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6 of Every 10 Alabama Students in High-Poverty Schools are Black

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Most Black students in Alabama are still concentrated in high-poverty schools, according to an analysis of historical school enrollment data by AL.com. (Adobe Stock)

By Trisha Powell Crain | tcrain@al.com

Alabama public school students are attending more racially diverse schools than they were 20 years ago, but most Black students are still concentrated in high-poverty schools, according to an analysis of historical school enrollment data by AL.com.

The rising racial diversity in public schools is a good thing, said Erica Frankenberg, a Pennsylvania State University professor and Alabama native who studies the impact of racial and socioeconomic diversity on students.

“Given the benefits of racially integrated schools for students of all races,” she said, “this is a good trend to see.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board ruling in 1954 declared state-mandated racially-segregated schools were unconstitutional. Alabama and other southern states resisted the federal court’s orders, and meaningful integration efforts of public schools didn’t get underway until the late 1960s.

In many areas, white families fled to private schools or created “segregation academies” to avoid enrolling their children in a school with Black children.

By the 1980s, according to UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, the share of Black students in majority white schools in the South “reached a peak of 43 percent.” After the Supreme Court directed ending desegregation plans in 1991, it declined to about 16 percent by 2021.

In Alabama, 30 percent of all Black students in 2004 attended majority white schools. That share decreased to 24 percent in 2024.

But inequalities remain: According to an AL.com analysis, the majority of Black students in Alabama attend high-poverty schools. The legacies of economic and housing discrimination, then, remain present in the state’s educational system.

Racial Isolation Has Decreased

Alabama’s public school enrollment shows fewer white students and fewer Black students than there were 20 years ago, while the number of Hispanic students has increased five-fold.

There are a number of ways to measure the degree of racial isolation, and for this analysis AL.com defined racial isolation as a school where 90 percent or more of students are of one race. The only races that are concentrated at that percentage in Alabama are Black students and white students.

By that measure, across the state, the percentage of students in racially-isolated schools has declined significantly over the past 20 years while the overall number of schools statewide has remained nearly the same.

Here’s a look at the number of racially-isolated schools at those three 10-year increments:

  • 2004 – 243 schools had 90 percent or more Black students enrolled, while 265 schools enrolled 90 percent or more white students,
  • 2014 – 190 schools enrolled 90 percent or more Black students and 190 schools enrolled more than 90 percent white students.
  • 2024 – 113 schools enroll 90 percent or more Black students and 98 schools enrolled more than 90 percent white students.

Even though the number of racially-isolated schools has decreased, a higher proportion of Black students attend racially-isolated schools than their white peers in each of the three years noted:

  • In 2004, 42 percent of all Black students attended a school where 90 percent of more of students enrolled were also Black
  • In 2014, that number was 34 percent, and
  • In 2024, that percentage was 17 percent

The proportion of white students attending a school where 90 percent or more students enrolled were also white was as follows:

  • In 2004, 30 percent of all white students attended a racially-isolated school,
  • In 2014, that percentage dropped to 20 percent, and
  • In 2024, that percentage dropped to 11 percent.

Black Students Far More Likely To Attend High-Poverty Schools

While measures of racial isolation have improved, Black students are still disproportionately enrolled in high-poverty schools, meaning that 75 percent or more of students are economically disadvantaged.

“The rate for Black students to be enrolled in high poverty schools is very high—more than half of all Black students – and has been so for a decade,” Frankenberg said.

The number of high-poverty schools – where 75 percent or more of enrolled students are identified as being economically disadvantaged – has increased from one in four schools in 2004 to one in three schools in 2024.

  • 2003-04 – 342 schools, or 25 percent of all schools
  • 2013-14 – 447 schools, or 34 percent of all schools
  • 2023-24 – 486 schools, or 36 percent of all schools

Six of every 10 students in high-poverty schools are Black while only two in 10 students are white. That means Black students are three times as likely as white students to attend a high-poverty school.

The graph below shows the proportion of students enrolled at each of the four levels of poverty: low, mid-low, mid-high and high. Use the drop-down bar to choose either 2024, 2014 or 2004. Click here if you are unable to see the graph.

A Flourish chart

That has implications for students and schools. Experts recognize that a higher concentration of students in poverty presents additional challenges.

“The racial gap in attending high-poverty schools should really be a cause for concern,” Frankenberg said.

“Social science research has documented that attending high-poverty schools can limit students’ access to high-quality educational resources. It can be hard to attract and retain high-quality, certified, experienced teachers in these schools, offer the same array of curricular and extracurricular options, have facilities that are welcoming, etc.”

Schools have a role to play, she said, but so does the larger community. “Trying to address and alleviate poverty for households with children would be an important foundational effort.”

Schools have some options they can implement, too.

“Districts should look closely at how students are distributed across schools,” Frankenberg said, “and they have a range of different student assignment policies they can use to address segregation by race and class, which, given the research about the benefits of integration, should help them achieve other educational goals.”

Education officials can rezone students and implement magnet schools and other choice options that further integrate schools both racially and socioeconomically, she added.

The Role Of School Funding

State education budget chairmen in both chambers are leading an effort to study whether Alabama should modernize the formula it uses to fund schools. The current formula, called the Foundation Program, was created in 1995.

The Foundation Program does not consider additional factors, such as whether a child is economically disadvantaged or is an English language learner – both of which require more monetary resources to address – something the budget chairmen have said is likely needed.