Previous research in middle-class school districts has focused on within-school segregation but not between-school segregation. Drawing on two years of ethnographic fieldwork and 122 in-depth interviews with students, parents, and faculty in an affluent suburban school district, I find that students who struggle academically at prestigious “Pinnacle High School” are pressured by administrators to transfer to nearby “Crossroads High School.” These students are disproportionately black, Latinx, and working-class. Though students transfer due to academic struggles and not behavioral issues, Crossroads features an austere, prison-like appearance, constant surveillance of students by staff and local police, and a curriculum that disqualifies graduates from matriculating at a four-year college. I argue that the transfer policy and process disproportionately affects lower-income, black, and Latinx students, stigmatizes students who struggle as deviant “failures,” and is largely punitive rather than rehabilitative. Concentrating struggling students in a school such as Crossroads facilitates an institutional culture of academic apathy that runs counter to the school’s stated purpose as an academic rehabilitation center, and Crossroads serves the interests of academically elite schools like Pinnacle by providing those schools with a place to “dump” students who suffer academic setbacks. I refer to this form of segregation as academic apartheid—between-school segregation based on academic standing—and I conclude by proposing a change with the potential to increase equity and inclusion for students who struggle.
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