Lessons from the Integrated Experience: Diversity in the Classroom

A variety of approaches have been undertaken to reduce the achievement gap in our nation’s underperforming schools. Few would argue that we have made significant strides, as the black-white achievement gap remains largely unaffected. Improving integration in schools has proven to help in this area, but not many communities are trying that for fear of stirring up our collectively complicated history. However, this should be a topic that should not be avoided.

Diverse university students in a classroom.
Photo: Flickr/Marshan Foundation

The Value of Integrating Schools

Our collective reluctance to discuss race has created a valley of misconceptions that can be mitigated through a device that’s rarely discussed and even less employed – school integration. By design, residential segregation makes us unaware of communities outside our own. It also unintentionally facilitates complacency. Conversely, school integration essentially eliminates the need to have “the discussion” because its students will not only gain a greater understanding of other racial groups, but also a marketable skill in cross-cultural competency.

I am a product of an integrated community and a diverse public school setting. My understanding of the advantages of a diverse pool of classmates apparently mirror the views of This American Life’s program “The Problem We All Live With,” Parts I and II. The program emphasized that diverse classrooms can positively impact the global perspectives of white students simply by giving them opportunities to interact with their classmates. The lesson certainly applies to the integrated community of Oak Park and its students, especially within the context of the public school system’s high academic standards. While the educational impacts of how diverse classrooms benefit black students are often specified, there are significant advantages for white students and students of other racial/ethnic groups as well.

Kiana Jackson learned about the advantages of diverse classmates when she participated in an exchange program at her mostly black and Latino high school. During her interview in Part II of “The Problem We All Live With,” Jackson encouraged other classmates to actively seek diversity, as well as unfamiliar educational settings when choosing a college. In sum, she acknowledged that in our most natural state, we might be inclined seek out those who are similar to ourselves, but this restricts our full potential for a global perspective. She warned college-bound seniors of the dangers of living inside a self-imposed bubble of familiarity, which creates an unnecessarily narrow perspective on the realities of society. She concluded that when an individual is open to actively participate with others of divergent cultural perspectives, they are benefitted by this experience because our environment can influence the way we understand and accept others, how we perceive ourselves, and especially on how we interact with one another.

3 Flickr-USAG.Humphreys
Photo: Flickr/USAG.Humphreys

A Diverse Future

The most recent census projections indicate that by the time the current generation of students reaches adulthood, the racial composition of the United States will be dramatically different, with considerably fewer white births among all race groups. A compositional change of this scale will necessitate a careful realignment of our collective perspective on race relations.

To prepare for this, Oak Park residents should recognize the benefits of their integrated school system on their students’ future job potential. The culture of diversity in Oak Park is already primed to foster the development of our students’ social expectations and racial attitudes in a future America. The most attractive job candidates will be those who have been exposed to a diverse set of ideas, are apable of interacting with multi-racial firms in global market, and are comfortable dealing with business partners across the globe.

These characteristics are already sought after by Fortune 500 companies, according to Robert A. Garda Jr. of the Loyola University of New Orleans School of Law in “The White Interest in School Integration.” Garda introduced the term “cross-cultural competency” as a skillset that enhances marketability to prospective employers and clearly, it is more important now than ever before. Oak Park’s integrated school system is the fundamental cross-cultural cornerstone for families hoping to enhance their students’ job marketability in the future. Essentially, the earlier an integrated environment can be introduced to a student’s educational experience, the better the chances of acquiring an adequate level of cross-cultural competence.

Diversification efforts alone will not ensure integration—a diverse community is but one stage that precedes integration. Without intentional efforts to integrate, communities tend to resegregate themselves, but the brilliance of Oak Park is centered on its proud history of consistently standing on the side of equal opportunity and access. Supporting this community’s integrated schools is not merely for the short-term benefits, but for these long term advantages of a diverse classroom now and in the future.