How a growing Arkansas town avoided segregation in its two high schools

ROGERS, Ark. — In 2006, the Rogers school district faced a difficult choice. The student population had grown enormously over the past decade and school officials didn’t relish the prospect of a massive high school of more than 4,000 students. They wanted to open a new school, but they didn’t want schools to be segregated by ethnicity, which would surely happen if the schools were zoned by neighborhood. Nearby Springdale had been in the same position and had ended up with one school that had almost twice the percentage of Latino students as the other.

Instead of creating distinct geographic zones, district administrators took a close look at the demographics of each elementary school (which, as neighborhood schools, tend to be more segregated). By assigning three or four to feed into each of the district’s middle schools, and two middle schools to each high school, they could create two ethnically similar high schools.

“Instead of drawing a line which would have been very divisive, we created a feeder school pattern,” said longtime Rogers superintendent Janie Darr. “It was the only way to keep the demographics similar.”

The process involved many meetings, which sometimes went on for hours as everyone was allowed to have a say.

Unlike most school debates about racial balance, there wasn’t an existing school to desegregate; the question was whether to create two segregated high schools or two integrated ones. The main concern for school and public officials, who wanted to integrate, was that the two schools be equal — in terms of opportunities (like Advanced Placement classes and extracurricular activities such as band) and facilities (both schools have their own football stadiums and tennis courts).

“If we had just a geographical boundary, it was pretty clear that those schools on the southwest side of Rogers would be higher income, less diverse schools than the schools on the northeast side of Rogers,” said Darr. “I don’t want to say we didn’t have any opposition … but the consensus was that they all wanted two high schools that were as equitably divided as possible in socioeconomic [terms] and in a racial balance.”

Although there was no shortage of opposition during the sometimes impassioned discussions, in the end, the administrators persuaded enough of the community to agree with the integration plan and it prevailed. Heritage High School, which opened in 2008, is now 42 percent Latino, 51 percent white, and has 28 percent English language learners, almost exactly the same as Rogers High.

One wild card in the mix is the decision by the Walton Family Foundation to open a private high school next door to Rogers, with a Princeton University dean slated to run it, which may pull in the children of corporate executives who live in Rogers.

Darr says district leaders are keeping an eye on those plans as well as on population changes in the southern and western parts of the district, which could change the elementary schools’ composition. She says they will seek to change the feeding pattern if the high schools become too unbalanced.

“It is extremely important not to have a haves and have-nots,” said Darr. “Otherwise you’re not going to have equal achievement.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about high school reform.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.