Desegregating NYC’s ‘Apartheid Schools’


When the incoming kindergarten class arrived on September 8 at Brooklyn New School, long one of the most sought-after public elementary schools in rapidly gentrifying brownstone Brooklyn, it marked a significant change from recent years. About half of incoming students were eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch, reversing a trend that had seen low-income families fall to 20 percent of kindergarten admissions by last year.

The shift is the result of a new admissions policy at several city schools to try to come to grips with the city’s disturbingly segregated school system, a decades-old problem exacerbated by a 2007 Supreme Court ruling that deemed racial quotas in school enrollments to be unconstitutional nationwide. The goal of the policy — concocted by BNS and six other schools, and approved last fall by the city department of education — is to do an end run around the ruling, using lunch status as a proxy for both income and race.

The initial response from both school administrators and parents has been cautious excitement. “I feel really lucky to have my kids in a school where the administration has been trying to keep diversity,” says BNS parent association president AnnMarie Matava. “For the most part, everyone I’ve spoken to is really positive about it.”

But she and other education activists warn that attempts to desegregate the city’s public schools are likely to face a long battle against everything from city housing patterns to school funding formulas — circumstances that have left New York City schools among the least-integrated in the U.S. The New York Times estimated in 2012 that New York’s public schools were the third most segregated in the nation, after Chicago and Dallas. According to a 2014 UCLA study, about three-quarters of black students in New York City attend schools that are less than 10 percent white, while the typical white student attends a school that is 43.5 percent white, triple the percentage of white enrollment at schools citywide.

The city’s pervasive racial and socioeconomic segregation of students isn’t new, nor are attempts to address it. In the 1960s, black parents pushed hard for increased integration — in 1964, half a million students boycotted classes for a day to call for a citywide busing plan — but got nowhere. Instead, community leaders in black and Latino neighborhoods turned their efforts to “community control,” seeking to redraw school zones in a way that would at least allow them to govern their own kids’ fates — a strategy that ended up reinforcing the existing divisions, especially as neighborhoods became more segregated during the white flight of the 1970s.

That’s one reason why, when Brooklyn parents and educators — inspired by Deborah Meier’s experimental Central Park East public schools in East Harlem — founded BNS in 1987, they sought out ways to create an integrated student body from the beginning. “When we started, the way children were admitted to the school was based on ethnicity: one-third black, one-third Hispanic, and one-third other,” explains principal Anna Allanbrook, who says it was a conscious decision to try to reflect all of Brooklyn’s families, not just those who happened to live down the block or to be best at navigating the school admissions process.

BNS’s racial mix gradually whitened over time, though — as a result of both changes in admissions policies forced upon the school by the Bloomberg administration, and the changing demographics of Brooklyn. Then came the 2007 Supreme Court ruling, which invalidated all race-based quota systems. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who joined the court’s four conservatives in the ruling, left the door open a crack for workarounds: Diversity was still a worthwhile goal, he argued — so long as desegregation plans were “narrowly tailored” without direct reference to individual students’ races.

Any such experimentation remained unlikely in New York City, though, where ever since Michael Bloomberg seized mayoral control of the public schools in 2002, the city Department of Education had downplayed school integration as an issue. Shortly after the Supreme Court ruling, city schools chancellor Joel Klein remarked that “a focus on racial balance seems to me to be not the way to solve the problem,” but insisted that the city should instead “focus on high-quality education for every kid in every school.”

Studies by both academic researchers and think tanks like the Century Foundation, however, have found that integration and quality are hard to disentangle. This is glaringly apparent for low-income students, for whom integrated schools provide access to resources, both academic and financial, that affluent families otherwise share only among themselves. But for more-affluent students, diversity researchers argue, there are benefits as well, even if they’re more intangible, like being able to hold classroom discussions with students from diverse backgrounds, or learning how to talk to people from other cultures without embarrassing themselves.

The first crack in the DOE’s resistance to desegregation came in 2012, after Klein’s departure, when PS 133, on the northern margin of Park Slope, was preparing to move into a newly expanded building with an increased enrollment. The DOE suggested allowing all families in the two local districts — District 13, which covers Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, and western Bedford-Stuyvesant; and District 15, which runs from Red Hook, through Cobble Hill and Park Slope, and down to Sunset Park and Windsor Terrace — to apply on equal footing, instead of limiting enrollment to the more affluent sections of Park Slope and Boerum Hill right around the school.

But as David Tipson, director of the nonprofit advocacy group NY Appleseed, remarks, “the research shows that equality is not equity.” More affluent parents (who are disproportionately white) are not only more likely to have the time and social contacts to navigate the school application process; historically, they tend to cluster where their playground peers send their kids. As a result, everyone involved knew what an equal-footing free-for-all in Park Slope would mean: a school dominated by well-off white families. “There are populations that are systematically disadvantaged by school choice systems,” says Tipson, “and if we want the school to really be accessible to all students, we are going to have to put our thumbs on the scales a little bit.”

To this end, PS 133 parents and administrators suggested adopting a gambit from privately run charter schools. Under a 2010 state law, each charter had to reflect the demographics of its district in low-income students, English-language learners, and students with disabilities, a provision designed to keep them from cherry-picking high-performing students to boost their scores. To meet the income guidelines, charters began giving admissions priority to children eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch. PS 133 parents and administrators demanded the same option, and after some haggling with DOE lawyers, the school received a waiver starting in the 2013–14 school year.

Other schools quickly seized on the PS 133 ruling to ramp up their own diversity plans. Last fall, the DOE announced that it would okay seven schools — three in Manhattan (one in Washington Heights and two in the East Village) and four in brownstone Brooklyn — to implement similar admissions formulas, ranging from 20 percent of seats being set aside for English-language learners at Brooklyn’s Arts and Letters, to BNS giving first dibs to students eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch. (Because siblings of current students, and students already enrolled in the school’s pre-K still get to be first in line, about half of kindergarten students will still be high- and moderate-income.) And the DOE upped the ante this May by throwing open the pilot program to any principals and superintendents who wanted to request their own diversity plans, though none have yet officially announced they’re doing so.

So far, response from parents at the pilot schools has been mostly positive. “The concept of ‘things should be fair,’ everybody agrees [on],” says Marco Battistella, who last year served as parent association president at the Earth School, one of the East Village schools inaugurating diversity plans this fall. “Some people are afraid of ‘Will I be losing something?’ ” But most parents, he says, see the benefits of a diverse student body, both for equality of opportunity and for broadening the educational experience of all students by exposing them to classmates from all walks of life.

Still, Battistella and other supporters of the new program are quick to point out that giving precedence to low-income families in admissions can’t reverse decades of segregation on its own — especially since most schools draw students solely from their own neighborhood school zones, which tend to be fairly homogeneous. That’s less of an issue for schools like BNS, which has a longstanding agreement with the DOE to allow admissions from not just all of District 15, but Districts 13 and 14 (which extends from Greenpoint to Bed-Stuy) as well. But, says Allanbrook, for “schools limited by zones, it makes it really, really difficult. How do you have this diversity when you are limited by neighborhood?”

This is why some advocates are pushing for a system that breaks down zone lines to take a districtwide approach to admissions. That’s already the case in Manhattan’s District 1, which includes diversity-waiver recipients the Earth School and the Neighborhood School, and where all families can apply anywhere in the district for elementary school. Parents and educators on the District 1 Community Education Council, however, have been pushing to replace that with a setup known as “controlled choice,” where the district would put its thumb on the scale, changing the algorithm that places kids at schools to weight placements by income in addition to parent preference.

Tipson is a strong proponent of controlled choice, believing that it could cut through the knotty problem of geographic segregation. “It’s counterintuitive, because we think, ‘Oh, zones create segregation, so the opposite of zones is choice, so that should lead to integration,’ ” he says. “But it’s not that simple, because higher-income families have tremendous advantages in the choice process.”

That disparate access to resources leads to another complication of desegregating schools by income. As school funding from the state has leveled off in recent years — despite a 2007 court settlement requiring the release of additional funds, most of that cash flow has not actually appeared in the governor’s annual education budgets — individual schools have become increasingly dependent on parent fundraising to pay for everything from arts programs to school supplies. Integration, then, is a double-edged sword: Bringing in more low-income families allows them to share in the benefits of good schools, but also risks cutting off the fundraising pipeline that helps make the schools good in the first place.

Parents and administrators at schools in the pilot program say they’re already planning ahead for such a contingency. At BNS, where the annual parent association budget is about $250,000 — well behind some Manhattan schools where budgets can near $1 million, but also far greater than the $5,000 or so that is the city median — there has been talk of supplementing parent funding by exploring grants or corporate donations, according to PTA president AnnMarie Matava. Still, she says, “having a more diverse culture is more important than just being able to ask parents to write checks. It’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge that is worth figuring out.”

Ultimately, says Battistella, “it’s kind of absurd that schools need to rely on parents’ fundraising. Because it’s not for things that are extra — typically it’s for things that really should have been covered to begin with.”

Inevitably, any integration plans will run up against the problem that affluent families have a power that their low-income neighbors do not: If they don’t like the local school options, they can far more easily up and move to another zone, or even another district. (“Ask any parent and they’ll be able to tell you exactly where the line is in Park Slope that separates District 15 from District 13,” notes Tipson.)

For the integration reformers, the new admissions benchmarks are at least a first step toward a broader city policy, if only as proof of concept. “I think it was important for the DOE to see that white parents didn’t go through the roof when PS 133 and the seven schools adopted this,” says Tipson. But he cautions that if desegregation efforts stop here, they’ll be limited in their iwmpact: “The reality is we’re never going to be busing kids from the southern end of Staten Island up to the Bronx to achieve racial integration in our schools. I do think eventually once we can get some models in place, the different districts will need to interlock.”

Battistella, a District 1 CEC member and a controlled-choice supporter, agrees that the true test will be whether the steps the DOE has taken so far are only the beginning. “I don’t think the current plan is a great plan — it’s a baby step,” he says. “But it at least breaks the ice.”

[Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article erroneously reported that a UCLA study found that the typical white New York City public student attends a school that is “68 percent white, nearly double the percentage of white enrollment at schools citywide.” Those are figures for the New York metro area; in fact, a typical white student in New York City during the 2010-11 school year attended a school that is 43.5 percent white, exactly triple the citywide average of 14.5 percent.]