Deep Dives

To Fulfill the Promise of Brown, Meaningful School Integration Requires SEL 

May 17, 2024
Lakeisha Steele
Vice President of Policy
To Fulfill the Promise of Brown, Meaningful School Integration Requires SEL 

70 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned 100 years of apartheid in education in the landmark ruling, Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The Court ruled that “separate but equal” schools were inherently unequal and unconstitutional. When Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the decision of the Court he stated: “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed if he is denied an opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be available to all on equal terms.” 

On the anniversary of this landmark ruling, we must recommit to fulfilling the promise of Brown and ensure our schools reflect the diversity of our nation. We must invest in comprehensive school integration strategies and leverage evidence-based approaches such as social and emotional learning (SEL) to create inclusive and welcoming learning environments for all students.   

We know that unequal educational opportunity leads to unequal educational outcomes. Unfortunately, our country has not fulfilled the promise of Brown. Racial and socioeconomic segregation in public schools has increased over the last three decades, and one in three high school students attends a racially segregated high school. This leads to devastating consequences for Black and Latino students concentrated in high-poverty schools. Research shows school segregation leads to unequal educational opportunities, limiting students of color’s access to school resources, experienced teachers, engaging curricula, and advanced placement coursework. We can no longer accept the status quo policies that perpetuate opportunity gaps and deprive underserved students of the opportunity to thrive and excel academically. 

Students deserve to learn in integrated schools where they receive a well-rounded, high-quality education to ensure they can thrive and reach their full potential in school and life. Integrated schools benefit all students, boosting academic achievement and improving empathy, critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving skills. Encouragingly, we see renewed focus on school integration at the federal level, following many years of U.S. Congressman Bobby Scott pushing for action. In 2023, bipartisan report language in appropriations established the first new investment in school integration in nearly four decades. This initiative, known as the Fostering Diverse Schools Demonstration Grants Program, is a priority in the President’s Budget and aims to support local voluntary school integration efforts. Grant funds are awarded to states and districts to develop or implement a comprehensive plan to increase diversity in schools. The U.S. Department of Education explains that a comprehensive plan includes “promoting student academic achievement by fostering inclusive and welcoming learning environments that support the academic, social, emotional, and mental health needs of all students within classroom and extracurricular activities in the district or districts and increase access to safe, healthy, and/or well-rounded educational opportunities.”  

It is critical for states and districts to incorporate SEL as a key part of a comprehensive strategy on school integration. Schools do not just become spaces of inclusion without intentional policies and practices that create a sense of belonging and caring relationships. When implemented with fidelity, high-quality SEL can promote inclusive learning environments, foster cross-cultural understanding, cultivate supportive adult and student relationships, and support all students in their academic, social, and emotional development. For example, implementing SEL can help build a supportive learning environment where students are able to learn from each other by considering other perspectives or looking at solving a problem from multiple viewpoints. In addition, SEL can help develop cross cultural competency by helping students form relationships with students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, which can develop and increase empathy and respect for others. Contemporary strategies for meaningful school integration require a deep look at the role of SEL to build inclusive and welcoming learning environments.  

As states and districts implement school integration strategies, SEL can also serve as a powerful tool to help districts and schools evaluate and overturn harmful school policies that create inequities and disproportionately affect students of color. For example, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights recognizes SEL as a guiding principle to foster safe, inclusive, supportive, and nondiscriminatory school environments. This means that states and districts should evaluate school climate and discipline data as part of their school integration efforts and leverage SEL to support opportunities for students, families, and educators to co-create inclusive, welcoming, and student-centered learning environments. District and school leaders can also create student and family surveys to solicit feedback on policies and practices to build student belonging and a welcoming school culture. Further, SEL can help adults become aware of their own biases and expectations and develop culturally responsive schools. Such practices can help improve school culture and create environments of high expectations for all students.  

SEL and school integration are interconnected, and we must leverage all tools to help fulfill the promise of Brown. It is imperative for a healthy, multiracial democracy. As Justice Thurgood Marshall stated in 1974, “[f]or unless our children begin to learn together, there is little hope that our people will ever learn to live together and understand each other.” 

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