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PHOTOS: Where The Kids Across Town Grow Up With Very Different Schools

NPR sent photographers to locations across the country to document the stark differences between school districts right next to each other. This is what they saw.
Preston Gannaway/Talia Herman/Alex Matzke/Elissa Nadworny/Jesse Neider/Photo collage by LA Johnson/NPR
NPR sent photographers to locations across the country to document the stark differences between school districts right next to each other. This is what they saw.

On one side of the line — fresh paint and computer labs.

Across that line? Old textbooks, broken chairs and, above all, many more students of color.

Decades after Brown v. Board supposedly ended segregated schooling, these boundaries show a country where education remains deeply divided and unequal.

"You know it as soon as you look at the school. You know it the minute you walk into a classroom," says Rebecca Sibilia, the founder and CEO of EdBuild. Her organization has a new report on the pervasive inequality in U.S. schools. "There are kids who see this every day, and they understand."

Across the country, racist housing policies created segregated neighborhoods. And because many schools in the U.S. are funded locally, through property taxes or other funds, school districts with wealthier residents are able to funnel money to their schools. Neighboring school districts miss out.

Additional money from state and the federal governments is meant to close these local funding gaps, but it's seldom enough.

Decades after Brown, housing segregation combined with this funding model have entrenched what EdBuild calls "racially isolated" school systems. In nearly 1,000 communities, according to EdBuild, one school district directly abuts a district that differs dramatically by racial makeup and spending per student.

Almost 9 million students attend these underfunded, racially isolated districts.

NPR sent photographers to several of them across the country to document the stark differences across these borders.

This is what they saw.


Stark differences, in black and white

JEFFERSON COUNTY SCHOOLS / MOUNTAIN BROOK CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT

OUTSIDE BIRMINGHAM, ALA.

<strong>Side by side, but worlds apart in Alabama:</strong> Mountain Brook High School (left) and Fultondale High School in Jefferson County
/ Wes Frazer for NPR
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Wes Frazer for NPR
<strong>Side by side, but worlds apart in Alabama:</strong> Mountain Brook High School (left) and Fultondale High School in Jefferson County

Photographer Wes Frazer lives in Birmingham, Ala. He took photos of Jefferson County Schools and Mountain Brook City Schools in black and white, he says, "because I wanted the viewer to study the photos to really see the differences in the schools."

<strong>Given a head start:</strong> Football fields at Mountain Brook High School (left) and Pinson Valley High School in the Jefferson County School District
/ Wes Frazer for NPR
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Wes Frazer for NPR
<strong>Given a head start:</strong> Football fields at Mountain Brook High School (left) and Pinson Valley High School in the Jefferson County School District

Though the state of Alabama allocates more money — almost $1,000 more per student — to schools in Jefferson County, it's not enough to make up the difference in funding between the two districts. That difference largely comes from local revenue. Mountain Brook — a district of just 4% nonwhite students — raises more money locally, about $10,000 per pupil. "They have far more flexibility to generate additional tax dollars," says Jefferson County Superintendent Craig Pouncey.

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An island of wealth surrounded by the city of Oakland

OAKLAND UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT / PIEDMONT CITY UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT

NORTHERN CALIFORNIA

In California's Bay Area, economic and racial segregation separate families — and schools. Oakland Unified, a district of hundreds of schools, surrounds Piedmont City Unified Schools.

Across the country, about 180 districts are surrounded by other districts, says Sibilia of EdBuild.

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In Oakland, the district has a free vision clinic, and some schools have washers and dryers so that students can launder their clothes. Yet Oakland schools have less to spend, per pupil, than nearby Piedmont.

<strong>Scenes from Piedmont, Calif.:</strong> Salar Jalinous (center) is heading into his senior year at Piedmont High School. He says he has benefited from his school: "They have a lot of resources to prepare the students really well for college."
/ Talia Herman for NPR
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Talia Herman for NPR
<strong>Scenes from Piedmont, Calif.:</strong> Salar Jalinous (center) is heading into his senior year at Piedmont High School. He says he has benefited from his school: "They have a lot of resources to prepare the students really well for college."

That's because Piedmont raises additional funds — primarily through parcel taxes, but also with help from their education foundation and community support groups, according to Piedmont's superintendent, Randall Booker.

<strong>Scenes from Oakland:</strong> Ne'Jahra Soriano, 16, recently left the Oakland schools for nearby Emery High School, which she says has more resources.
/ Talia Herman for NPR
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Talia Herman for NPR
<strong>Scenes from Oakland:</strong> Ne'Jahra Soriano, 16, recently left the Oakland schools for nearby Emery High School, which she says has more resources.

Oakland schools — like those in many other urban districts — need more resources to serve the needs of the community, says John Sasaki, a spokesman for the school district.

"A child has no control over where they're born or raised," he says. "Under no circumstances should the ZIP code in which they're raised dictate that they have less funding in their schools."


In Connecticut, one district "eclipsed" by its neighbor

NEW BRITAIN SCHOOL DISTRICT / BERLIN SCHOOL DISTRICT

HARTFORD, CONN.

<strong>Graduation Day:</strong> The Classes of 2019 from New Britain High School (left) and Berlin High School had different high school experiences.
/ Jesse Neider for NPR
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Jesse Neider for NPR
<strong>Graduation Day:</strong> The Classes of 2019 from New Britain High School (left) and Berlin High School had different high school experiences.

New Britain, a city in the center of Connecticut, is one of the state's Alliance Districts. That means that, along with 32 of the state's other "lowest-performing" districts, New Britain gets more money for students, staff and community programs.

"But even with that additional state aid," says Sibilia, "they're completely eclipsed by the wealth of their neighbors."

<strong>Scenes from New Britain High School:</strong> One of Connecticut's "lowest-performing" districts, New Britain gets more money for students, staff and community programs.
/ Jesse Neider for NPR
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Jesse Neider for NPR
<strong>Scenes from New Britain High School:</strong> One of Connecticut's "lowest-performing" districts, New Britain gets more money for students, staff and community programs.
<strong>Scenes from Berlin High School:</strong> Less than 15 minutes away, by car, from New Britain, the district still has over $5,000 more to spend per student.
/ Jesse Neider for NPR
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Jesse Neider for NPR
<strong>Scenes from Berlin High School:</strong> Less than 15 minutes away, by car, from New Britain, the district still has over $5,000 more to spend per student.

"There is just as much ability and talent in our urban schools as there is in more affluent school districts," says New Britain Superintendent Nancy Sarra. "However, in order to provide students like ours with an educational opportunity equal to their neighbors, we need to make the system fairer in how our public schools are funded."

Berlin School District — less than 15 minutes away, by car — still has over $5,000 more to spend than New Britain schools, per student in the district.

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The California coastline, marked by inequality

GONZALES UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT / CARMEL UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT

CARMEL, CALIF.

The median home price in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., is more than $1 million. Residents in Carmel raise over $21,000 per student in the district from local revenue including property taxes. One of the districts along its border — Gonzales Unified — gets just $4,399 per student from local money.

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"Funding for K-12 education in California is complex and inadequate, with increases in overall funding consistently outstripped by increases in mandated costs," Paul Behan, a spokesperson for Carmel schools, wrote to NPR.

Photographer Preston Gannaway took her camera out to capture the vastly different landscapes that serve as a backdrop to life in Carmel Unified schools and, its neighbor, Gonzales Unified. Carmel, a high-end tourist destination known for its sprawling coastline, is surrounded by school districts with far less funding per pupil.

<strong>Contrasts in Gonzales (left) and Carmel:</strong> Carmel, a high-end tourist destination known for its sprawling coastline, is surrounded by school districts with far less funding per pupil.
/ Preston Gannaway for NPR
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Preston Gannaway for NPR
<strong>Contrasts in Gonzales (left) and Carmel:</strong> Carmel, a high-end tourist destination known for its sprawling coastline, is surrounded by school districts with far less funding per pupil.


Housing segregation begets school segregation

HEMPSTEAD UNION FREE SCHOOL DISTRICT / GARDEN CITY UNION FREE SCHOOL DISTRICT

LONG ISLAND, N.Y.

<strong>Differences in Long Island: </strong>"You know immediately when you've left Garden City (right) and you're in Hempstead," Elaine Gross, who leads a local nonprofit.
Elissa Nadworny / NPR
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NPR
<strong>Differences in Long Island: </strong>"You know immediately when you've left Garden City (right) and you're in Hempstead," Elaine Gross, who leads a local nonprofit.

On Long Island, Elaine Gross, who leads a local nonprofit called Erase Racism, says that to see the differences in these two communities, just drive between them.

"You know immediately when you've left Garden City and you're in Hempstead," Gross explains. In Garden City, the streets are well-paved and shaded with trees. And, the schools get more money for their students, thanks to local funds. While the state of New York allocates more money per student in Hempstead, it's not enough to make up the difference in local revenue that helps pay for schools in Garden City.

<strong><em>Milliken</em> illustrated:</strong>  While the state of New York allocates more money per student in Hempstead (left), it's not enough to make up the difference in local revenue that helps pay for schools in Garden City (right).
Elissa Nadworny / NPR
/
NPR
<strong><em>Milliken</em> illustrated:</strong> While the state of New York allocates more money per student in Hempstead (left), it's not enough to make up the difference in local revenue that helps pay for schools in Garden City (right).

"What Long Island shows us is how Milliken has been used to reinforce all of these negative and detrimental policies of the past," explains Sibilia. "What I'm talking about here specifically is housing segregation."

In Milliken v. Bradley, the U.S. Supreme Court held that desegregation plans do not have to include neighboring districts.

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A racial divide between two rural districts

SCHUYLER COMMUNITY SCHOOLS / DAVID CITY PUBLIC SCHOOLS

DAVID CITY, NEBRASKA

<strong>Scenes from and around David City</strong> (clockwise from top left): Students in the David City summer learning program link arms during a game; a sign seen from the highway; brothers Roger and James Yates work on an assignment; a young girl fishes at the David City Golf Club; and the entryway to David City Elementary.
/ Alex Matzke for NPR
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Alex Matzke for NPR
<strong>Scenes from and around David City</strong> (clockwise from top left): Students in the David City summer learning program link arms during a game; a sign seen from the highway; brothers Roger and James Yates work on an assignment; a young girl fishes at the David City Golf Club; and the entryway to David City Elementary.

In Nebraska, 90 minutes from Omaha, residents in David City and Schuyler have close median household incomes and their schools have similar poverty rates. But the schools in Schuyler and David City differ in one big way: In Schuyler, 87% of students are nonwhite, and in David City, just 11% are nonwhite.

<strong>Scenes from Schuyler, Neb. (clockwise):</strong> Dan Hoesing, the superintendent in Schuyler; shops downtown; a colorful classroom at Schuyler High School; the local African Store; a student's hands covered with henna designs after graduation; a student works hard on a project during summer school; and Schuyler Elementary School.
/ Alex Matzke for NPR
/
Alex Matzke for NPR
<strong>Scenes from Schuyler, Neb. (clockwise):</strong> Dan Hoesing, the superintendent in Schuyler; shops downtown; a colorful classroom at Schuyler High School; the local African Store; a student's hands covered with henna designs after graduation; a student works hard on a project during summer school; and Schuyler Elementary School.

The divide hasn't always been so stark.

"Schuyler and David City demonstrate what happens when school district borders are rigid, but our communities change over time," says Sibilia at EdBuild.

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Editor's note: This story was published prematurely due to a production error on July 25. It has been finalized and re-published.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.