Principal, Work for credit program coordinator


Ms. Valadez

Assistant Principal, Credit recovery program coordinator


Mr. Weston

English teacher, AVID teacher


Mrs. Winston

World History teacher


Mrs. Charles

Pre-calculus teacher, SAT prep, AVID teacher, Student council advisor


Ms. Green

Geography teacher, Freshman mentoring program advisor


Mrs. Stephens

College and career counselor


Mrs. Larenz

Tutoring center director



Brown High School (BHS), a racially and socioeconomically diverse comprehensive high school, is located in a predominately White, affluent southern part of a major metropolitan area in Texas. As such, Brown High’s neighborhood parents and residents possess a majority of the community influence and power within BHS as well as the district. BHS prides itself on maintaining tradition and “loyalty” and students boast about the generations of family alumni, as children of state- and national-level politicians are part of this powerful network.

While BHS is situated in the affluent southern part of the district, students attending schools on the northern side are offered drastically disparate educational experiences. A history of de jure segregation contributes to the continued racial and socioeconomic divisions between the north (predominately of color and poor) and south side (now diverse, but still mostly middle- to high-income) of the metropolitan area in terms of equitable access to education, housing, and commerce. A major interstate highway in the early 1920s was legally designated as the racial dividing line between White residents and persons of color—specifically African American and Latina/o. This highway still remains as the symbolic demarcation between the north and south sides of the school district.

Although low-income students and students of color from the north side attended BHS since court-ordered desegregation in the 1970s and a mandated district-wide busing program to integrate schools in the 1980s, some faculty still expressed apprehension over supporting the needs of the school’s continued growing diversity in student enrollment. The student enrollment, approximately 2,300, at Brown has remained fairly constant over the last ten years, but students of color are no longer the “minority” and recently shifted to representing a slight majority of the student body (Table 3). Also, the state closed Chavez High School, a north side school, two years prior due to consistent low performance. A number of students transferred from Chavez, and now the Latina/o population at BHS is almost equal to the White population. Furthermore, the economically disadvantaged population represents 35.7% of the student body, which would not designate BHS as a high-poverty school, but instead as a more racially and socioeconomically balanced and diverse school. Due to this rapid shift, the school administration’s primary goal for school improvement was to conduct ongoing conversations with faculty members, students, and parents about how to best foster the future of BHS given its increasingly diverse school community.

Table 3. BHS Student Demographics




African American









Asian/Pacific Islander



Native American



Economically Disadvantaged



English Language Learner



Source: Texas Education Agency, Academic Excellence Indicator System, 2011


The underlying theory of action of diverse schooling is that equitable educational opportunities and positive social interactions occur when students of different race and social class groups coexist within one schoolhouse. Yet, as this case study demonstrates, without mechanisms to sustain the democratic purpose of a diverse student body, such as Brown High’s, the school itself inevitably reproduces inequities. Attaining racial heterogeneity is just one element of integrated schooling. Students’ connectedness to school should also be considered.

Even though the school at large recognized the democratic potential of Brown High’s diverse school community, the subsequent findings uncover structures and practices that prevented Brown High from capitalizing on the full potential of its diverse student body. Students of color who transferred to Brown utilized intra-district transfer policies to access Brown High’s diversity and academic reputation. However, BHS had difficulty ensuring that students of color who transferred received educational opportunities that were imaginably better than their previous low-performing school. Students, faculty, and the school community embraced the school’s diversity, but acknowledged “two schools” of inequitable opportunities existed within Brown.


Brown High is considered to be the district’s hub for racial diversity; the school has been a recipient of students from all over the district since its first installment of mandated desegregation in the 1970s. For this reason, the high school’s racial composition has always mirrored the school district at large—which recently shifted to a majority “minority” racial composition. To follow suit with the school’s growing diversity, faculty endorsed BHS as a crossroads for students throughout the district to come together and receive exceptional knowledge, promoting the high school via a colorblind approach as a place where everyone—regardless of race, ethnicity, or social class—can feel they belong and receive a quality education (school brochure). Thus, on the surface the school community at Brown High espoused a general “appreciation” of its growing racial diversity. The school slogan “we all belong” was posted across banners on every floor of the high school, and it was clear that this colorblind creed was deeply indoctrinated as students in both interviews and student-led focus groups immediately replied with this slogan in chorus-like fashion when asked to describe the school culture and values.

As such, given the high school community’s proclaimed “appreciation” for its racial heterogeneity, “diverse” was the number one descriptor students used for BHS in student focus group discussions. It was evident that students had a level of “comfort” with and limited or no “fear” of racial mixing, as an aerial view of the cafeteria during lunchtime would make an ideal photo advertising Brown High’s “appreciation” for diversity. From the 2nd floor looking down, the lunchroom was a display of mostly cross-cultural peer groups socially interacting, and this level of racially mixed social interactions is counter to studies that demonstrate how fear and resistance from the school community leads to racial divisions and segregation within schools and districts (Evans, 2007; Lewis, 2001). Plus, the high student enrollment and limited physical space caused extreme overcrowding, making it even more crucial that students at Brown “get along” in the midst of the racial and cultural transitions at the school.

Hence, students generally regarded Brown High’s racially mixed student body as a benefit that offsets and distinguishes the high school from other schools in the district that are either homogeneously White or homogeneously Black and Latina/o. As this one student describes, all students, even White students, felt they benefited from the racial diversity:

I would describe it as diverse. There’s a bunch of different types of people; we have people who live around here. A lot of people feed into here because Brown High has been open to transfers, so there’s a lot of different mix. You can meet some various different people, which can be a good and bad thing. I would just describe it as a . . . it’s usually a good environment. It’s a good place to be.

Though Brown High’s racial diversity was perceived as benefiting all, students of color specifically sought out BHS because it offered experiences and opportunities very different from their homogeneously Black and Latina/o schools. Anthony, a student of color who identified as both “White” and “Mexican,” transferred to BHS because his previous high school, which is now in danger of state takeover due to consistent low performance, has an overall student enrollment of “60% Mexican and like 40% Black. It wasn’t much of a change. It was the same people everywhere.”

In response to the change in school demographics, the school community aimed to capitalize on its growing diversity by initiating a school improvement plan that focused on ensuring all students have meaningful academic and social connections to school. In order to gather feedback on how to execute its school improvement plan, the administration organized a series of parent and community meetings to discuss a host of issues, and the recent change in student demographics was prioritized as a point of discussion. Parent and community stakeholders in feedback sessions iterated they wanted to inculcate “community and caring” at BHS. For this reason, faculty members truly believed BHS parents would support school improvement efforts regarding diversity, as administration described neighborhood parents as “well-meaning” and “liberal” parents who would presumably not stand in the way of open discussions about race and equity to create a community of learners for all students.

In order to continue with this commitment to building community and promoting diversity, the school improvement team of administrators and teachers established the following set of school-wide vision statements that were posted on the school website and included in a formal letter mailed to parents unveiling new school improvement initiatives:

Every student should be well known by at least one adult in the school.

Every student and adult should feel safe, welcomed, respected, and connected to school.

We are committed to reducing barriers to learning and eliminating systems of privilege and disadvantage that intensify the achievement gap among different groups of students.

The school improvement team made some efforts to follow through with these aforementioned vision statements for increased student connectedness to school given the high school’s level of racial diversity. One school improvement effort in response to increased student diversity was the well-established advisory program and curriculum. Advisory is like an extended homeroom, a once-a-week class in which students meet with their designated teacher who is charged with cultivating a smaller community for students, making it easier to build relationships with students from other peer groups. Since students were randomly assigned to advisory class, this was the one time when there was a good racial “mix” of students.

School administration also made efforts to increase all students’ level of connectedness to school by being purposeful about their level of visibility and availability to students. The assistant principals’ offices had a consistent influx of students. Students of color, in particular, used assistant principals as a critical source of support, and there was an understood open-door policy in the office; no appointment was necessary. Even with the burgeoning, massive student body, when assistant principals monitored each of their assigned hallways, each knew most students who passed them and addressed them by name. Students recognized and noticed these efforts since Dr. Gonzalez, who was in his second year of tenure at Brown at the time of data collection for this case study, assumed his role as principal, the administration had a greater presence in the building and made greater efforts to have positive interactions with students in the hallways. Jackie, a highly involved self-identified first-generation Vietnamese American who had a well-informed “pulse” of all school activities, praised Dr. Gonzalez’s leadership and strong ability to make meaningful personal connections with students:

So like, well, yeah, I’m pretty sure we had, like, three different principals. And, it’s changed a lot, but for the better, because now that we have Dr. Gonzalez, he cares a lot more about student voices and student perspective and stuff, when all our other principals I never even saw them step out on the carpet. And I see Dr. Gonzalez every day. So I think BHS has changed for the better since I’ve been here.

In addition to its “recognition” as an epicenter for racial diversity, according to students, BHS is also known as one of the few academic powerhouses within the district. In 2008, BHS ranked number three (out of 13 schools) in the district for students enrolling in postsecondary education, and offers a large variety of AP courses that prepare students for college rigor. Because of its “reputation” as a high school that sends students to college, students from all over the district were highly attracted to BHS, as there were few other academically thriving high schools as options within the district (see Holme & Wells, 2008). Students at BHS have 43 pre-AP and AP course offerings to choose from, which include the core academic subjects, four different foreign languages, and American Sign Language, as well as three different AP course options in Art. Most students at BHS take at least one of the steps necessary to gain acceptance to a four-year institution: In 2008, 86% of the students took the SAT/ACT, which was the highest SAT/ACT test participation in the district. Consequently, this level of college preparation yields high college matriculation: In 2009, over 78.4% of BHS students enrolled in a four-year college/university and 28% enrolled in two-year degree granting colleges (school brochure).

Yet, even though faculty and students expressed “appreciation” that BHS was a “haven” for diversity and academic opportunity, faculty members, and even some students, were generally aware that this “reputation” and privileged resources were hinged on the fact that other schools in the district were without. The symbolic race and social class dividing line within the district, i.e., the interstate highway, privileges BHS, yet adversely impacts schools situated on the north side of the district that have predominately low-income residents and residents of color. For example, Dr. Gonzalez, principal, admitted, “If you match the staff’s experience to any high school north of [the highway] you’ll discover the experience is all on the south side. So what I’m going to say is that I think Brown High has been able to handpick a fantastic faculty.” In the 2009-10 school year, 64% of the teaching staff at BHS had over six years of teaching experience in comparison to, for example, Kennedy High, a high-poverty, high-minority school on the north side where only 39% of the teaching staff had similar experience. Kennedy High also has less than a third of the AP course options that Brown High offers. Also, while virtually Brown’s entire student body matriculates to some form of postsecondary education, only a third of Kennedy’s student body actually enrolls in postsecondary education.


Faculty and students, for the most part, were aware of the disparities that existed between Brown and other high-poverty, high-minority high schools in the district. These disparities were even more salient to students of color who attended resource-deprived schools on the north side of the district. Students of color primarily transferred to BHS in order to evade the racial isolation of their neighborhood school and experience the presumed benefits of Brown’s racial diversity, as well as the high school’s vast educational opportunities. As such, these students of color used a complex set of processes to gain access to Brown’s privileges. The students of color I interviewed possessed a sophisticated awareness of the various school choice policies that enabled them to matriculate to Brown.

Some students of color strategically accessed the opportunity pipeline early by transferring to a BHS-feeder middle school. Students can gain an early start to opportunity by taking advantage of a school choice policy called tracking transfer. A tracking transfer offers students who have transferred to a feeder middle school and possess at least two unbroken years of attendance in the two highest grades offered at the school, the opportunity to request a tracking transfer to the high school level in order to remain with their peers. Thus, students transferring from lower performing schools to a BHS-feeder middle school have better opportunities to build their academic network because they are matriculating to high school with their peers.

A primary method in which students are offered tracking transfers to BHS feeder schools is through the majority-to-minority transfer policy. A majority-to-minority transfer is defined as a transfer to a school in which the student’s ethnic group represents over 50% of the school’s population to a school in which the student’s ethnic group constitutes less than 50% of the school’s ethnic population. Two racial/ethnic groupings are defined in the majority-to-minority policy: (1) Black (and not of Hispanic origin) and Hispanic students, and (2) American Indian/Alaskan Native, Asian/Pacific Islander and White (and not of Hispanic origin) students. Although Black and Hispanic students are no longer able to utilize the majority-to-minority policy to make a direct transfer to BHS because it has reached over 50% in student of color enrollment, many students instead utilize the policy to gain access to a BHS feeder middle school that is predominately White and affluent.

Approximately a quarter of the student body matriculates to BHS via the NCLB in needs of improvement (INI) school choice policy, which enables students to transfer to a higher performing school in the district if their neighborhood school is considered low-performing according to state and federal guidelines. This statistic does not include students who accessed BHS opportunities early on by transferring to a feeder elementary or middle school. Also, school personnel estimated 400 students or more transferred from Chavez, a previously mentioned north side high school that closed entirely and was repurposed into a new school due to persistent low academic performance.

The privilege of being positioned in an academically rigorous middle school set up students of color, such as Katie (a motivated Freshman who was already in contact with highly ranked colleges for both soccer and academics), for subsequent advantages once they matriculated to high school. As such, transferring to a Brown feeder middle school gave some students an early start to accessing college preparatory resources they perceived their neighborhood school could not provide. One advantage of transferring to a BHS feeder middle school, in particular, was the introduction to the prospect of taking pre-AP courses to advance college aspirations. Students of color attending feeder middle schools either moved to the attendance area or transferred to a feeder middle school in order to access the BHS opportunity pipeline.

For example, Katie used multiple policies to eventually transfer to and access the college preparatory resources she was in search of at Brown. I was surprised at the level of detailed understanding of transfer policies Katie possessed, as well as the multiple policy loopholes she knew she would need to navigate in order to matriculate to Brown. First she used a majority-to-minority transfer, which allows students of color in high-minority schools to transfer to low-minority schools, in order to eventually transfer to a predominately White BHS feeder middle school. Since Katie was already enrolled in one of the feeder middle schools, she was then able to use a tracking transfer to matriculate to BHS with her friends. Katie continued to explain:

That’s what I used to transfer to middle school was majority-to-minority, but here [Brown High] it was—I couldn’t use that because there’s more Spanish [students] here . . . But it’s not really at all. Like, I mean, it’s a lot more diverse than the other schools.

Two-thirds of the students of color I interviewed used various mechanisms to transfer to Brown. Similar to Katie, Andrea transferred from a middle school on the north side. Bryan used a tracking transfer from a BHS feeder middle school, and Anthony moved to the BHS neighborhood from a high-poverty, high-minority low-performing high school. All students opted to transfer to BHS because their neighborhood school was labeled by the state accountability system as low performing. Among students I interviewed who used school choice to transfer to Brown, approximately 7 accessed a Brown High feeder middle school by either using a tracking transfer policy or their families purposefully moved to one of the few affordable apartment complexes in the neighborhood so a feeder school would be their neighborhood school. One student transferred from an adjacent high-poverty school district, while two of the student participants used the NCLB INI school choice policy. Finally, there were two students who had few options for high schools to attend because their neighborhood school was closed by the state because of consistent low performance.

Students who transferred attempted to distance themselves from the perceived negative peer influences of their neighborhood school and largely felt students at their neighborhood school were “not serious about learning” and were “bad peer influences.” According to Anthony, it makes a significant difference to transfer to a school like Brown High that is more diverse because, “it’s a lot different, I like it a lot better. I think this environment is just more positive and it’s easier for you to learn and make better choices over here.” Anthony’s mother decided to move the family to the Brown High attendance zone because “I was having a lot of problems at my other school . . . It was mostly my friends, but I wouldn’t blame it all on them. It was my decision too. I was messing up.” According to Anthony, since enrolling in BHS his sophomore year, “My grades are up, everything is up. My mom is happy with the change.” Serena, one of the student leaders who facilitated the student focus groups, moved to the BHS attendance zone from a school district where she said “kids were not serious about learning, and I had some bad peer influences.” Her family moved into what limited affordable housing was available on the south side of the district.

Finally, for some students the decision to transfer to Brown was critical to securing a pathway of success versus a pathway of failure. Even though Andrea struggled to find her academic footing at Brown and was enrolled in several intervention courses because she did not pass the high school exit exam, she still believed Brown was the key to educational and social mobility. Andrea came to Brown “because it was better.” Her neighborhood school did not have a good reputation and she “wanted to learn something and do something with my life instead of just getting away with stuff.” Therefore, according to Andrea, students from lower performing schools and their parents “put them here [Brown]” because it’s kind of like the best thing out there so everybody comes here to get better chances.”


Despite the “appreciation” for diversity Brown’s school-wide vision was presented in a colorblind “everyone belongs”/”treat all students the same” regardless of race approach. Yet, the school community’s espoused values were counter to their often very racialized and, in many ways, deficit-oriented practices. Students of color transferred to BHS because of the school’s reputation for its sense of belongingness, student diversity, and high academic expectations; but in reality, many educators did not set the same level of expectations for all students. The geographical code “north side” and the achievement code “at-risk”3 (which was an official state accountability term) became commonsensical codes in association with students of color who transfer to Brown. Some, but not all, faculty members associated this coded language with a lower set of academic expectations and even failure. As Pollock (2001) argues, while educators’ public opinions about race are often “muted” in race-neutral terms, their private beliefs about race can be quite racialized. Educators may feel “safer” revealing their racialized beliefs in private.

“In private,” faculty members’ racialized thoughts were revealed as they readily referred to students of color who transfer from other schools as “at-risk.” For example, upon exiting the cafeteria doors, I had my first sign that certain groups of students did not make the meaningful connections to BHS that the school improvement team aimed to provide. Faculty frequently “privately” called a peer group of Latina/o students who regularly socialized near the lockers adjacent to the cafeteria entrance as the “at-risk kids,” and it appeared these students were policed more than other students.

These abovementioned racialized codes became “durable constructs that order and bound how school principals and teachers envision . . . the practices and technologies appropriate to” low-income students and students of color (Buendía et al., 2004, p. 834). For instance, in order to demonstrate that Brown High’s academic reputation was sound, administration at school community meetings would reassure neighborhood parents that low-income students were making significant gains in achievement because “We want our low-income students to be more like your kids.” Therefore, at times, faculty and administration bought into placing deficit-oriented labels on low-income students and students of color in order to appease the political power of the affluent south side parents.

Even certain teachers and administrators were racially “labeled” and “privately” identified as “experts” on all issues related to students of color. I was frequently directed to specific faculty members who were said to have a “handle on the at-risk kids.” Because some faculty members were positioned as the experts on issues of diversity, other faculty members were reluctant to change their practices in response to the increasingly diverse student body. Thus, some faculty members were more prepared or willing to teach the affluent south side students, who had a host of academic advantages, including private tutoring and a family history of college attendance. According to Ms. Valadez, assistant principal, many teachers “were not really focused on minority kids.” Mrs. Larenz, the tutoring center director who provides services to a number of students of color who transfer from lower performing schools, expressed similar sentiments that building relationships with students from the north side and the south side is the only way to close the academic divide, but unfortunately “out of 150 teachers, maybe 50 are on board.” Mrs. Larenz went on to lament:

I think there’s some teachers who don’t want to teach those children, honestly. And I don’t know that they even know how to maybe. I feel like sometimes, I hope this doesn’t sound bad, the very best teachers, namely the teachers who really do know how to communicate well with kids and do know how to form relationships with them, are given the higher classes and the struggling new teachers are given the lower classes. And so, I mean, your best teachers need to be with those kids because they’re the ones who need the most help and will respond the most to them. But I just feel like it’s slow to happen. And so, meanwhile you get kids falling through the cracks.

As a result, the school improvement team made specific efforts to encourage teachers to improve their teaching methodologies to support all students—no matter what side of the district they came from—but acknowledged there were still struggles among the staff as administration found that some veteran teachers, for example, often had ideas about who and what they should be teaching. Despite administration’s efforts to emphasize culturally responsive instruction, many teachers still, as Ms. Valadez observed, “go right back into their classroom and they’re still teaching the way that they taught 15 years ago. So that is where the dilemma is, is just the personality of the teachers that are already set in their own way of teaching that is harmful to kids—it is toxic and I can’t stand it.” Regrettably, it was quite a challenge for the school improvement team to convince some teachers to change their instructional practices in accordance to the shifts in student diversity, to be aware of and attentive to the needs of low-income students and students of color, and to, as Ms. Larenz emphasized, “be able to teach to all learners.”

Even though there were teachers who were willful about changing their instructional practices, for the most part, teachers seemed genuinely conflicted over how best to respond to vastly different levels of preparation, and struggled with whether tracking was the right approach to serve the academic needs of students who transfer from all over the district (see Chambers, Huggins, & Scheurich, 2009; Rubin, 2006). Unfortunately, the racialized codes assigned to “north” versus “south side” schools did accurately reflect some of the privileges that were disparately allocated to schools in the district, with the “south side” schools receiving the greater share of material and academic privileges. Teachers were puzzled about differentiating their instruction, although such stark differences in student knowledge level and curriculum exposure existed, because many transfer students came from schools that left them academically underprepared. The large knowledge gaps between students transferring from north side schools versus students from south side BHS feeder schools not only created challenges for teachers implementing instructional differentiation, but also changed Brown High’s plan of action within the state and federal accountability system. Mr. Weston, an English teacher, acknowledged demographic change led to the development of more student intervention classes to prepare for the state high school exit exam:

So, it’s an interesting mix. I mean, with the change in data, however hard to quantify that is, there probably has been some change in class and socio-economic status and schools that students originate from. And that makes a difference in our instruction. That is what a lot of those policies were geared towards - like re-testing. And in the past several years in student state assessment preparation classes for students who are on the border, that’s particularly in Math, but in English for example, we’ll pull students out for a day to really review that kind of . . . test preparation.

Faculty members found the responsibility of differentiated supports for such a diverse set of academic needs to be daunting. Ten years prior to significant demographic shifts, BHS primarily geared its preparation for one type of student—a student living within the affluent BHS neighborhood, who came from a middle- or upper-middle-class family background, and whose parents more than likely graduated from college and possibly graduate school. Whereas, it was assumed low-performing schools only have one type of student to prepare for, yet Brown High had its own difficult task of preparing to teach a diverse set of learning needs, which Mr. Weston found to be “a hard thing to address.” Mr. Weston went on to say:

Let’s say you teach at a low-SES school or a predominantly low-SES school. Well not even that. Let’s say you teach at a school where students are failing [the state exit exam] across the board. You know how to gear your classes. You know that they all need help with [the state exit exam] and so you focus on that, you target it, you maybe even have schoolwide interventions for that kind of thing. If you teach in a school like Brown High, it’s all over the place. I mean there’s students who really need help with [state exit exam], and there’s students who could’ve aced that when they were in sixth grade. It’s really tough to do all of that. I mean that’s where differentiation comes in. It’s not always easy, you know. It involves a lot of after-hours tutoring and it involves sometimes changing the assignment like, ‘You guys have got this, so I want you to work on this enrichment activity while those of you who still need to focus on core task need to do this.’

Unfortunately, placing students in two separate academic tracks—those who were academically prepared and those who are underprepared—became a default solution to the very complex set of academic needs in which Brown High must contend.


Although the school community at BHS painted an ideal picture of surface-level diversity, students of color who transferred in experienced a counter reality. Notwithstanding BHS’s championed reputation and “appreciation for diversity,” my conversations with students of color and their institutional agents revealed that beneath the surface, not all students had access to the benefits of Brown’s academic powerhouse. Students and their families were drawn to BHS because it produces better overall academic outcomes than other high-poverty, high-minority schools in the district, however, opportunities within BHS were still unequally distributed by race, social class, and geography. As noted earlier, the faculty’s social constructions of diversity, especially “at-risk” students, perpetuated two unequal schooling experiences within the school. Additionally, the resource disparities between schools across the district also perpetuated unequal schooling experiences within Brown, as students of color who transferred from resource-deprived schools commonly arrived with a disadvantage in prior academic preparation and experiences.

School Improvement Efforts are Limited in Systemic Action

The school improvement team acknowledged that students of color who transferred to BHS had disparate academic experiences when compared to their White, neighborhood-school peers. As one teacher explained, “Okay. Do you understand that Brown High is very much like two schools in that you have upper-middle-class or wealthy, and then you have the kids from the north side?” In a letter inviting the school community to participate in re-visioning the future of BHS, Dr. Gonzalez posed one of the following questions, “How can we reduce and eliminate the ‘two school’ dynamics and reduce the achievement gap among different student groups?”

The district provided programmatic services and resources to address district-wide inequities, and Brown took advantage of these supports to alleviate its own level of stratification. The tutoring center was developed to specifically support economically disadvantaged students, and extra bus routes were provided so students from the north side could come early and stay late for tutoring. Also, dual credit was a lucrative resource for low-income students of color, and their families. The local community college system partnered with the school district to offer high school students college credit courses for free, and as Mrs. Stevens, college and career counselor, explained, “parents from low socioeconomic circumstances see dual credit as money in their pocket.” However, the college and career center received some push back from a few AP teachers who felt the dual credit program discouraged students from enrolling in AP courses as a route to receiving college credit. For most low-income students of color, dual credit was the only method to receive college credit in high school, because most did not score high enough on the AP exam to receive college credit, and Mrs. Stephens divulged this “is a problem the College Board doesn’t readily disclose.”

Even when district funding for the program ran out, Dr. Gonzalez supplemented school-level funds to support AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a college access program designed for students from low-SES backgrounds. With the exception of AVID, the faculty reported affluent students and their parents more than often occupied many of the services established by the district to specifically support economically disadvantaged students.

Though these programmatic supports were valued by students, they were piecemeal at best and did very little to address the stratification across the district and the “two schools” of unequal opportunities within BHS. Both the district and BHS failed to take strategic and systematic measures that would structurally, versus programmatically, counter stratification. Furthermore, the faculty at BHS struggled to move beyond “discussions” about diversity and move toward systematic “action.” While discussions are important, when discussions about the increase in diversity did take place, only school community members with perceivable power, such as middle- and high-income neighborhood parents, were in attendance.

“Two,” and a Possible “Third,” Schools of Opportunity

The school improvement team aimed to address the “two schools of opportunity”: a set of opportunity networks that led to advanced courses and college preparation; or isolating networks that resulted in remedial courses, state exit exam preparation, and limited exposure to viable career options after high school graduation. Although the school improvement team was aware of the “two schools” phenomenon, the complex set of disparate circumstances meant very few low-income students of color fortuitously gained access to the highest opportunity structures. Unfortunately, this inequitable “two schools” of opportunity is not uncommon in racially diverse schools as “divisions along racial and class lines” is typically “present in nearly every aspect” of school (Noguera, 2001, p. 31). Black and Latina/o students in diverse schools are typically not served well, while their White peers are offered extensive educational opportunities and enriching experiences (Noguera, 2001, also see Tyson, 2011).

Students of color I interviewed who were concurrently or previously enrolled in pre-AP and AP courses reported they were either alone or one of only a few students of color enrolled in these courses. According to 2009-10 data, when compared to the percentage of students enrolled in advanced courses to the overall representation of the student body, Latina/o students and economically disadvantaged students were greatly underrepresented in advanced courses. White students represented 45.6% of students in advanced courses and 35% of the overall student body. Asian/Pacific Islander students represented 2.2% of the student body, but were overrepresented in advanced courses at 27%. Latina/o students, whose representation of the student body was nearly equivalent to White student enrollment at 43.4%, represented only 18% of AP enrollment. Economically disadvantaged students represented 35.7% of the overall student body, but only 10.5% of advanced course participation.

Students were ultimately resegregated by the type of school they previously attended. Students who attend BHS feeder middle schools represented the majority of AP student enrollment, not transfer students from high-poverty, high-minority schools in the district. The tracking of large percentages of low-income students of color into non-advanced/AP courses is not a phenomenon that occurred solely in high school; academic disadvantages began in middle school and, for some students, as early as elementary school (see Lleras, 2008). For many transfer students, the lower academic rigor and expectations at their prior school left them dramatically underprepared for the academic intensity of advanced courses at BHS.

Essentially, teachers were “accustomed” to and catered to educating affluent south side students. Neighborhood students and parents have a long history with Brown and its feeder schools, and this advantaged them in terms of understanding who possesses power and has access to important information and resources to climb the high school’s academic ladder. Thus, neighborhood students and their parents possessed a set of accumulated advantages to help navigate Brown High’s academic codes (Ndura, Robinson, & Ochs, 2003; Xu & Hampden-Thompson, 2012). As Julianna, a Latina student transfer who was fortunate enough to access the higher academic track, explained, many low-income students of color are not privy to the information networks for how to access AP courses and college preparatory resources because their parents or grandparents never went to college or even graduated from high school. Whereas, most students in her AP classes come from a family lineage of college graduates:

I don’t know, I just think it’s culture. It comes with culture. We have . . . I guess, a lot of people that come from . . . I guess, from Whites. I don’t know; but, I guess, you can say that their parents have been to college, their grandparents went to college and it’s not the same for minorities. They might be the first kids to be going to high school or something. So, it just comes I think . . . it’s just a culture thing . . . or, I don’t know if I explained myself.

Because transfer students were newly admitted to Brown, they were not privy to the same powerful information networks and cultural norms that neighborhood students and parents were accustomed to occupying. Thus, neighborhood students and parents had a home court advantage in terms of navigating Brown.

Also, many students of color who did transfer to Brown with the qualifications to enroll in AP courses withdrew from these courses on their own accord. Students, like Anthony, who were enrolled in AP courses at their previous low-performing school, experienced academic intimidation upon transferring to BHS, which ultimately steered them toward the non-AP track. When Anthony transferred to BHS, he had trouble keeping up with the class assignments and was “barely passing.” Anthony said, “They [BHS] were talking about stuff I never heard of. I think that’s partially because I came from Douglas High School and we were [academically] behind.” Compared to his AP courses, Anthony noticed his non-AP courses were primarily designed to “help you pass the state test” and “you can definitely tell the difference” between the level of academic rigor in AP versus non-AP. Consequently, students of color transferred with an initial vision that they could dictate their own educational pathways, but upon arrival these students were given few supports to effectively navigate Brown High’s academic labyrinth.

Stratification was also a result of course tracking mechanisms that occurred both before (in elementary or middle school) and after students enrolled at BHS. When Anthony withdrew from his AP courses at Brown and enrolled in non-AP courses, he noticed “a big difference. When I was in AP classes, there were maybe two or three Mexican kids and everybody else was White. When I switched back down to regular, it’s all the Mexican kids from the north side like me.” As such, this level of tokenism in advanced courses creates a sense of academic intimidation for students of color (Taliaferro & DeCuir-Gunby, 2008; Tyson, 2011; Yonezawa et al., 2002). Bobby, an academically struggling Latino student, also noticed upon transferring to Brown there was little dissimilarity in his courses as “all Mexicans like me are in my remedial Reading course.” Hence, there was little differentiation between the demographic composition in transfer students’ non-AP classes at Brown High and their previous high-poverty, high-minority school. Consequently, until inequity among schools across the district was addressed, students of color who transferred would have little chance of escaping the disparities they experienced prior to enrolling in Brown. Eventually, most students of color who transferred were resegregated into racially isolating structures that were very similar to their former high-poverty, high-minority school.

The school improvement team readily identified the “two schools” of opportunity, but upon investigation there appeared to be a “third school” of students at BHS who were among the most marginalized, given students in this third opportunity structure were on the verge of dropping out. African American and Latina/o students had the lowest four-year high school completion rate. Approximately 76.5% of African American students and 79.7% of Latina/o students completed high school in four years. Whereas, nearly all White students (93.9%) completed high school, which was cause for concern considering Latina/o students represented close to half of the student body. Similarly, 28% of economically disadvantaged students did not complete high school, yet they represented one-third of the student population. It is important to note, however, that Latina/o and economically disadvantaged students at BHS fare better in terms of graduation rates than students attending high-poverty, high-minority high schools in the district. For example, the same 2009-10 school year at Kennedy High School, only 45.2% of Latina/o students and 56.3% of economically disadvantaged students graduated in four years. Kennedy, like many of the high-poverty, high-minority schools in the district experienced considerable pressure from the state accountability system to increase its academic accountability rating or its doors would permanently close.

Faculty members did not openly discuss the student of color dropout issue, and as Assistant Principal Valadez uncovered one year, "literally seven [Black and Latina/o students specifically] out of a class of 400 that graduated from this building. And I’m going, ‘Oh my God.’” Since her discovery, Ms.Valadez made it her priority to decrease the percentage of students of color who drop out of school. In response, BHS implemented a number of programs to address the student drop-out issue, such as computer-based courses and summer credit recovery programs. Mr. Matthews, assistant principal, coordinated the work-for-credit program. Most work-for-credit students were hired in unskilled jobs, such as eliminating graffiti around the city, cleaning parks, picking up litter on the roads, etc. Students for whom the traditional 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., seven class periods a day school routine did not appear to fit their learning needs were encouraged to enroll in the work-for-credit program. Mr. Matthews sometimes found it necessary to give students who were in danger of dropping out an ultimatum. He told one student who was not attending classes:

‘No, I don’t think that’s the best for you. Because you’re not going to class, you’re not passing any of your classes; you’re not contributing anything in the way of income at home so that your girlfriend’s parents are having to pay for everything. Don’t you think you need to be part of that picture?’ So we convinced him to work for the city, and he’s loved it. And now he’s going to graduate here and continue doing what he was doing.

Thus, according to Mr. Matthews the work-for-credit program allowed this particular student to, “contribute some money to the family income and be able to graduate,” instead of skipping class and eventually dropping out of school. While this particular administrator rationalized his decision to place students in dropout prevention programs, his deficit-oriented constructions about individual students’ academic identities, namely students of color, directed these students’ academic pathways to the lower end of opportunity structures within Brown.

A number of low-income students of color who transferred to Brown were at a high-risk of dropping out because they believed their previous schooling experiences offered limited educational resources and academic preparation, and as a result struggled in the more rigorous academic climate at BHS. Rick was encouraged by his academic counselor to reduce his credit requirements, select the least rigorous diploma, and opted for the minimum graduation plan. Rick said his counselor helped him select courses, “that are like, easier ones for me that he knows I would understand how to do.” As a new teenage father, the minimum graduation plan enabled Rick to complete school and begin work as soon possible in order to earn money to support his family. Switching to the minimum graduation plan was a difficult decision for Rick because, “I wanted to come out more, I wanted to come out doing what I wanted to do and not what I needed to. I wanted to extend my learning higher than what I can do.” Subsequently, dropout prevention programs reconnected some students to the school. However, because these programs prepared students for low-wage jobs, they offered little opportunity for social mobility and inevitably reproduced low-SES circumstances.

Ultimately, many students of color were resegregated into racially isolating structures that were not very different from their previous low-performing and racially homogeneous schools. Whether it was stratification based on race, social class, or what neighborhood students were from, several students acknowledged that the stratification within BHS was a reflection of inequities that exist across the school district and their community. During our conversation about racial isolation, Robert, a Latino student who aimed to prove even former English Language Learners can successfully navigate the high-achieving track, offered the perfect word—polarization—to describe the social reproduction within Brown by describing the high school as simply a microcosm of the resegregation that occurs throughout the district and in the city. The city, similar to BHS, is racially and socioeconomically diverse, but significantly segregated. According to Robert,

Yes, the city is very polarized and I feel like maybe that’s an effect that Brown High School is undertaking because it’s such a big school that covers such a wide area of people, so I mean, you have a lot of middle schools feeding into this school. So, it’s just, I feel like it’s just an effect that it has, like, can it be broken? Yes. Is it easy? No.

Consequently, a high school admired for its diversity in numbers ultimately reproduced the stratification prevalent between the north and south side schools across the district.


Aesthetically, BHS is a racially and socioeconomically diverse high school situated in a predominately White, affluent community. Students of color who transfer from lower performing schools hope Brown will elevate their networks of opportunity because, as one teacher explained, parents trust “the school is going to take care of that.” Given this level of faith in the opportunities that lie within diverse schooling, transfer students of color were strategically savvy in using multiple intra-district transfer policies to access BHS. From the outside, Brown High appeared to espouse “appreciation” of the academic and interpersonal learning opportunities—such as promoting democratic citizenship (Gurin et al., 2003)—that could be achieved because of the high school’s diverse student enrollment. Given the democratic possibilities of diversity, the administration had good intentions by implementing a school improvement plan that could build stronger social and academic connections among its racially mixed student body and assuage apparent inequities.

Conversely, within this surface-level diversity, opportunity hierarchies led students in polar academic directions as certain structures shaped the course of students’ educational trajectories and determined whether or not they would gain access to the high school’s abundant educational opportunities. Stratification persisted within Brown largely due to a complex set of inequities that were both internal and external to the high school. The inequitable structures transfer students attempted to leave behind at their former lower performing school were soon regenerated upon arriving at BHS. As such, social reproduction was foreseeable as BHS had few policies in place to reconcile the race and social class stratification that pre-existed across the district.

A number of structures and practices limited access for students who transferred to Brown from lower performing schools in the district: (1) previous schooling experiences of transfer students of color provided limited academic enrichment and opportunities; (2) these students were tracked into lower academic settings as early as elementary and middle school; (3) some faculty members, but not all, have negative perceptions and expectations of students who transferred from low-performing schools; (4) faculty members were conflicted over whether or not a course tracking mechanism—though it promotes resegregation—is the best way to address the diverse set of learning needs of a large percentage of students who transfer to BHS academically underprepared; and (5) there exists a patchwork of piecemeal programmatic supports—supports that are uncoordinated and unsystematic. This complex set of circumstances created a situation in which separate and unequal educational experiences exist in one school building causing the “two schools” phenomenon: one school where students were connected to plentiful postsecondary resources and a second school where students were disconnected and disengaged from educational opportunities. Though one can argue that the faculty did not readily recognize a “third school” of students who were on the verge of dropping out of school, it is evident complex, multilayered institutional and organizational structures and practices exacerbated the already pervasive inequities, and an equal set of complex and targeted remedies are necessary to respond to these inequities.

Still, the leadership at Brown High should be noted for attempting to openly “discuss” and “face” the racial change with their faculty and greater school community. Previous work on school response to racially demographically changing schools found school leaders can too often be dismissive, unresponsive, and “blind” to the discussions related to cultural diversity that need to take place in order to respond to the changes in a socially just manner (Cooper, 2009; Evans, 2007b). Though the school leaderships’ efforts at Brown should be commended, good intentions only go so far. Brown’s school improvement team took the first step by openly engaging the school community in a critique of institutional and organizational practices and how these very practices may perpetuate inequities, but open discussions are not enough to thwart complex and deeply rooted structural inequities within and external to the school. The school improvement plans of racially diverse schools must have assertive and strategic actions in place so equitable opportunities are available to all students (Noguera, 2001). Therefore, it is recommended Brown and high schools with similar circumstances continue to build upon discussions about diversity by embedding into their school improvement plans context-specific strategies for addressing institutional and structural inequities, and once strategies have been implemented, the school improvement team should begin to evaluate whether these practices have indeed led to socially just experiences and outcomes for all students.

In addition to systematic plans for resolving institutional and organizational barriers, meaningful professional development is necessary to afford faculty members the space to critically examine their individual attitudes and how their resulting practices may in some way negatively determine the fate of students of color who matriculate to Brown. The “private” and deficit-oriented racial and even social class codes that faculty freely used were never called into question. It is difficult to pursue school improvements efforts, such as Brown’s, that aim for equity when considerable work is needed to encourage educators to consider how their own racial identities and social constructions about diversity impact student experiences. Thus, school leadership must also embed discussions about race and cultural difference into school improvement plans, as these discussions will foster attempts to address institutional and structural inequities. Cooper (2009) encourages school leaders to serve as cultural workers who are not afraid to engage in discussions along lines of cultural difference, especially as it relates to race.

Finally, while BHS has a long history with desegregation, it is evident that its policies of the past need to be re-examined, given that it is institutional and structural inequities that presently plague and resegregate students within the school and its classrooms (Wells et al., 2008). Hanging onto the promises of racial diversity is not enough. powell (2005) theorizes that our present policy approach to integration is problematic because it’s deficit, assimilative, and assumes that Black and Latina/o students may have something to learn from White students. Moreover, students of color receive little to no benefits from desegregation if equitable opportunities are not extended to the classroom level (Mickelson, 2001).

It would be remiss to suggest that Brown High’s unique contextual circumstances can be equated to all high schools with similar racial compositions and histories with desegregation. Yet, this case study still does inform existing research discourse on diversity and its related policies (desegregation and integration), calling for more discussion on what it means to achieve truly diverse and integrated schooling. Several scholars extend the democratic vision by appealing that the definition of what it means to be “diverse” or “integrated” move beyond heterogeneity in student enrollment and instead use Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision for an integrated society as a rubric (Horsford, 2011; Minow, 2004; Perry, 2004). Perry refers to Dr. King’s vision of integration as holistic integration stating, “for a society to be truly integrated, all of its members must have equal access to the wealth of knowledge, skills, and political processes that are hallmarks of civic and cultural participation” (p. 304). According to holistic integration, the social-justice-oriented benefits of integration are not fully achieved until all students are equally and authentically connected to the academic and social life of school.

Achieving racial heterogeneity does not substantially account for the complex dynamics of social-cultural relationships within schools. Current policy examples of what it means to be “diverse,” “desegregated,” or “integrated” are achieved in simplistic terms, failing to chisel at the institutional and structural mechanisms that inevitably sustain the inequitable racial and social order within schools. When racially diverse schools are not strategic about ensuring all students are connected, students of color within these settings can become even more racially isolated. Hence, a diverse student body does not mean equity is automatically achieved. This case study as a contextual undertaking reveals that diverse schools, when compared to segregated, high-poverty, high-minority schools are equally struggling in efforts to wholeheartedly connect low-income students of color to educational resources and opportunities that would facilitate educational, social, and economic mobility.


1. The U.S. Supreme court in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 prohibited the assignment of students to a public school to achieve racial integration. The court determined race-based student assignment was not a compelling interest. In the U.S. Supreme Court decision Grutter v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 306 (2003) the court upheld the right of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, to consider race, among a myriad of other factors, in admissions procedures in order to achieve diversity. Fisher v. University of Texas is the most recent case to once again place affirmative action and the diversity rationale back before the U.S. Supreme Court. University of Texas, similar to University of Michigan, uses race among many other factors in its admissions process.

2. Students of color, for the purpose of this study, are students who identify as Black/African American, Latina/o, Asian, or Native American.

3. Texas Education Agency (TEA) defines a student “at-risk of dropping out” if the student did not advance from one grade level to the next for one or more school years; if the student did not maintain a grade average of 70 in two or more subjects; if the student did not perform satisfactorily on a state assessment; if the student did not perform satisfactorily on a readiness assessment in pre-kindergarten through 3rd grade; if the student is pregnant or is a parent; and if the student has been placed in an alternative school.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 115 Number 11, 2013, p. 1-42
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  • Anjalé Welton
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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    ANJALÉ D. WELTON is an assistant professor in Education, Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Welton examines how opportunity structures in secondary school settings shape connections students of color make to educational resources and matriculate to college. Other research areas include the politics of equity as it pertains to race and diversity in school reform and improvement. Her professional experiences include coordinator of a leadership and empowerment program for urban youth, a facilitator of an urban education teacher preparation program, and a teacher in large urban districts. She is also committed to providing professional development for educational leaders on issues of equity and diversity.
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