“What does it mean?”: Making sense of (post)desegregation in a small urban middle school

Sarah Hope Jewett, University of Pennsylvania


Multiple and even contradictory expressions of educational equity and justice coexist in public policies and discourses. Situated within these competing visions is the nation's fragmented plan for school desegregation, initiated almost fifty years ago under the authority of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Even as long standing judicial mandates for school desegregation are overturned, many schools across the country maintain their practice of desegregation (Orfield & Eaton, 1996). Moreover, while criticism is leveled against school desegregation policy from divergent fronts, there are also public calls for its continuation, adaptation, and even expansion (Bell, 1980; Kahlenberg, 2001; Ladson-Billings, 1998; Orfield, 2001; Wells and Crain, 1999). In the midst of these many claims and critiques, what does it mean to be a desegregated school, especially in an era of post-desegregation? This ethnographic study investigated this research question in the context of a small urban desegregated middle school. Sources of data included fieldnotes from participant observation, transcripts of interviews and focus groups, and written documents collected during the two school years that spanned 2001–2002. This study conceptualizes desegregation as an interplay between the school's institutional contexts, its social relationships, and its community discourses. Through this interplay, administrators, teachers, and students negotiated the work of school desegregation reform, their roles as individuals and as members of overlapping groups, and their understandings about race and racism. In many ways, the reform of desegregation seemed disconnected from the school's institutional context, yet its participation in the local school district's voluntary desegregation program ensured a relatively diverse population and thus, shaped the ways in which adults and youth enacted social relationships and employed community discourses within the school. Analysis of this interplay is particularly important as educators and policymakers make decisions about the future of school desegregation, and continue to reinvent and transform schooling for a pluralistic democracy.

Subject Area

Educational sociology|School administration

Recommended Citation

Jewett, Sarah Hope, "“What does it mean?”: Making sense of (post)desegregation in a small urban middle school" (2003). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3095892.