In suburban Plainfield, preserving diverse schools

June 27, 2012

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Becky Vevea/WBEZ
Plainfield East High School yearbook portrays the school's almost perfect racial balance.

Ask  people  in the city what they picture when they think of suburban schools, and you’ll probably hear “white” among the adjectives they use.

Two decades ago, they would be right—half of all white suburban kids went to schools that were 90 percent or more white. 

Today, the number of overwhelmingly white schools in suburban Chicago has dropped dramatically—from 562 to just 103.

At the same time, schools where no one race holds the majority have more than doubled.


All summer, WBEZ and vocalo will be talking about race—out loud, and on the air, in frank conversations and stories, and in lively public events. We’re asking what it would sound like if people said what they really think and feel about race and ethnicity. What if they really talked about how it shapes them, their lives, and attitudes?  What would we hear?

The public schools in southwest suburban Plainfield used to be almost all white and today have almost even racial balance.

“I have lots of different colored friends,” said Hannah Protich, a sophomore at Plainfield East High School.

Her school has the kind of racial balance civil rights activists fought for years to achieve in the nation’s public schools: 30 percent Hispanic, 40 percent white, 20 percent black and 10 percent Asian.

But in Plainfield, it didn’t happen because students were bused in or attendance boundaries were gerrymandered, it was a result of suburban sprawl.

About a decade ago, all kinds of people from Chicago moved southwest to this small, primarily white, farming community where housing was affordable and readily available.

Carmen Ayala led Plainfield’s curriculum department for seven years. In that time, the number of schools in the district went from five to 30. She describes the classrooms as a looking like “a little United Nations.”

“When I came in in 2005, we had 750 identified students who were English language learners. By two or three years, that number had more than doubled,” Ayala said.

But the rapid racial changes in Plainfield didn’t come without tension.

School officials said they heard a lot of statements about “those” kids.

Even as diversity increases across the area, most suburban schools are still 50 percent or more white.

Some researchers say there’s a “tipping point,” when whites no longer hold the majority and a school or district becomes majority-minority.

That’s when, they say, whites leave or stop moving in and schools become more segregated. WBEZ’s analysis of school demographics shows that happening in some places, like west suburban Cicero.

In 1990, half of Cicero’s public schools were predominately white. Today, all of them are more than 90 percent Hispanic.

“People always talk about diversity and they always say to me, ‘Well, you have a lot of diversity in Cicero,’ and I’m like ‘Actually, really, we don’t have any diversity.  We’re all Hispanic,’” said Donna Adamic, superintendent of Cicero District 99.

But in Plainfield, district leaders don’t want that to happen.

Four years ago, they decided to have what they call “courageous conversations,” to talk about ideas  like “white privilege.”

They did a “cultural audit.” The biggest concern among white families was that “the new students coming in are bringing scores down,” Ayala said.

Columbia University researcher Amy Stuart Wells studies school segregation in the suburbs of New York City. 

She said the perception that scores drop when minorities move in is perpetuated by federal education policy—which emphasizes academic achievement and competition. That creates a pattern where wealthier, white families move to the highest achieving, and often whitest, suburbs, Wells said.

“People are re-sorting themselves into very segregated spaces,” said Wells.

In Plainfield, Ayala retooled the curriculum to reflect the community’s diversity. For example, when talking about a balanced meal, teachers give a variety of examples, instead of the standby “steak and potatoes”  that many minority children won’t connect to.

She dug into the data at the end of this school year and found that scores actually increased for everyone—blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians.

Parents in Plainfield seem to embrace the diversity of their schools.

“It’s great,” said Lori Harris, who’s Polish and has two Hispanic children. “There’s a mixture of everybody, so they fit in very well.”

“[My son’s] friends are all shapes, sizes, colors, genders. I think everybody for the most part is accepting of everybody else,” said Anthony Silva, whose son is a high school sophomore.

The environment is very different from where Silva lived as a kid on the South Side of Chicago, where, he said, “You had Irish here, you had Polish here, you had Mexican here, you had black here.”

But researcher Amy Stuart Wells says districts like Plainfield’s are still rare, because most schools are just not embracing or even focusing on diversity.

“There are these moments of opportunity that policy makers in the public school system are completely missing because they’re not paying any attention to these issues whatsoever,” Wells said. “It’s not even on their radar screen. And my question is, why?”

The federal Department of Education put out a document giving school districts guidance on what they called “voluntary efforts to promote diversity.”

It went public two weeks before Christmas and is now buried on the department’s website.