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'Dream Town' examines the link between academic tracking and school segregation

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. In the 1970s, federal courts ordered school districts around the country to desegregate their schools by busing students from one community to another, generating heated opposition from parents who opposed integration and embraced the idea of neighborhood schools. But one city in Ohio implemented a busing plan without a court order. For decades, Shaker Heights, a suburban community just outside Cleveland, has had a national reputation as a leader of integration. It's maintained a strong balance of Black and white residents. And its school system has a reputation for excellence, enriching its curriculum with advanced programs and sending large numbers of students to elite universities.

But our guest, Washington Post national education writer Laura Meckler, writes in a new book that, while it's true Shaker Heights' schools are racially balanced, there are large achievement gaps between Black and white students. Meckler's new book is an intimate look at the experience of Shaker Heights' struggles with racial equity and educational challenges, told through the stories of teachers, students, parents, administrators and community leaders.

Meckler brings special interest and insight to the task. She grew up in Shaker Heights and attended public schools there from grade school through high school. Before joining the Washington Post, Laura Meckler reported for the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press. She's earned a host of journalistic honors, including a George Polk Award. Her new book is "Dream Town: Shaker Heights And The Quest For Racial Equity."

Laura Meckler, welcome to FRESH AIR.

LAURA MECKLER: I'm so happy to be with you, Dave.

DAVIES: Let's talk a little bit about Shaker Heights. You know, it's known as a beautiful community. It's been around a long time, elegant homes. And it's nice not by accident. You know, it's settled on land that was originally inhabited by the religious sect the Shakers in the 19th century. It eventually ended. And the modern community was really the work of a pair of brothers who had nothing to do with the Shakers, but who bought a lot of the land, I guess, in the early 20th century. Tell us about these two guys, what they did.

MECKLER: O.P. and M.J. Van Sweringen were a fascinating pair of brothers. They were very close to one another. They grew up in poverty in Ohio. Their family had very little, but they would go on to create what was a truly elite suburb for wealthy Clevelanders. They slowly acquired the land and through very interesting financial arrangements, and modeled it after the garden suburbs that had been created elsewhere, such as in Riverside, Ill.

They were - they wanted to create a community for the very elite of Cleveland. And to do that, they set out having exacting standards. There was no industry and very little commercial activity of any sort. There was land set aside for schools, for a country club, for private schools, as well as public schools. They really wanted to create a place where it was the best of all things.

DAVIES: Right, and excellent schools were a part of it. You know, it was seen as kind of a planned community, but not a utopian community. And racial equality and integration bore no part of this, right?

MECKLER: Not at all. I'd say quite the opposite. In fact, it was - there were some unstated rules for a while, and then they were stated through covenants in the deeds, that you had to get approval from the Van Sweringen company in order to buy a home. And that was widely seen as a way to keep out Black people, Jews, Catholics. Now, there were some - certainly some Jewish families who got in early. But it was very difficult, in fact, impossible in the early years for Black families to move into Shaker Heights.

DAVIES: Yeah, there was one case that you write about in 1925 when a very prominent Black family moved into the neighborhood and was harassed out of the neighborhood. But in 1955, after the Van Sweringens were no longer there, we saw a couple of Black families manage to move in and buy properties in the neighborhood. In one case, I think one of the families was building a home. And the garage was actually bombed by white neighbors who were angry about this. And it looked as if they might have been driven away, but that's not what happened. And that led to some big changes. Tell us about this.

MECKLER: Yes, all of this occurred in a neighborhood called Ludlow, which adjoins the city of Cleveland. In fact, part of Ludlow is actually in the city of Cleveland. And, you know, the original reaction, actually, when they first came in was an angry meeting at the elementary school, with some people wondering, much like they did in 1925, how can we get these people out?

But something different happened, which was there were white people at that meeting - well, all the people were white at the meeting - who said, you know, this feels wrong. I don't like this. And they met on their own to say, you know, let's find a way to push back. And then when that bomb was planted and exploded, destroying the garage, this group of families and residents got together and said, you know, this is not OK.

DAVIES: Right. Now, there was a pattern in those days, when highly segregated neighborhoods were the norm - they still are, of course, in many places - but where if a Black family moved in, there would be a panic and whites would begin to move out. And realtors would take advantage of it and, you know, call white people and say, you better leave now before your property drops in value. They really took this on, didn't they, this community association?

MECKLER: Absolutely. And the realtors were not just taking advantage of it, they were goosing it. They were encouraging people to leave. It was called blockbusting, and they would go house to house. And this started to happen. And there was significant racial change in the Ludlow neighborhood over the first couple of years. And as this was happening, there were people living there who said, you know, we don't want this. We don't want this. We like living here. We don't want to leave. And we want to maintain in an integrated neighborhood.

So we can't understate the forces of the real estate industry and how much they pressured neighborhoods to maintain their segregation and to resist integration if it were to happen on its own. So this was both the realtors and also the bankers. At first, if you were a Black family trying to buy a home in an all-white neighborhood, you couldn't get a loan. But after the neighborhood started to change, if you were a white person trying to buy in that neighborhood, you couldn't get the loan. So - or you couldn't get a realtor to show you the - to show you a house because they'd say, oh, that's a changing neighborhood. You don't want to live there.

So yes, the Ludlow Community Association came together. And what they essentially did was beyond - first, getting to know each other and wanting to work together. They essentially recreated a lot of what is the real estate industry. They started showing houses themselves to prospective owners. They ultimately created their own little, sort of mini-bank, which offered second mortgage support to help people buy. Now, all of this was targeted at white people, essentially. There were already Black people arriving, so all of this was targeted to try to keep and attract white people into the neighborhood.

DAVIES: Right. And, of course, as Black people started moving into other parts of Shaker Heights which were previously white, it was fascinating to see the Shaker Heights community organize to, essentially, manage integration. And in some cases, it meant discouraging Black families from coming in and trying to recruit and enable white families to come in and persuade white families to stay.

MECKLER: That is exactly what it was. And I would say, not even just in some cases, in almost all cases. I mean, that was essentially the plan, to try to control integration. But they did it in a way that wasn't saying we don't want Black people. It was a way of saying we want integration, we want diversity. So it was cast in a very positive way. And the way to achieve integration was to encourage and incentivize white families to stay and to arrive. And that was - that ethos, essentially, which began in Ludlow, spread to other neighborhoods in Shaker as integration spread across the city.

And ultimately, the city itself embraced that as part of its identity, as part of its work as a community, which was pretty remarkable because it was - when all this started, everybody in Shaker Heights was not necessarily on board with having an integrated community. But ultimately, they realized that they could either be a place that was known as a changing community, a place that couldn't manage racial issues where there was conflict, or they could sort of remake themselves as a place that was embracing integration, embracing diversity, and that's what they did.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Laura Meckler. She is a national education writer for The Washington Post. Her new book is "Dream Town: Shaker Heights And The Quest For Racial Equity." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JULIAN LAGE GROUP'S "IOWA TAKEN")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Laura Meckler. She's a national education writer for The Washington Post. Her new book is about Shaker Heights, Ohio, a community that has maintained an integrated community for about 70 years and has struggled with questions of racial equity, particularly in the school system. Her new book is "Dream Town: Shaker Heights And The Quest For Racial Equity."

So residential integration is one thing. School integration is another. And in the 1970s, you know, courts began ordering school systems around the country to desegregate schools, in part by busing students from one school to another. It drew enormous opposition, of course. There were violent encounters in a lot of places, particularly Boston. There was no court order in Shaker Heights. What happened there?

MECKLER: It's really remarkable what happened. And I have to credit the - a very-forward looking superintendent named Jack Lawson, who arrived in the mid-'60s. And he really led Shaker toward a voluntary integration plan. The first thing he did was he balanced the two junior highs by changing where the boundary line was in order to have them each have a racial balance that reflected the community as a whole. And that went over all right. And so then he took on a much bigger question, which was the elementary schools.

There was one school called Moreland Elementary School, and Moreland was overwhelmingly Black at the time. I think it had 88% Black students. And this - there was a lot of conversation, obviously, nationally - Brown v. Board of Education had been around for, you know, 15 years at this point - about the fact that segregation was not good for kids. And so he proposed a plan which would bus the students from Moreland out to the other predominantly white elementary schools.

And that plan changed over time. And there was some criticism of that plan, to be sure, on both sides, both from some Black families who didn't like elements of it and from white families. But ultimately, Shaker Heights adopted a voluntary busing plan where students would go both out of Moreland and into Moreland. White families in Shaker volunteered to send their kids into Moreland on their own, and Black families in Moreland had the option of whether they wanted to stay or go to another school. And that was the beginning of what became years and to this day of integrated schools in Shaker.

DAVIES: Have there been studies on its impact for kids that move to other schools?

MECKLER: Well, nationally, there certainly has been a lot of study of the impact of integration on students. And it in fact has - what they what they consistently find is that there's really no impact on white students - measurable impact on white students. But it has a very positive impact on Black students. So, in fact, a lot of experts will tell you that integrating schools is one of the best things you can do in terms of raising Black achievement. There was a interesting study, one of the ones I found most interesting, that was - used Facebook data. And it found that even just living in a socioeconomically diverse community improves your own life chances. So obviously there's a big overlay in terms of race and economics in this country. So when you diversify schools economically and racially, you end up with really lifting the life chances of people who are coming from poorer families.

DAVIES: So the school district, as this happened or after it happened - you know, it had kids of all different abilities in there. And, you know, maintaining high standards in educational excellence was a goal and a brand of the community, something that they really touted because they did have high-achieving students. They adopted a system of levels of instruction. Explain what this is.

MECKLER: Yes. So this is a version of tracking. The levels of instruction was you were placed in a different level depending on what your ability - your academic abilities or your perceived academic abilities were. So there was - level three was the middle. Most people were expected to be at that. And level four was an honors level. Level five was advanced placement. And then below that, you had level two, which was sort of a remedial level. And level one was the lowest for the kids who struggled the most. So they adopted this system early on, in the '50s, and it expanded over time. And in fact, if you look at its expansion, as the community was becoming more racially diverse, the level system was becoming more and more pronounced. More and more classes were leveled. It was coming down to lower and lower grades.

DAVIES: All right. And when we say leveled, we don't mean equalized. We mean, in a way, differentiated. Right? Right.

MECKLER: Yes, exactly. Yes. The different levels of instruction - definitely not equalized.

DAVIES: Right. And the argument was, look. I mean, some kids are really ready for big challenges and high-level academic pursuit, and you want to give them that opportunity. And you want to give kids who maybe are less prepared extra help and extra support so that they can flourish as well. What was the effect on, you know, racial integration of classes?

MECKLER: Fact was very much a segregation by classroom, and this grew over time. You had the upper-level classes that were really dominated by white students and the lower-level classes dominated by Black students. And this is not just true in Shaker. This is true all over the place where these levels are used. And it is very pronounced. And it was noticed quite early that this went on of the level system on what was happening in the classrooms.

DAVIES: One of the other things that you write about was that people noticed - their students noticed there that while kids seem to have a lot of interracial friendships in elementary school, in middle school, it changed. Why? What was happening?

MECKLER: Well, what experts will tell you is that middle school is a time when students are starting to realize their own racial identity. And, you know, students of color might be experiencing discrimination in an overt way for the first time. They might be noticing microaggressions. They might be noticing the fact that their classes are racially out of balance. They might be seeing things they never saw before. And it's more comfortable to be talking about those things and being friends with people of your own race. And so people start clustering together as those racial identities start to form. And that definitely happened in Shaker Heights. In the elementary schools, you would see lots of cross-racial friendships due in part to this voluntary busing system that put people together. But, you know, it did. It did start to change in junior high, and those changes persisted through the high school, where you would see, you know, in the cafeteria, for instance, when I was in high school, you know, there would be, like, a - the Black side and the white side. And of course, there were exceptions, but, you know, that was the dominant vibe.

DAVIES: The fact that kids tended to perhaps see their identity differently and differentiate in - themselves in middle schools was exacerbated by the fact that the tracking system began then, right? And so if Black kids were being shunted into the lower tracks of education and white kids were finding their way into the more - you know, the more advanced levels of instruction, that tended to set a pattern which stayed as they went into high school and could lead to, in effect, kind of two schools within the same building, right?

MECKLER: Exactly. And part of the problem and the perniciousness of these tracking systems is it's very hard to change. Now, they say you can always change in the next year, but as a practical matter, once you get on a honors track or on a regular track, that tends to be where you stay. And, yes, in middle school or before that in junior high, that's when these things would start to happen in a very formal way. And math, in fact, it's almost impossible to change because math proceeds in a sequence. So if you haven't had, you know, Algebra 1, you can't go on to geometry. If you haven't had pre-algebra, you can't go to Algebra 1. So very much so, the academic tracking definitely worked hand in hand with the social issues.

DAVIES: You know, I have to tell the audience that you do such a terrific job in this book of explaining all of these issues through stories. Every chapter is a story about people. And I often say when I interview nonfiction authors, audience, don't think you're getting the whole story here. Read the book. There's plenty more there. I think that's particularly true in your case because you really - what? - you did over 200 interviews and told stories of people who were involved in this. And I don't know if you want to share one of - particularly of Black families who felt like their kids, you know, didn't get the encouragement that they should have to be all that they could be academically.

MECKLER: Absolutely. It was really important to me that this book be narratively driven. You know, this is very much a book about people. So it is organized in a way where each chapter is anchored by somebody who I felt was important at that moment in time. It moved through chronologically, but we tell the story through people's experiences. I'll mention one of my favorites, a girl named Emily Hooper. Now, her - she had remarkable parents. They lived in the Moreland community, which is the lowest-income part of Shaker. They're a Black family. Her parents were so supportive of integration and valued education so highly, they voluntarily sent their kids - bussed their kids out of the neighborhood into what was, at the time, the wealthiest elementary school - the elementary school set in the wealthiest neighborhood, I should say - very committed to the Shaker schools.

When Emily gets to high school, she wanders into her U.S. history course. And the teacher is talking to the class on Day 1 and saying, OK kids, let's open our books. And this is what a table of contents looks like. And she says out loud, if we don't know what a table of contents is by now, I think we're all in trouble. And the teacher basically sends her to the office 'cause she is, like, clearly, like, not happy in this class. And the counselor says to her, well, the only other option we have is AP U.S. history.

DAVIES: Advanced placement.

MECKLER: And she says, OK, I'll take - thank you - advanced placement. She says, all right, I'll take that class. Now, as it turns out, Emily takes AP U.S. history, does very well in it, ultimately goes to Yale, graduates with honors. This is a very bright person. Why was she not in AP U.S. history to start with? Why did it take an explanation of the table of contents to put her in that class? I mean, and this is just - this is a story that was replicated so many times. I mean, I knew I would find stories like this, but I have to say I was shocked by the number of stories I found along these lines.

A lot of Black parents, a lot of Black students, even those who had great experiences overall and who love the Shaker schools and would move back to Shaker and educate their own kids there - they all had a story, at least one, along these lines. And in fact, Emily herself - when she went to go apply to colleges, she talked to her counselor about where she wanted to apply. And her father had passed away and for some reason always wanted her to go to Yale. And she said, I want to apply to Yale. And the counselor said, oh, honey, you know, that's going to be a stretch for you. She said, well, I want to do it anyway. And...

DAVIES: And she got in.

MECKLER: As I said, she was admitted and graduated with honors. So there are this - sort of these implicit biases that course through all of American life, which is very present.

DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. Laura Meckler is a national education writer for The Washington Post. Her new book is "Dream Town: Shaker Heights And The Quest For Racial Equity." She'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF REGGIE QUINERLY'S "REFLECTIONS ON THE HUDSON")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. We're speaking with Washington Post national education writer Laura Meckler. Her new book is a look at the community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland which for decades has had a national reputation as a pioneer of racial integration. The city maintains a balance of Black and white residents and a school system with a reputation for excellence. But Meckler, who grew up in Shaker Heights, writes that schools suffer from large achievement gaps between Black and white students despite many efforts to address the problem. Her book is "Dream Town: Shaker Heights And The Quest For Racial Equity."

This achievement gap between Black and white students was there and well-documented for decades. But it wasn't like the Shaker Heights School District did nothing about it. You want to just mention some of the programs they initiated and whether they had any impact?

DAVIES: Yeah, that's - I appreciate that question because it's very easy to be critical of Shaker when you look at numbers and some of the controversies that have unfolded. But they did try and are still trying many, many things. So among the things that they did was - well, first of all, of course, the first thing is school integration itself, which we've talked about. But beyond that, there is a group called the Student Group on Race Relations, which works to try to educate students when they're still in elementary school and then when they're in middle school about issues of race and to try to break down some of that social stratification that we talked about earlier. There is a group called MAC Scholars, which is a group for young Black men in particular. And then there's a corollary group for young Black women. And the idea is to encourage and incentivize academic achievement where they meet as a group, and you are rewarded if you do well in school, and you are encouraged by your peers to do well. This is run by students.

They have done - they have a - there's a tutoring center where you can go any day after school and get free tutoring right there in the building. There's a conference period after school where teachers are contractually obligated to stay, and you can go and meet with any teacher you want to get extra help. There was a program called Bridges. There still is a program where - it's specifically targeted at students of color, where you go over the summer and you prepare to take AP U.S. history. So you're essentially getting some study skills, and you're developing a cohort of kids where you're kind of in this together as you move into this very challenging course. They, a while back, made open enrollment the policy so that there were not official barriers to getting into the classes. Now, that alone really did not work, but that's something that they did.

And something else I'd like to mention, which I think is really important, is that they have a Family Community and Engagement Center where essentially, there are district employees helping families with life - all sorts of things that come along, you know, whether it says a crisis with my heat - didn't pay the bill and my heat's being turned off. I need connections to try to help with that, or, you know, I'm being threatened with eviction, or I need help figuring out other basic needs - just families that really are struggling economically. There are district employees who are there to support them. A lot of times I think people - we try to separate those issues from education, but they are so tightly connected. And so they are doing that work, too. So those are a few of the things.

DAVIES: So over a long period of time, we saw, you know, the gaps - the achievement gaps between Black and white students grow in part because maybe there was more poverty in the district. The economy had an impact on that. But there were a lot of different programs that the district tried, you know, to offer different kinds of help. But the gap was very persistent. They had stuck for all these years to this tracking system, students being assigned to instructional levels, you know, from five different levels, which kids tended to get stuck in and tended to be relatively segregated racially until we had a superintendent named David Glasner who decided to - and this was around the time of the pandemic. So things were changing anyway, and he decided to take a pretty radical approach to this. Tell us what motivated him to take this on.

MECKLER: David Glasner had been thinking about tracking for a while and the - what he saw as its pernicious effects. He had been the principal of the middle school before he was superintendent of schools. He had studied for his dissertation what the impact was when you put Black students in higher-level - of higher-level tracks, when you move them into honors. And he found that they did better when they were in honors. Even students of the same ability levels would do better when they were in an environment where the work was more challenging. So he was interested in moving towards a reduction of the tracking. I talked to him about this right when after he was named superintendent. And he said that he was going to take this on, he thought, but in an incremental way. He wanted to bring the community along, maybe starting with the youngest students.

But then just as the pandemic was at its height in - it was the summer of 2020, and they were trying to figure out how they were going to operate that fall. His principals and he decided to take a quite radical step, which was to eliminate a large chunk of the leveling or the tracking that happened in Shaker. Between essentially grade five and grade nine, all the classes that had been differentiated into regular and honors would be combined together and taught at the honors level, or that was - at least that was the goal. That was the stated plan.

Now, part of that was because of the pandemic itself. They realized that they were trying to keep students in what were called cohorts, where you would only be with a small group of students so you wouldn't potentially spread the virus to a large number of students if somebody turned out to be sick. Well, when you cohort students, that means that you're with the same people. And if you're doing tracking, that means that if you have two white kids who are together for advanced math, they're also going to be together for art and for science and for gym and for everything else. And that would essentially make what was already a bad segregation by classroom even worse. So he essentially ripped off the Band-Aid and got rid of a lot of the leveling that had been in place for decades and that had been criticized for decades in one fell swoop.

DAVIES: What did this mean for teachers who were used to, you know, the other system?

MECKLER: It was a big change. Now, we have to keep in mind that this was happening at the same time as school was remote. And then school was sort of hybrid where some kids were in the building and some kids were at home. So this was a difficult period already and arguably the worst time to do a change like this. But what - there were quite a few complaints, and those complaints came from students, from parents and from teachers who said that there was not enough preparation for this change and that it was just really hard to teach at the honors level when you had students who had such differential levels of preparation in order to do that. It was particularly hard in math because essentially you were putting, say, all eighth graders into algebra, and some of them had never had pre-algebra. And some of those kids had maybe not done very well in the lower-level class that they had started with the year before. And now you were essentially throwing them all into this bucket together. So - and of course, as you know, math is a - you know, there is a right answer, I always like to say, in math. Unlike, you know, my major of political science, where you can kind of make it up as you go along upon occasion, there is a right answer when it comes to math. So yeah, it was a very difficult time, and a lot of complaints were registered.

DAVIES: He changed the schedule and made longer classes in some cases. But teachers had to figure out a way to help kids who, you know, weren't as well-prepared and also keep kids engaged who were able to do more advanced work. I gather this - you write that this has been done elsewhere in the country. Does it work? If so, what makes it work?

MECKLER: There are examples of where it has worked well. I don't think the evidence is conclusive in terms of in general whether it works or it doesn't. But there certainly are examples where it has happened and it has worked well. And proponents will tell you that the preponderance of the evidence suggests that it can be successful. I think that one of the keys to making this happen - and this goes back to teacher preparation. But, you know, and teachers always do some level of what's called differentiation, teaching to multiple levels in the same room. But you need to do that sort of on steroids when you have the full range of academic abilities in the room.

And so what does that mean? So sometimes that might mean that everybody reads the same book, the same novel, but you have a choice of what you're - how you're going to show that you understood it. Maybe one person would write a five-page paper. Maybe somebody else would do a little podcast episode or a video. Maybe someone else would create a graphic novel explaining your understanding of it. The idea that people can show their knowledge in different ways.

In math, it might be that everybody is studying the same basic concept in math, but there are three different worksheets. And you get to pick the one that feels right for you, and one's a little harder than the other. This is the idea, is to sort of - what they call high ceiling, low floor, that you can both have a - give more challenging work to the people at the top and lower work for the people who are struggling. But you're all talking about the same ideas. You're all in the classroom together. You're all experiencing learning together. That's what it's supposed to look like.

DAVIES: Yeah. And, boy, it does sound like a challenge because, I mean, does that mean you divide the class into different groups and the teacher moves around among them? I don't know. I guess there are different ways one can do it.

MECKLER: Yeah, I think that's right. There are different ways. You might have some, sometimes, segmented. You might have, sometimes, people work independently and the teacher kind of moves around between the rooms. They do, as you said, have longer classes. They move to what's called a block schedule so that they have longer classes that might meet every other day in order to have more time in the room with their students.

DAVIES: Let's take another break here and let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Laura Meckler. She's a national education writer for The Washington Post. Her new book is "Dream Town: Shaker Heights And The Quest For Racial Equity." We'll talk more after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HADEN'S "EL CIEGO (THE BLIND)")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Laura Meckler. She's a national education writer for The Washington Post. Her new book is about the suburban community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, which has a national reputation for racial integration and a school system in which Black and white students show significant gaps in educational achievement. The book is called "Dream Town: Shaker Heights And The Quest For Racial Equity."

So this was a remarkable and radical change. Thousands of kids who previously had been in tracked classes, you know, segregated by instructional level were now all in classes at which all instructional levels were taught. Based on your interviews and what you were able to discover, how well do you think it's working? How did students react? How did teachers feel about it?

MECKLER: You know, teachers had a range of opinions. There were teachers who were definitely supportive of it. But I also heard a lot of teachers who really struggled. They said that, you know - one teacher, a science teacher, told me - described this very complicated science that he would teach at the honors level that I certainly could not faithfully explain to you. But he said the idea that I'd be teaching that now is a joke, is how he put it. I think that it has gotten a little better over time. You know, they're now - they've been doing it now for a few years. So it's - you know, people get into more of a rhythm.

But I do think that - and I'll say, I saw - I personally witnessed some rooms where I saw some really great things happen. I'll give you an example. There was a math class, I think a seventh-grade math class, that I was sitting in. And the teacher asked everybody to write down on a piece of paper everything that they had learned, all the concepts that they had gone over that year. And there was this white girl there who was just - she was listing one thing after another. She ran out of space on her paper. And there was a Black boy sitting next to her who basically didn't write anything. He was sort of staring off into space.

And she looked over at him and said, wow, you haven't written anything. And he just kind of looked at her, and then he started writing. You know, he started writing things down. And being in that room with a more advanced student, maybe that had a positive impact on him that day. So I did see moments where - and being in the room with a, maybe, student who was farther behind did nothing to hurt that girl. She was doing just fine. So I think that there is potential for this, but I also think it's really hard, really tricky. And I think, in retrospect, it's fair to say that doing this in the middle of a pandemic was not the smartest decision.

DAVIES: You also point out that it really wasn't explained to anybody very well before they started, right?

MECKLER: Exactly.

DAVIES: There was an eight-page thing, which included a lot of other stuff. And then the pages at the back said, oh, yeah...

MECKLER: (Laughter).

DAVIES: By the way, we're turning education upside down in the school.

MECKLER: Exactly.

DAVIES: You know, one effect of the tracking system was to essentially segregate students. So you know, as some put it, you have really two schools within the same building. I assume this provided a lot more integration of - racial integration of classes. Did that have a discernible effect?

MECKLER: It did. A lot of teachers will tell you, we have a class that looks like Shaker, which means a racially diverse class. And, you know, walking around, I popped into many different classes. And you could see it. They were absolutely diverse classrooms, and that is valuable. There is value to that. There is no question about that.

DAVIES: Is there any information yet on how, you know, achievement levels are evolving at all, or has the gap narrowed at all?

MECKLER: Yeah. Well, you know, we have some - this is not in the book because it - at some point, you know, the publisher said I couldn't make any more changes. I couldn't add anything more. They had to start printing. But I did find out this summer that there was some new data that the district is very optimistic about. It's specifically about eighth grade algebra achievement rates. And what they found was that there is a rising number of students and a rising number of Black students in particular who are showing competency in eighth-grade algebra.

Now, the point that they will make is that I think that the level is still not great. I think 50% of Black students are showing competency in eighth-grade algebra. That was last year's figure. And they would point out that in the old system, most of those kids wouldn't even be in eighth-grade algebra. And now we have half of them who are achieving and doing well in the class well enough to pass this test. So - and those numbers are going up. So, you know, there is some indications that this is starting to have a positive effect and starting to work. I think it's probably still too early to know writ large what the impact is.

DAVIES: You know, you wrote a big piece about Shaker Heights in 2019 in the Post. And you note this in the book. The headline on that story, I think, was "This Trailblazing Suburb Has Tried For 60 Years To Tackle Race. What If Trying Isn't Enough?" And you note in the book that whenever you see a newspaper story that a news headline ends in a question, that's a sure sign that the reporter isn't - hasn't quite figured out what to think about this or if the data isn't clear on whether, you know, the goal has been achieved. I wonder, are you any closer to an answer today?

MECKLER: You know, this was something I really thought a lot about and struggled with as I was reporting and writing the book. You know, was this ultimately a story of, well, you know what? They tried, and they failed. That's just the way it goes. You know, the forces of race and economics in America are just too much, and it's just too hard. And white privilege will find a way to dominate, and it's just the way it's going to be. And there were times I felt that way. And then - but then there were other times. And this became my actual conclusion where I felt like, you know what? This is a special place. And why is it special? It's because in a country full of small communities, all of which get to make all sorts of decisions, this is a place that is still at it, that's still trying, that is still working on these questions, that still has a racial balance. And that's not nothing.

And they have not cracked the code. This is not a book that says, like, hey. Read this, and we're going to give you five steps to the perfect racially balanced community where everybody is above average. You know, this isn't that. But this is a place that shows you that, you know, this is what it looks like when you are committed and you try. And it's a commitment that you - that isn't just like, I'm going to do this 30-day fast, and then it's going to be done. No. It's, like, a day-in, day-out, year-in, year-out, decade-in, decade-out commitment to these questions and looking for - when one thing doesn't work, looking for other things. So I'm not - certainly not putting Shaker Heights up as a place that's achieved it all. And in fact, when I think of the title "Dream Town," what it says to me is less, this is a place that's achieved the dream, but that this is a place that is dreaming. This is a place that is trying to get there.

DAVIES: Laura Meckler, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MECKLER: Thank you so much for having me in for such great, wonderful questions.

DAVIES: Laura Meckler is a national education writer for The Washington Post. Her new book is "Dream Town: Shaker Heights And The Quest For Racial Equity." Coming up, John Powers reviews Naomi Hirahara's novel "Evergreen," a murder mystery set in Los Angeles as a Japanese family returns from a World War II internment camp. This is FRESH AIR.

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Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.