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"Neighborhood Schools – an Etymology,"

by Michael Hilton November/December 2015 issue of Poverty & Race

The term “neighborhood schools” has a long history in struggles over school integration, often used as a rallying cry by enclaves of well-resourced, usually white citizens to protect the uniform character of their schools and combat desegregation (Hannah-Jones, 2014; Williams, 2015).

Following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, many whites in both the North and the South began to express support for neighborhood schools, which “allowed for nominal integration near borders between black and white communities and token integration by some middle-class blacks[, but generally] relied on neighborhood residential segregation to prevent widespread comprehensive integration” (Todd-Breland, 2015, p. 133; Weinberg, 1967). In 1963, a staff report submitted to the United States Commission on Civil Rights found that, after the dismantling of legally enforced school segregation, a move to neighborhood schools resulted in exceptionally high degrees of segregation, since “[r]acial factors had been used to determine the size and location of schools. Schools were located, taking into account the racial group they were intended to serve” (Staff Report, 1963, p. 61). Since that time, very little has changed with regard to racial segregation in housing, and many recent observers have noted that while neighborhood schools may be an attractive concept, in conjunction with persistent residential segregation, they usually serve to widen already stark educational divides (Spencer, 2014; Kingsland, 2014; Ladson-Billings, 2004).

Some researchers have found that school districts released from court-ordered desegregation plans which implement a “neighborhood schools” approach effectively re-segregate, leading to higher levels of segregation today than were experienced in the 1970s (Joyner & Marsh, 2011). While some parents may desire neighborhood schools purely out of a desire to have their children remain close to home, many observers have noted that the busing of students has generally not been an issue for parent groups until the busing was implemented with desegregative aims (Jackson, 1982; Theoharis, 2015). In fact, research has shown that many parents who proclaim benign reasons for supporting neighborhood schools actually, whether consciously or subconsciously, desire neighborhood schools in order to prevent their children from attending schools in predominantly minority areas—not to avoid a bus ride (Todd-Breland, 2015, p. 134).

The reaction in Boston to court-ordered busing in the 1970s serves as a useful illustration of the racially charged history of “neighborhood schools” rhetoric. The emphasis on maintaining a segregated system of neighborhood schools in Boston arose in the early 1960s, led by the School Committee Chairperson, Louise Day Hicks. In 1963, Hicks “emerged as a leader of the white resistance to desegregation[, and t]hat fall she campaigned for re-election as a defender of segregation and the ‘neighborhood school’” (Green, 2000, p. 208). In Boston, the birthplace of public education in the United States (Seelye, 2012), “[s]upporting neighborhood schools and opposing school bus rides became rhetoric to fight desegregation without overtly racist language” (Theoharis, 2015). The fight for desegregation in Boston reached a climax in the early 1970s, following a lawsuit by the NAACP regarding the continued segregation of Boston schools, which the School Committee defended against by asserting that the “policy of assigning children to ‘neighborhood schools’ was being evenly applied in a city with clear ethnic neighborhoods, the origins of which were historical and beyond the control of the Committee” (Weinbaum, 2004; Gellerman, 2014). When the court ordered the busing of students to desegregate schools in 1974, violent protest erupted in the city, resulting in the deployment of the National Guard.

While different groups at different times have employed the “rhetoric and ideology of ‘neighborhood schools’ to achieve very different ends,” it is important to be mindful of the charged history of that term during community discussions around public education (Todd-Breland, 2015, p. 133).


Gellerman, Bruce (2014), “How The Boston Busing Decision Still Affects City Schools 40 Years Later,” wbur, available at

Green, James (2000), Taking History to Heart: The Power of the Past in Building Social Movements, University of Massachusetts Press.

Hannah-Jones, Nikole (2014), “Segregation Now …,” The Atlantic, available at

Jackson, Jesse (1982), “It’s Not the Bus. It’s Us.,” New York Times, available at

Joyner, Anne Moss & Marsh, Ben (2011), "Institutionalizing Disparities in Education: A Case Study of Segregation in Wayne County, NC High Schools," InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 7(1). UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, available at CaseWayneCo.pdf.

Kingsland, Neerav (2014), “The Cost of Neighborhood Schools,” The Washington Post, available at

Ladson-Billings, Gloria (2004), “Landing on the Wrong Note: The Price We Paid for Brown,” 2004 DeWitt Wallace–Reader’s Digest Distinguished Lecture, available at

Seelye, Katharine (2012) “4 Decades After Clashes, Boston Again Debates School Busing,” The New York Times, available at

Spencer, Kyle (2014), “The Uncomfortable Reality of Community Schools,” Frontline PBS, available at

Staff Report (1963), Public Education, United States Commission on Civil Rights, available at https://www. 82936.pdf.

Theoharis, George (2015), “‘Forced Busing’ didn’t Fail. Desegregation is the Best Way to Improve our Schools.,” The Washington Post, available at https://www.washingtonpost. com/posteverything/wp/2015/10/23/forced-busing-didnt-fail-desegregation-is-the-best-way-to-improve-our-schools/.

Todd-Breland, Elizabeth (2015), The Janus-Faced Neighborhood School, in The Return of the Neighborhood as an Urban Strategy, Michael Pagano, Ed., University of Illinois Press.

Weinbaum, Elliot (2004) Looking for Leadership: Battles Over Busing in Boston, PennGSE Perspectives on Urban Education 3(1), available at http://www.urbanedjournal. org/archive/volume-3-issue-1-fall-2004/looking-leadership-battles-over-busing-boston.

Weinberg, Meyer (1967), Race and Place: A Legal History of the Neighborhood School, U.S. Government Printing Office, available at

Williams, Conor (2015), “Opinion: Liberals Push to Correct Inequality—Just Not If It Involves Opening Up Our Neighborhood Schools,” The Seventy Four, available at

Michael Hilton is a Policy Analyst at PRRAC, specializing in federal education policy with a focus on school desegregation. Mr. Hilton is a graduate of Columbia Law School, where he was a Managing Editor of the Columbia Journal of European Law, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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