VCU, Penn State researchers shed light on racial, economic segregation in Virginia schools

The researchers also reveal extensive racial, ethnic and socioeconomic gaps in AP course-taking among Virginia’s high school students.

A school hallway with lockers.
A pair of new reports by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and Penn State explores the contours of school segregation by race and poverty in Virginia over the past decade and reveals how Virginia students do not have equal access to higher-level coursework, specifically Advanced Placement classes. (Getty Images)

A pair of new reports by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University and Penn State explores the contours of school segregation by race and poverty in Virginia over the past decade and reveals how Virginia students do not have equal access to higher-level coursework, specifically Advanced Placement classes.

“Together the briefs show why segregation matters and the dynamics that shape it, particularly for Black and Latinx students in Virginia,” said author Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership in the VCU School of Education. “The issue is especially urgent as racial demographics in the state continue to shift.”

The research briefs, “Double Segregation by Race and Poverty in Virginia Schools” and “Segregation within Schools: Unequal Access to AP Courses by Race and Economic Status in Virginia,” were produced by a team at VCU and the Center for Education and Civil Rights at the Penn State College of Education.

“A unique feature of these briefs is that Virginia’s dataset allows us to explore segregation by race and class, both of which affect students’ access to educational opportunity,” said Erica Frankenberg, Ed.D., director of the Center for Education and Civil Rights and a Penn State professor of educational leadership and demography. “We urge more states to collect and release such data to fully understand the intersectionality of segregation in public schools.”

Among the research brief’s key findings:

  • Increasing student poverty in Virginia corresponds with highly unequal access to advanced coursework like AP.
  • Race, poverty and educational inequality intersect in key ways between and within schools but racial segregation in schools is intense, regardless of income level.
  • Black economically disadvantaged students are the most disadvantaged in key respects, including high levels of exposure to concentrations of student poverty in schools and diminished access to AP courses. Black students experience unequal access to AP classes regardless of a given school's racial/ethnic or economic makeup. Still, lack of access to AP classes is most acute for Black students in schools with high concentrations of economically-disadvantaged students and Black and Latinx students.
  • White rural students in Virginia, who are more likely to be economically disadvantaged, report relatively low AP enrollment, while white urban and suburban students report the highest AP enrollment.
  • The number of schools of concentrated racial and economic disadvantage is growing in Virginia, even as access to advanced coursework is lowest in these schools.

“School segregation erodes opportunities for all students — opportunities to learn to think, care and share across lines of difference,” Siegel-Hawley said. “It reinforces a racial caste system and severely undermines the economic and moral health of our increasingly multiracial democracy.”

The researchers have shared their findings and a robust set of recommendations with the Virginia Department of Education.

“We look forward to assisting in whatever way is helpful as the state and other organizations continue working on issues related to racial inequity in K-12 schools,” Siegel-Hawley said.

In addition to Siegel-Hawley and Frankenberg, the research briefs’ authors include Kendra Taylor, Ph.D., a researcher who focuses on the intersection of educational and residential segregation; and Kimberly Bridges, Ed.L.D., assistant professor and co-coordinator of the Ed.D. program in K-12 leadership at VCU.

The research briefs are part of a series on school segregation in Virginia. The team’s previous report, “School Segregation by Boundary Line in Virginia: Scope, Significance and State Policy Solutions,” was published in November and found that school segregation by race and poverty is deepening in Virginia, but state and local policy measures could lead to more integration and better educational opportunities.

About VCU and VCU Health

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 30,000 students in 233 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Twenty-two of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 11 schools and three colleges. The VCU Health brand represents the VCU health sciences academic programs, the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the VCU Health System, which comprises VCU Medical Center (the only academic medical center in the region), Community Memorial Hospital, Tappahannock Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, and MCV Physicians. The clinical enterprise includes a collaboration with Sheltering Arms Institute for physical rehabilitation services. For more, please visit www.vcu.edu and vcuhealth.org.

About the Penn State College of Education and CECR

Accredited since 1965, the Penn State College of Education offers a number of flexible academic offerings, including eight majors with teacher preparation in 20 specialty degree programs — as well as a selection of majors that will prepare students for a variety of other education-related careers in the fields of policymaking, rehabilitation and human services, educational psychology, counseling, special education, workforce education and more. The Center for Education and Civil Rights, housed within the College of Education at Penn State, is a hub for the generation of knowledge and coalition-building among the education and civil rights communities to promote research-based actions that address the complicated nature of racial and ethnic inequality in the 21st century. The center’s collective work is intended to promote equity across the educational pipeline by supporting efforts that facilitate integration through an interdisciplinary approach that bridges research and practice. For more information, visit cecr.ed.psu.edu.