School segregation debates grabbed New York headlines in 2015. Now what?
Four questions facing city officials and those pushing to better integrate its schools in 2016
In 2015, New Yorkers took a hard look at school segregation — and officials took some small steps to address it.
City lawmakers passed a bill requiring the education department to release new data about school demographics. The state awarded a few small grants to revamp struggling schools by attracting affluent families. Then two contentious rezoning proposals drew even greater attention to neighborhoods where nearby schools seem worlds apart. Soon after, Chancellor Carmen Fariña agreed to remove part of the city’s school-admissions code that some saw as a barrier to integration efforts, and to allow a handful of schools to experiment with new enrollment policies.
“There’s more momentum now than really almost any time since I started this work,” said David Tipson, executive director of the school diversity advocacy group New York Appleseed.
Still, the underlying race and class tensions that flared up during the year’s rezoning debates went unresolved, and many of the city’s 1,800 schools remain as segregated as ever. As 2016 approaches, here are four big questions about the future of diversity in the city’s schools.
The big one beneath them all: Will the push for integration build in the new year, or fade away?
1. Will the city find ways to turn gentrification into integration?
This fall, the city proposed shifting some families out of the zones around two popular, jam-packed elementary schools and into the zones for two lower-performing, less prestigious schools. It did not go over well.
The two sought-after schools — P.S. 8 in Brooklyn Heights and P.S. 199 in the Upper West Side — serve many white, affluent students, while their neighbors enroll many low-income students of color. The rezoning would have helped integrate the divided schools, but many parents decided the disparities were too great and railed against the plans. In response, the city tabled the P.S. 199 proposal and delayed a vote on the P.S. 8 plan, which is now set for Jan. 5.
Among other lessons, the rezoning battles made clear that most parents’ main concern is getting their children into a school they consider top-notch.
“What we hear a lot is, they want the best for their child — that’s the biggest priority,” said Allison Roda, a researcher at Rutgers University-Newark who studied New York City’s largely segregated gifted and talented programs. “And that trumps diversity.”
In the rezoning cases, many families had settled in the high-priced neighborhoods zoned for P.S. 8 or 199 to have access to those schools. But elsewhere across the city, middle-class families move into mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhoods and then cluster at popular public schools elsewhere, enroll their children in gifted programs, or pay for private school.
That phenomenon is reflected in maps published by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs this month, which show dozens of segregated elementary schools in the middle of diverse neighborhoods.
But experts say it’s possible to draw those newcomers into the local schools. The city can help the schools strengthen their instruction and add enrichment programs, while school leaders can use advertising, tours, and parent mixers to make families from different backgrounds feel welcome. The idea is that, with strong leadership and support from the city, many schools have the potential to become more diverse, said Clara Hemphill, the founding editor of Insideschools, who helped create the enrollment maps.
“If the conventional wisdom is that you can’t do anything about school segregation until you fix housing,” she said, “maybe that’s not the case.”
2. Will the city get behind efforts that stretch across whole districts?
In a major victory for leaders at seven schools, the city agreed last month (after a yearlong delay) to let them try new admissions policies designed to enroll students from different backgrounds. Advocates cheered the decision, but they also pointed out the obvious: Seven diverse schools isn’t a lot.
So some parent leaders are working on bigger plans.
In Districts 1 (Lower East Side) and 13 (Bedford-Stuyvesant, Fort Greene), they are using the state integration grants to explore “controlled choice” policies. Under that system, which is used in several cities, parents can apply to any school in a given area, not just one they are zoned for. A computer program then matches children to schools, taking into account demographic data such as families’ ZIP codes or income levels, in an effort to make the enrollment at each school resemble the diversity of the district. (Both groups are expected to submit plans to the state this spring.)
Parent leaders in District 3 on the Upper West Side, which includes P.S. 199, are studying that system too. But they’re also looking into other options, such as pairing adjacent but segregated schools, so that some students attend one for the lower grades and the other for later grades.
What remains to be seen is whether the city will get behind those plans. As the rezoning uproar made clear, changes that could disrupt some parents’ path to their preferred schools are likely to face stiff resistance. Still, advocates say they’re giving the city the benefit of the doubt.
“I remain optimistic that we’ll see progress on district-wide efforts next year,” said City Councilman Brad Lander. “That’s the urgent next step.”
3. Will the city wade into high school diversity?
High schools tend to be less segregated than elementary schools, which generally enroll students based on where they live. But students are still quite divided by their backgrounds and by academic preparation.
About a quarter of high schools screen applicants by considering test scores, work portfolios, interviews, and other criteria. That includes eight elite “specialized” schools that base admissions solely on the results of an entrance exam. This year, just 12 percent of admitted students were black or Hispanic, even though those groups make up 70 percent of city eighth-graders.
The city has launched some modest initiatives to address these issues, including small-scale programs to help guide students through the application process or prepare them for the specialized entrance exam. But advocates say much bigger changes are needed.
For instance, they say, the city could create more “education-option” high schools that intentionally enroll a mix of students at different academic levels. It could also more evenly distribute latecomer students, who are placed in schools outside of the normal application process and often pose special challenges. Most significantly — but hardest to do — it could make sure that students have more strong schools to choose from in all parts of the city, either by improving existing schools or creating new ones.
Leslie Santee Siskin, an education researcher at New York University, pointed out that students currently travel from all over the city to attend selective, sought-after high schools like Beacon in Hell’s Kitchen.
“Why don’t we have 10 Beacons?” she said.
4. Will diversity become an official priority?
Next week, the extent of the city’s school segregation should come into sharp focus.
Thanks to a bill Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law this spring, the city must soon release an unprecedented batch of data about the students enrolled in every school, along with a description of any efforts to more evenly distribute the city’s students.
But the council also passed a resolution this spring calling on the education department to declare diversity a priority when making decisions like where to build new schools or how to draw school zone lines. New York Appleseed went so far as to draw up a model policy statement, along with specific ways that schools, superintendents, and the education department could enact it.
So far, the city has not taken up that proposal. City Councilman Ritchie Torres, who co-sponsored the resolution, said he would continue to push the city on it in the coming year.
“My hope is that the city will create a comprehensive, citywide plan,” he said. “School diversity will not happen on its own.”
This article was first published by Chalkbeat New York on December 23.