Never Stop Trying: Dream Town Author on Shaker Heights’s Quest for Racial Equity

Washington Post reporter Laura Meckler goes home again to tell the story of her school district’s decades-long pursuit of integration.

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As a national reporter, Laura Meckler is generally introduced as “The Washington Post’s Laura Meckler.” But, as her new book, Dream Town: Shaker Heights and the Quest for Racial Equity, makes clear, she’s also “Shaker Heights, Ohio’s Laura Meckler.”

 She’s a product of that community’s public schools, which host one of the country’s longest-running, and evolving, school integration experiments. We sat down to discuss her new book, which came out Aug. 22 to much attention and strong reviews, as well as the past, present, and future of racial equity in the Cleveland suburb. 

“You have to do a lot of different things and you have to keep at it,” Meckler told me. “That’s why I came away from writing Dream Town with optimism. This is a community that is still trying and still looking at all sorts of different things — a community that hasn’t given up — whereas in a lot of America, people don’t even care or don’t even try.”

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Let’s start with some context: what makes Shaker Heights unique? What’s its history? 

Well, I think of Shaker Heights as a story in three acts. The first act is its founding at the turn of the 20th century as an elite refuge for wealthy Clevelanders escaping the city at a time when the number of black residents in the city was rising with the Great Migration. Shaker was developed as a sort of “best of the best” community, with very high standards for architecture and for the people who they let in. And that’s how it was for a few decades. 

Then we move into what I think of as the second act. Of course, Black families could not get in for a long time, but in the mid-1950s, a few Black families did manage to get into Shaker’s Ludlow neighborhood, and once a few got in, more got in, and soon that neighborhood was rapidly moving towards resegregation.

But something different happened in Shaker, something that really sets it apart from most of the country, which is that the white people living there and the Black people living there decided to get together and fight against all the pressures that were leading towards segregation and white flight. With the blockbusting and fear mongering that was being driven by the real estate and banking industries, they chose something different. 

So they got together and formed a community association. It started out with just getting to know each other, but then it moved into actual real estate, showing houses to white families and even offering second mortgages again to white families. They viewed it as a way to counter the forces that were pressing down against them. 

This spread to other Shaker Heights neighborhoods, and eventually to the city itself, which chose to be a place that was embracing diversity and promoting integration. So Shaker developed a national reputation as an integration leader—first in housing and then in schools. In 1970, a very forward-looking superintendent led the district to a voluntary school busing plan to desegregate the elementary schools. This, of course, was at a time when lots of communities across the country were fighting court orders to do the same. Shaker was embracing it, white families voluntarily sending their kids into the predominantly Black school, and vice versa. 

The third act comes in more recent years: a struggle over what racial equity means, over whether the schools are delivering it.

Shaker Heights is your hometown, you’re a product of its school district. But what brought you to this particular project for this particular moment? Why Shaker Heights? Why now? 

I first started thinking about reporting on my hometown back in 2013, when I was coming off of the White House beat and onto a beat covering demographics. I heard about a new Shaker superintendent who was taking on the achievement gap and taking on the question of racial equity. I was interested and intrigued. 

It took a while, but it ultimately led to a story about Shaker. Usually, when I’m done with a big story, I sort of take a deep breath and move on to the next one. This time it felt like I had just scratched the surface.

There had never been a book about Shaker Heights. There had been a lot of media coverage, a lot of academic work, but never a book for the general public and I felt like I was really in a great position to tell this story. And then the pandemic hit, and I thought, “Well, if not now — when I have some time — then when?” So I started working on it in earnest.

The book is a story about, as you put it, “the promise and problems of Shaker Heights,” about its efforts to advance racial equity in the past and present. In recent years, various tracking systems — honors and AP classes and so forth — threatened the district’s equity efforts. How?

For a long time, Shaker Heights had this glow, like it felt really good about itself. “Hey, we’re doing this. We’ve got this. Maybe you guys out there have trouble with race, but we’re enlightened, and we are a model.” 

But in more recent years, there was growing discomfort with the academic achievement gap and the racially disproportionate placement of students by academic levels. The top levels — the Advanced Placement (AP) classes, the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, the honors classes — were all disproportionately white, and the regular and remedial classes were disproportionately Black. When you walked into Shaker Heights High School you’d look at the hallways, and it would be incredibly diverse. And then you’d walk into a particular classroom, and you’d say, “Is this an all-white school or is this an all-Black school?” depending on which level it was on.

There were a variety of things tried over the years to try to address this, none of them successful. When a new superintendent arrived a few years ago, he started combining some of the honors classes with what were called “core” classes, regular-level classes. So there’d be kids in honors and kids in core learning together in the same classrooms, with maybe different assignments or workloads. 

Then, in the summer of 2020, the superintendent made a huge change — to dismantle the tracking system. In one fell swoop, he moved all children into the honors level, basically starting in fifth grade all the way through ninth grade. Essentially everything up until you got to AP and IB classes. 

How did the community react? I mean, that’s the central theme of the book, right, Shaker Heights wrestling with its sense of itself, with its priorities and what those actually require it to do. 

There was a lot of confusion, because a lot of other pandemic stressors were in the air and this change was not well explained. Some people didn’t know about it at all. Other people thought that they were getting rid of AP classes. Both sides of that were wrong. 

Some people were thrilled. A lot of very equity-minded people, Black and white in the community, were very pleased. They thought, “It’s about time. We’re finally taking this on.” Others, who felt like these classes weren’t truly being taught at the honors level because they had such a wide range of academic ability in the class, were very unsettled. 

At the same time, the district was reducing homework and was giving people more time to do work, just sort of lightening the load. That happened in other communities also during the pandemic. But here, it happened at the same time as the detracking. So some people felt like the standards were dropping. Shaker, in addition to having a national reputation for integration also had a national reputation for excellence. 

So there were parents and students who felt like, “Are we no longer valuing, you know, real academic achievement? Are the very top kids gonna be lost in this?” 

Finally, this was sort of sprung on teachers at the last minute. They did not have any training before it happened. It was particularly hard for math teachers. Think about it: all eighth graders were put into Algebra I, which is typically a ninth-grade class. On the honors track it’s an eighth-grade class. But there were eighth graders in there who had never had pre-algebra, and maybe they didn’t do all that well in whichever seventh-grade math class they took. Now, all of a sudden, they’re not doing seventh- or eighth-grade math. They’re taking ninth-grade math.

Teachers told me that the training they got was mostly about the moral urgency of the matter, not the nuts and bolts of implementation. 

This is exactly what I was thinking as I was reading. I’m a former teacher and I feel like differentiation gets treated like a magic wand. It pops up when folks have theoretical priorities that run into practical headaches. Somebody says, “OK, well, what are you gonna do about the fact that a bunch of these kids haven’t had pre-algebra?” And then people go, “We’ll differentiate!” as though that’s just an easy, obvious answer. But differentiation is wildly difficult to do, even if it’s easy to say! How is Shaker Heights wrestling with the possibilities and limits of differentiation?

I did observe some classrooms where I saw teachers trying, and I saw some good things happening. 

The thinking is that you know, if everybody’s talking about the same thing, they can all be in the class together learning together, even if they show that learning in different ways. For example, they can all read the same novel—maybe some kids are writing long papers in response and other kids are doing a graphic panel. Someone else is maybe doing a podcast. 

I saw an eighth-grade math class working on probability. There were two girls working together, one Black and one white, and the Black girl was lost. I mean she was really lost. I could see she didn’t really understand it. The white girl definitely had it mastered, but she was very patiently explaining it to the Black girl. It was helping both of them, because the girl who was struggling was getting this one-on-one help, and she seemed to be getting it. And the girl who already understood, told me later that explaining it to somebody else solidified it in her own mind. We’ve all had that experience. 

At one point in the book, Shaker Heights High School principal Eric Juli asks: what if high schools focused on teaching kids to live and work together as opposed to looking up the Battle of Gettysburg? We don’t need you to memorize that, really. But we do need you to be able to live with one another and work together.

We often talk about school integration as this strategy in and of itself — integrating schools means changing the demographics of a school and its classrooms. That’s the work. Shift the demographics and you’ve done the reform. We don’t always talk about the necessary, discomforting system changes that come next. 

Juli’s view is that there are all sorts of ways to learn. And he’s very interested in project-based learning. His view is that let’s aim for a class that’s fun and cool, where you build and set off rockets, instead of just aiming for AP Physics. 

When I asked him, “Is there any value to, you know, reading a novel and being able to write a paper where you explore the characters and themes and show that you’ve understood it?” 

And he said, “Yes, but not every semester for all four years.”

Racial equity work isn’t just about in-class differentiation. It’s about shifting things like dress codes, disciplinary systems, the PTO, and such to help all kids and families feel like they belong, right?

Absolutely. That might even be the most important thing. What does it mean to feel like you belong? Why does that matter? You think, “Oh, you don’t go to a PTO meeting, someone else will plan the carnival. You don’t need to go.” 

But it does matter, because that’s the place where informal information is exchanged. That’s where people find out about the cool new classes or the teachers you really do or don’t want. That’s the information that affects kids’ lives. 

If you don’t feel comfortable walking into the school, are you gonna show up at the parent-teacher conferences? It’s easy not to. Maybe it’s hard because you’ve been working all day, you’re exhausted, your kids haven’t had dinner, and you don’t have any energy left. Maybe you also think, by the way, I don’t really like it there. Maybe that’s because you didn’t do well in school, maybe school doesn’t feel warm and fuzzy to you.

But if you have a sense of belonging and you’re part of this community, then yeah, you’re gonna go to Back to School Night. You’re going to the parent-teacher conferences. You’re going to the PTO meeting. 

Obviously, it also matters for students. Do you see yourself in the curriculum? Are your strengths and accomplishments reflected in the school’s trophy cases? How do you experience the school’s discipline system? If the Black kids are always, just always getting in trouble, you know, how are you feeling about this? Is school your place, or are you feeling like this is a place I have to go and just make it through the day? 

One day, Eric Juli was talking to a science teacher who’d asked a kid in his class to remove his durag, a tight skull cap that some Black boys and men wear, and the mother complained. The teacher says to Juli, “It’s against our dress code. You’re not allowed to wear any sort of hood.”

And Juli said, “Yeah, technically, this is against the dress code, but we’re not enforcing it.” He even said, there are skinny white girls walking around here half naked, and no one’s stopping them. We can’t be seen as just selectively enforcing it for this one kid. We don’t have bandwidth as a staff to start enforcing it evenly, so we’re gonna let this go. The teacher goes, “You know what? I hear you and I understand.” 

It’s one small thing, but I think it was reflective of something larger. Because how do you feel like you belong in this school when you don’t get to wear the thing you want to wear when it really isn’t bothering anybody.

Exactly. School integration isn’t an alternative to structural education reforms. It’s not like we get to choose between integrating schools and changing the internal systems and dynamics of how schools operate. We have to do both — a serious push towards racial equity that begins with student demographics and race at the center ends up requiring all kinds of uncomfortable things from adults, right?

It’s definitely both, and there’s no magic bullet. There’s no five-point plan for fixing your schools. It’s not that simple. You have to do a lot of different things and you have to keep at it. That’s why I came away from writing Dream Town with optimism. This is a community that is still trying and still looking at all sorts of different things — a community that hasn’t given up — whereas in a lot of America, people don’t even care or don’t even try. 

So no simple plug-and-play plan for the world beyond Shaker, fair enough. But is there a message for the rest of the country? For other schools? 

Different places have different demographics. Different places have different challenges. Different places have different potential for integration. Different places have different levels of achievement gaps. Everybody’s got their own, their own puzzle to solve. But I think if they look at the different kinds of strategies that Shaker has tried, communities can pull out different things and give people in their communities things to think about. 

So much of the conversation about education today is rooted in culture wars. Should you even be talking about racial equity? Is that critical race theory? Is that offensive? Is that racist in and of itself? Some people feel that way— so this may not be for them. But there’s also another part of the country that is interested in a different conversation, in exploring these issues and looking under that hood. 

I wouldn’t say that they’ve cracked the code, but I would say that they’re still at the decoder.

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