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School Integration and Contact Theory

makalaforster's picture

I recently listened to an NPR story on the program This American Life called "550: Three Miles" (you can find it here: The story discusses a program of school 'exposure' in the Bronx, between a public school (majority students of color, from low-income families) and a private school (70% white, and $43,000/year - 1/5 students receive financial aid). Even though the schools were physically three miles apart, the students "needed a foreign exchange program to meet each other". The program started with pen pals, but the first time the students met each other, it was clear that there was a lot of progress to be done.

The reporter describes the fear and anxiety in social interactions that merge social classes across the divide. One student who was so uncomfortable in the first year of exchange had a near-panic attack, and many others were uncomfortable. The story follows this girl, in a search for her and then in an interview with her. The teachers hoped that the discomfort from the beginning would help more than hurt. This highlights an extreme version of discomfort that educators such as Kumashiro note in their work, but in this case the discomfort was so extreme in this one case that it poses the question of, Where is the line of too much discomfort? 

The reporter discusses the stark segregation in schools that parallel gaps of income, achievement, etc. and that "seeing across the divide...can be incredibly powerful".  But, "Bridging the divide" does this support only the privileged? The students from both schools were told that the other students were 'just like us'. One student reflects on her experience visiting the school, questioning if the other students really were 'just like us'? I think this is an incredibly important question and challenge to the generalizations and universalities that can create more divide, rather than bridge them.  

Taking into account the layers of this story and the many questions that the story and the reporter poses, I was reminded of similar questions posed by Contact Theorists and critiques of Contact Theory. Contact Theory is the idea that exposure to different groups or ideas or lifestyles (i.e. different students who come from different socio-economic backgrounds) will improve intergroup relations and will encourage the groups (or students in this case) to be more aware of others' experiences. One article that came to mind while listening to the NPR piece was a Psych article by Thomas Pettigrew (1998), and I have attached it along with this posting. 

For my inquiry project, I would like to research the ideas of social justice education through school 'exchange' or integration programs, and take a look at both the programs done post-Brown vs. Board of Education and those done around the country today. 

Do these programs benefit both the students of higher economic status and those of lower economic status? What implications do these programs have for future programs? How do these programs address issues of "divides" and inequalities between students without hurting the students? 




PDF icon annurev.psych_.49.1.65-2.pdf145.95 KB


jccohen's picture


I've heard about this NPR program, haven't yet listened to it, and now definitely will!  I think this sounds like a powerful inquiry project.  This idea of contact or exposure has a history in the multicultural ed field, which I think will surface as you investigate.  One question I have is about the range of programs in terms of amount and quality of contact.  That is, are you including programs like Metco in Boston or A Better Chance (with a branch in Ardmore) that do long term integration of groups of students into a more privileged setting, or are you talking more about exchanges back and forth as sounds the case with the program you mention?  And this may be something you consider and decide as you begin to investigate this area...  So yes (in response to your email) you're on a good track here - and I'm glad to talk as you get further into the inquiry!