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White Flight: Integration through Segregation in Danish Metropolitan Public Schools

 

White Flight:

Integration through Segregation in Danish Metropolitan Public Schools

 

Goals of Danish Integration Policy

As Per Bregengaard, member of the Red-Green Alliance in Denmark and 2005 Mayor for education and youth in Denmark, states, the objectives of integration in the Copenhagen municipality’s schools are: “1) that bilingual pupils should achieve sufficiently good results from their education to enable them to take part in the life of the community at work as the equals of their Danish fellow pupils, 2) that the multiethnic combination of the pupils is seen by the children, teachers and parents as an enrichment of the Danish culture and as a means of supporting internationalization in Danish society, and 3) that the schools need to be culturally accommodating, with the personal, cultural and language backgrounds of all children as the point of departure for the whole of the work of school”.

These objectives imply support for multicultural integration and equal opportunity in the education system. However, the “dilemma” of multiculturalism, according to Bregengaard, is that although “the idea of equality between cultures is a very attractive one,” it becomes “difficult to put into practice in a modern developing society,” where specific skills and values are preferred, sometimes required, over others. This paper presents and explores the current phenomenon of white flight in Danish metropolitan schools and then analyzes a particular Copenhagen school’s newest attempts in addressing this issue. We acknowledge that integration can realistically only be achieved to a degree in some cases since functional adjustment is often interconnected to cultural norms and values that one must also adopt along with them. We conclude, however, that although these issues are difficult to address with general models, the Rådmandsgade approach, for example, seems to break down several economic, cultural and situational barriers to integration in the surrounding community by fostering an environment that both addresses the needs of different pockets of that population and promotes exchanges and interaction between those groups of different origins. Though this particular school’s integrative segregation is not the ideal because it does not represent full integration, it does seem to address many of the issues brought up by our ethnographic work.

The Status Quo

White flight, as used in the context of education, is a demographic tendency in which ethnically Danish parents remove their children from public school in order to avoid an increased presence of non-whites. This trend often sets off a race to the bottom, where resourceful children’s mass departure has devastating impacts on the general academic and economic progress of the school. Two schools from the city of Århus, the second largest city in Denmark, are now facing the possibility of closing come November. Nordgårdskolen, one of the two schools, holds a record: It is the only public school in Denmark with no ethnically Danish children in it. In certain areas with a large population of bilingual residents as the ones mentioned above, the trend is so severe that the municipality is forced to get involved. As we shall see, however, resolving these issues is easier said than done and are often most effective when executed on a case-by-case basis.

According to the City of Copenhagen’s’ official policies of integration, children of non-western backgrounds in Copenhagen are on average almost an entire grade level below children of western origins when it comes to academic performance. None of the teachers interviewed said they had experienced white flight as a result of open intolerance towards other cultures. Ethnically Danish students are generally perceived as having better prior knowledge and family support in comparison to their non-ethnically Danish counterparts when it comes to the Danish style of learning.

As it refers to public education in Denmark, white flight is partially due to intolerance on behalf of ethnically Danish parents and children, either individually or structurally (e.g., curriculum design and organization of the education system). It also exists because more well-resourced parents’ (not necessarily but very often ethnically Danish) concerns that economic standards as well as educational benchmarks are compromised when there is a significant immigrant majority in the classroom. Children who descend from immigrants in Denmark are generally characterized as existing in higher-risk, less economically capable family situations when compared to their ethnically Danish counterparts. They might also be culturally less familiar with Denmark and require special attention in this respect. An indirect divide between bilingual and monolingual students as a result of white flight will certainly not provide social cohesion between these groups when they reach adulthood. The outlook is likely to be two differing groups with little to no experience on how to interact productively with one another.

On the other hand, there is the ruling principle of free choice of school in Denmark. This means that, as a parent, one has the right to a certain degree to be able to matriculate his or her child in a school of his or her choice. As one can imagine, it is very easy for the re-segregative effects of white flight to develop under this legislation. White flight under these conditions gathers momentum: the more ethnically Danish students leave a school, the less the overall percentage of ethnically Danish students becomes. Not only does a particular school seem less attractive to the potentially Danish recruits; the future matriculation of current ethnic Danes also becomes increasingly precarious.

Responses to the Status Quo: An Ethnographic Case Study

To learn some more about the phenomenon, we went to a school located in the midst of Nørrebro, a residential area with a very ethnically mixed population. Blågårdsskolen, as the name of the school is, has approximately 70% students of another ethnical background than Danish. So it seemed like a natural place to get of sense of what is going on with the white flight in Denmark. We were fortunate enough to get a hold of some people that are directly affected by it.

"Yeah, I would have liked to have more Danes in the class" Afif says, while he looks around the street. He has just finished his last exam and is now only awaiting his diploma. "It would have been nice to have someone to explain some of the more difficult words to you, when you're completely lost". Out of all the 20+ children in his class only one of them has been ethnically Danish. 

Anja Engholm is a teacher who has been personally affected by the tendency. Over the summer holiday in 2006 five ethnically Danish students left her class. “As a teacher, it is horrible to experience such a development” she answers, when asked to describe the emotional impact it had left on her. In the summer of 2006 she lost five ethnically Danish at once, which incidentally were the most skilled. Her role as a teacher was significantly changed after this. “The overall professional competence of the class has dropped and now it ranges in between mediocre and below.” As such she will have to restructure her approach to teaching the class.

One positive change comes to mind, however, concerning the new composition of the class. Some of the bilingual students no longer feel dwarfed by academic status due to their inferior skills when competing with the monolingual children. It is now their chance to shine in the different disciplines and some of them take a genuine pleasure in doing so, now that the option is available. 

Another teacher we talked to wanted to stay anonymous for professional reasons, so we will refer to him as “Adam”. Having also been affected by Danish children leaving his class, he presented strong opinions on the subject. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the problems stems from the majority of the class being of another ethnicity than Danish. But the children that are furthest behind often are bilingual.”

Adam is well aware of what kind of parents that are moving the children. The main group to leave the school is the children of academicians. They tend to leave the school when they feel that the academic standard has or will drop to an unacceptable level.”

He further informs us that round about half of the children leave for private schools and the other half for other public schools – both of which have less bilingual children than what is experienced at Blågårdsskolen as a common feature. 

The bilingual children who are left after a session of “White Flight”, can feel doubly rejected. “Sometimes they have a background from an Arabic private school, where they perhaps have been expelled from. Afterwards, when the ethnically Danish students leave the class permanently upon bilinguals’ arrival, it will affect their self-esteem in a very negative way.”

He agrees with Anja that such a flight from his classroom is a horrible thing to experience first hand. “It is so frustrating, and it really leaves you with a feeling of disempowerment”.

Also he informs us that Blågårdsskolen is the fourth most expensive school in Copenhagen, meaning that only three schools receive more than it does, when it comes to funding from the municipality. But if it isn’t a financial issue, what then constitutes the problem?

“There are several reasons for our problematic situation, the main one of course being that we are situated in a highly problem filled area. A lot of the parents are unemployed and on social welfare. Schoolwise, they don’t really participate in their childs’ upbringing.

But the management of schools on Nørrebro in general lack competence, when it comes to dealing with this extraordinary situation, Adam feels. “To put it bluntly” he says, “The management is invisible and incompetent”. Contrary to common belief, the leaders of the schools that Adam are referring to, often have no special competences that would qualify them for their position, such as past experience in working with other cultures, etc. As such, the schools have a very disadvantaged position from the get-go, when compared to other public schools.

To end of with of with a bit of an eye-opener, Adam added: “Parallel to this so-called white flight trend we also experience, what I suppose you can call “Black Flight”.” This would cover the fact that resourceful parents of another background than Danish often are found to be hesitant to register their children in schools with a large percentage of bilingual children. 

This in turn proposes the thought that the flight isn’t really triggered by colour or ethnicity at all, but perhaps rather by socio-economical issues. 

A New Way to Integrate: The Rådmandsgade School

The Rådmandsgade School, a primary school built in 1889 but extended and renovated throughout its history, most recently in 1999, is a school with about 540 students between grades 0-7 (80% of whom are bilingual). This is a result of a heavy increase in the number of bilingual students in the surrounding community of Nørrebro between 1995 and 1996 (Engholm 2005). At this point, the school’s bilingual population skyrocketed from 30% to over 50% in a matter of 2 years. The largest ethnic group at Rådmandsgade currently is comprised of Arabic-speaking children principally from Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and it makes up about 27% of the student population. Twenty-four (24%) of the students are ethnically Danish, followed by smaller 10%-15% groups of students from Pakistani, Turkish or Kurdish and Somali origins. Even smaller groups and individual students of ethnicities not listed above also contribute to the vast cultural and linguistic diversity at Rådmandsgade. We identified three prongs to Rådmandsgade’s program for integration.

Teacher Preparation: To adequately serve its new demographic, Rådmandsgade devised a development plan that focused heavily on preparing teachers and curriculum in this new situation. A joint course for all teachers at the school provided teachers who might have undergone teacher preparation during a time when the ethnic distribution in Copenhagen’s schools was significantly more homogenous were familiarized with Muslim culture, teaching Danish as a second language and parent-teacher cooperation in workshops. It also became a very serious priority of Rådmandsgade’s administration to hire about 12 bilingual teachers of various ethnic origins represented in the new demographic.

Language Groups: A language group pilot project was also launched from 1996-1999 as part of a larger project of the same kind on behalf of the Copenhagen municipality. The goal was to support bilingual students’ learning by occasionally placing them in classroom learning environments where they could learn aided in their mother tongue. Although parental reactions to this approach varied, the trial project was so successful in improving bilingual students’ grasp of both mother tongue and Danish that it was referred to as “the best thing Copenhagen has done so far” towards integration. Although in other contexts the notion of segregated classrooms is considered dangerous, this style of integration is one of the most interesting aspects of Rådmandsgade’s approach: It softens the self-segregation (white flight) that often brings conditions back to the original status quo, which is what has happened in much of the United States since integration during the Civil Rights Movement, and renders most attempts at integration almost impossible. It also allows Danish students who are the children of immigrant families to learn the same curriculum in a style that is easier for them to connect to with the mother tongue and culture that they may be most familiar with.

In a four-class kindergarten at Rådmandsgade, for example, the student distribution is as follows: Class A has roughly ten ethnically Danish students and another group of roughly ten students from diverse backgrounds; Class B has roughly ten Arabic-speaking children and another group of roughly ten students of diverse backgrounds (but no ethnic Danes); Class C is the same as Class A; Class D is a group of roughly ten Urdu-speaking children and another group of roughly ten students of diverse backgrounds (but no ethnic Danes). To address the concern that this segregates ethnic Danes to the extent that some students at Rådmandsgade do not have ethnic Danes in their classroom, it is required that classes A and B and classes C and D work together, often on a more than weekly basis.

This kind of segregation does two crucial things for Rådmandsgade’s integration plans: 1) it eases ethnically Danish parents’ concerns about ethnic distribution in the classroom by putting ethnically Danish students in a classroom where they are still the majority (therefore counteracting the re-segregation that results from white flight), and 2) it prevents the curricular structure from expecting that all students come from the same background and that cultural and individual nuance does not play a role in how students connect to educational material being presented to them. This is a crucial step in a truly multicultural education system because it addresses the needs of students individually. This, we believe, is a better approach to integration than assuming that if everyone is receiving the same material, they are being equally educated. Often, curriculum is guided by the origins of the majority, and this separation of students allows for culturally sensitive variations of the same curriculum to be developed and co-exist.

Another argument in support of this approach is that by engendering a more sustainable kind of integration like the one illustrated above, it becomes more difficult for separate but equal categories to become unequal because they are both a part of the same school and community. The self-segregation that has returned many parts of the United States to the conditions that existed before the federal government moved to integrate in the 1960s is an easier situation for inequalities to be ignored because they are happening in separate communities and not under the same roof. In other words, although segregation is not the ideal, it is less dangerous with regard to the development of inequalities in the educational system and facilitates a more sustainable kind of integration under the conditions discussed thus far.

Parental integration: The third prong of Rådmandsgades’ approach is the integration of parents into active involvement with their child’s education. The school has held three evening meetings per school year over the last few years for parents whose countries of origin are Turkey, Somalia, Pakistan or the Arabic-speaking nations at which bilingual teachers as well as the school principal are in attendance. Discussions about their children’s education takes place in the respective group’s native tongue, making these evenings an incredible success for two principal reasons: First, they develop a network of support and communication amongst families with backgrounds most similar to their own. Second, it serves to involve and educate parents about their children’s education. Parental support and involvement are essential to the development of Rådmandsgades’ students since family support and encouragement can, for instance, make the different between motivating a student to pursue higher education and, alternatively, making him or her feel as if these kinds of opportunities are out of reach. More attempts to serve the needs of immigrant parents from within the system should be made in metropolitan areas of Denmark with higher concentrations of immigrants if these families are to be expected to benefit effectively from the educational system.

Plans for the Future

But what steps are the municipality actually taking to put a stop to the unfortunate development of voluntary segregating schools so to speak? 

Realising that the city had a problem on its hands with the uneven distribution of mono- and bilingual students, the municipality has launched a practical concept named The Copenhagen Model. This model is being implemented to prevent further structural segregation between monolingual and bilingual children in public schools over the next years. It is an official intervening procedure within the limits of what is possible. The hopes are of course that the trend will generate enough momentum to be self perpetuating in the end, with no further need for municipal partaking.    

This model divides the schools in question into two categories; Type A and Type B, with 15 of each category as of 2007. Blågårdsskole as well as Rådmandsgadeskole are both categorized as being Type A schools. This means that they through various PR campaigns are trying to reach out to ethnically Danish parents to have them enlist their child in the school, in order for it to have a more symmetric distribution between monolingual and bilingual pupils. Likewise, Type B schools are trying to attract immigrant parents, by for instance guaranteeing an integration worker, or a translator of an ethnicity other than Danish to be employed at the school.

Whether The Copenhagen Model Will Be Successful or Not, only Time Can Tell.

We acknowledge that integration can realistically only be achieved to a degree in some cases since functional adjustment is often interconnected to cultural norms and values that one must also adopt along with them. Although these issues are difficult to address with general models, the Rådmandsgade approach, for example, seems to break down several economic, cultural and situational barriers to integration in the surrounding community by fostering an environment that both addresses the needs of different pockets of that population and promotes exchanges and interaction between those groups of different origins. Though this particular school’s integrative segregation is not the ideal because it does not represent full integration, it does seem to address many of the issues brought up by our ethnographic work. A possible fallback though would include that the classes may develop an informal hierarchy amongst the students where ethnically Danish students are perceived as a smarter class.

While individual racist reasons for removing ones child from a certain school may exist, these are actually rarely encountered by the affected teachers. The fact of the matter is that the main reason for moving your child to another most commonly stems from a feeling that your child is academically and socially understimulated. It would probably benefit the debate if there was a more clear focus on pupils leaving the school because of the this reason.

 

References

Interviews:

Afif, student, Blågårdsskolen (June 22, 2007)

Jamal, student, Blågårdsskolen (June 22, 2007)

Omar, student, Blågårdsskolen (June 22, 2007)

Anja Engholm, teacher, Blågårdsskolen (June 22, 2007)

Inger Pedersen, teacher, Blågårdsskolen, (June 26, 2007)

”Adam”, teacher, Blågårdsskolen, (June 26, 2007)

”Sofie”, teacher, Blågårdsskolen, (June 26, 2007)

Lectures:

Egholm, Lise W. Principal, Rådmandsgades Skole. ”Danish Education and the Rådmandsgades Model.” (June 14, 2007)

Publications:

Bregengaard, Per. “Political Observations,” Pamphlet from ICSEI Braking Boundaries conference in Barcelona, Published by the Municipality of Copenhagen and the administration of Education and Youth (2005).

Clausen, Inger M. “Copenhagen Schools in a Multiethnic Reality,” Pamphlet from ICSEI Braking Boundaries conference in Barcelona, Published by the Municipality of Copenhagen and the administration of Education and Youth (2005).

Egholm, Lise W. “Rådmandsgades Skole,” Pamphlet from ICSEI Braking Boundaries conference in Barcelona, Published by the Municipality of Copenhagen and the administration of Education and Youth (2005).

Fairlie, Robert W. “Is There ‘White Flight’ into Private Schools?: Evidence from the National Educational Longitudinal Survey.” University of California, Santa Cruz and Joint Center for Poverty Research, Northwestern University and University of Chicago (2000).

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Denmark Denmark 2007

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