Monday, June 11, 2007

Can Integrated Schools Fight Crime?

For anyone who's been following the voluntary school desegregation fight, the oft-repeated message from the Louisville and Seattle school districts and their supporters is no doubt familiar: a diverse student body is an important educational tool for teaching tolerance, cultural competence, and practice dealing with people from different backgrounds in the real world. As important as all of these skills are, their relative intangibility can make them hard to appreciate; their complex role in measurably improving test scores or college or job prospects can make them seem like a luxury rather than a necessity. According to law enforcement experts, however, integrated schools provide more than an education in interacting with others. For many Black and Latino students, an integrated school may be their best shot at getting an education at all.

Studies have shown that whether or not a student attends a racially-isolated school with a high concentration of minority students is a good predictor of whether that student will drop out or graduate. While the overall graduation rate nationwide is 68%, students in segregated urban school districts such as Oakland, CA, and Cleveland, OH have graduation rates of only 30%. Meanwhile, in school districts like St. Louis, MO, where segregated schools contribute to the below average Black graduation rate of 60%, a voluntary integration program has raised African-American rates of graduation in two participating schools to 87% and an astounding 100%. Beyond graduation, minority students who attend integrated schools are also much more likely to go on to attend college as well.

At the same time, whether or not a student completes high school is in turn a good predictor of whether or not a young person will become involved in crime. High school dropouts account for a majority of the nation's prisoners, and a third of all male high school dropouts will have spent some time in prison before they turn 25. The median income for high school graduates is close to double the median income for those who did not finish high school, due in part to the fact that high school dropouts face much higher rates of unemployment. Students who have attended college are even less likely to be incarcerated and more likely to have well-paying jobs. Research shows that increasing the average level of education by only one year can reduce arrests by as much as 11%. In these cases, it is not only the students who benefit -- a mere 1% increase in high school graduation rates in 1990 might have saved 400 victims of murder in that year alone. Society as a whole pays the costs of this preventable violence, both in money -- processing offenders through the court system and housing them in correctional facilities -- and in lives.

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