New Project & Data Request: Attendance zone boundary changes

A new project out of Penn State University – co-led by Erica Frankenberg (professor of education and director of the Center for Education and Civil Rights, home of this blog) and Chris Fowler (professor of geography) – aims to collect longitudinal data on school attendance zone boundaries from school districts across the country. The researchers are building a database of attendance zone boundaries from 1990 to 2020, which will be made available to the public for research and, ultimately, for informing boundary changes that increase school integration. 

This post contains a short overview of the project and a request from the researchers themselves. Specifically on that last point: they are looking for scholars, reporters, district leaders, and community members to share available data on school attendance zone boundaries from the 1989-1990, 1999-2000, 2009-2010, and 2019-2020 school years. More about that below, but first, here’s an overview of the goals of the study and its potential impact. 

Most school districts use attendance zones to assign students to particular schools based on where they live within the district. Attendance zone boundaries thus create an important link between homes and schools, either reproducing residential segregation in schools or, more hopefully, integrating schools beyond the residential segregation common across the country. As demonstrated in a popular (and interactive) Vox article from 2018, attendance zones can be manipulated to create school populations that are more, less, or equally as segregated as the surrounding neighborhoods. Despite the importance of school attendance zone boundaries in shaping access to schools, we don’t have solid data about how boundaries have changed over time.

Prior to the Penn State project, the School Attendance Boundary Survey (SABS) and the School Attendance Boundary Information System (SABINS) collected attendance boundaries for the 2009-10, 2013-14, and 2015-16 school years. Penn State researchers hope to understand changes over broader periods of time by collecting additional information from the 1989-1990, 1999-2000, and 2019-2020 school years. Penn State’s data collection is particularly focused on large and diverse school districts, suburban school districts, and districts once under court order to desegregate. 

Upon completion of the project, the researchers will produce a publicly available data source, the Longitudinal School Attendance Boundary Survey (LSABS), that captures boundary changes from 1990 to 2020, covering all K-12 years. Among other uses, the new database can help:

  • Enrich our understanding of the relationship between school and housing patterns, especially allowing for analysis of the changes in school and neighborhood demographics over time.
  • Understand how district leaders’ decisions about attendance zone boundaries relate to changing neighborhood demographics. As described in an earlier series of posts, recent rezoning processes have been making the news in Montgomery County, MD; Richmond, VA; Henrico County, VA; and Howard County, MD, among other places, and have great potential to impact levels of school segregation. In particular, the researchers aim to identify how attendance boundary changes can drive school integration. 
  • Provide a new and unique option for scholars/researchers to use as a proxy for “neighborhoods” in demographic research and writing. While census tracts have been traditionally been used to approximate “neighborhoods,” school zones may more accurately reflect the way people think of their own communities. 

OK, so now the request- 

Given the broad implications of this project for research and practice, the researchers are working hard to collect attendance zone boundaries from as many school districts as possible. They welcome any boundary data, or leads on where to find data, from readers of this post. These data can come in many forms: digital images, photographs of old wall maps, descriptions of boundaries in school board minutes, spreadsheets linking addresses to schools, GIS shapefiles, etc. If you know of any boundary data, or have a lead on where to find any boundary data, the researchers would be grateful for your insights. They can be reached at schoolboundaries@psu.edu or you can call Erica Frankenberg at a hotline set up for this project – (814) 863-3765. Even if you don’t have leads on boundary data, you can email the researchers to be included on an email list for updates on the project. 

Once the database is complete, the researchers will share findings with participating school districts, educators, and advocates through a webinar on how school zones impact school enrollment demographics. Ultimately, they aim to support districts considering future school zone changes that would increase school integration. 

Especially given the current federal environment, local-level changes – like adjusting attendance zone boundaries – may be our best hope for reversing the re-segregation trends evident across the country. Attendance zone changes aren’t really affected by restrictions in recent Supreme Court cases, for example. They mainly require a sympathetic school committee and superintendent, making decisions for integration that are supported by rich, historical data.

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