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Numbers Show Segregation in Sioux Falls Schools [OPINION]

Brian Maher
Dan Peters/Results Radio

I was checking some numbers on diversity and poverty in the Sioux Falls elementary schools in a follow up from a conversation on The Patrick Lalley Show on Monday.

Brian Maher, the superintendent of the Sioux Falls public schools, was our guest on the show. We focused the discussion on the growing issue of racial and ethnic segregation in the city’s 24 elementary schools.

The numbers show the stark reality of the issue. More on that in a minute.

Maher didn’t have the numbers off the top of his head. Instead we talked about the general trends.

Generally speaking, I find that education officials are loath to “rank” schools on any factors. I can understand that, as it sets up a potentially misleading structure of comparison.

However, the district has extensive data on each of the school available online. The latest I found was for the 2015-16 school year so it’s a bit old but I don’t think any one school is going to change that much in a year.

You can look at each school on your own here.

Instead of setting of a ranking system – which would have taken a little time but not insurmountable – I did some spot checking just based on my understanding of the school and neighborhood demographics.

For the sake of this discussion, we will look at four schools: Hawthorne, Terry Redlin, John Harris and R.F. Pettigrew.

I looked at four numbers for comparison. They are:

  • The percentage of white students.
  • The percentage of Hispanic students. Note, the U.S. Census considers Hispanic as an ethnicity not a race. Therefore, most children of Hispanic heritage are counted as white under race unless they are of true native or black decent from their country of ancestry.
  • The diversity level. This is simply the percentage of white students minus the percentage of Hispanic students subtracted from 100. It is an admittedly inexact mathematical formula that any self-respecting Census official would wave off, but it does give you a round number of the general diversity level of a school.
  • The percentage of students who quality for free or reduced lunch. This is an accurate measure of the poverty level for a given school.

I picked the four schools in question just because I have a general idea of the demographic breakdown of each one. It was essentially educated spot checking without going through the entire list.

Again, I’ve found on the state and local level that education folks don’t like to make that kind of comparison data easily available. You can put it all together if you want, and they often do when they need to know something, but let’s not quibble over the details.

Here are the results.

  • Hawthorne has a 90 percent diversity rate with 100 percent of the students living in poverty. The school is located basically downtown, across from St. Joseph Cathedral and just a couple blocks from the county jail and courthouse.
  • Terry Redlin is 91 percent diverse with 100 percent of the students living in poverty. The school is on Austin Street in the near east side, just east of Cliff Avenue and north of 10th
  • John Harris is 20 percent diverse with 17.5 percent of the students living in poverty. The school is located on 49th Street in southeast Sioux Falls.
  • F. Pettigrew is 22 percent diverse with 15.4 percent in poverty. It is in the southwest corner of the city on 53rd Street.

So, what does this prove? Nothing, other than it’s a topic that needs and deserves discussion. It would be easy for a district and a community to shy away from the topic altogether, because it involves sensitive and difficult questions about race and poverty.

We’re not good at that.

We know for sure that bussing students around to balance the equations isn’t going to happen here. But there are innovative ways to encourage a more equitable balance. That’s what Maher wants to talk about.

Let’s make sure he isn’t ignored.


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