Integrating NYC Schools Will Take More Than A ‘Diversity Plan’


Mayor Bill de Blasio had just taken office in January 2014 when UCLA’s Civil Rights Project released a damning report that identified New York’s schools as the most racially segregated and economically stratified in the United States. Yet the man who ran on a platform criticizing the “tale of two cities” wouldn’t announce his own initiative to address the problem for another three years.

De Blasio’s thirteen-page plan, presented earlier this month, doesn’t once use the word “segregation.”

“I don’t get lost in terminology,” the mayor explained to a roomful of reporters. Fixing segregated schools will require fixing segregated neighborhoods, he explained, an effort so mammoth that it makes more sense to solve the problems we can today, while we figure out how to tackle the harder stuff tomorrow.

“I would love perfectly diverse and integrated schools. If I could achieve that with the stroke of a pen, I would do that right now,” de Blasio said. “But we can have a conversation where we don’t come to grips with hard realities or we can level with the people of this city. And I’m trying to level with the people of this city.”

But experts the Voice spoke with found the mayor’s proposal long on goals and short on specifics. De Blasio’s new plan will seek to increase the number of students in racially representative schools — buildings where at least 50 percent but no more than 90 percent of students are black or Latino — by 50,000 in five years. There are more than 1,800 schools across the five boroughs, serving more than 1.1 million students; only 31 percent of schools meet these criteria today. The mayor’s plan will also aim to decrease the number of economically stratified schools by 150, or roughly 10 percent, over the same time period. The city defines “economically stratified” as any school whose economic need is more than 10 percentage points from the city average in any direction. Seventy percent of New York City schools are economically stratified.

The mayor’s plan does not lay out exactly how these goals will be met.

Gary Orfield, the co-director of UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, said that part of New York’s integration challenge stems from the fact that historically it was never forced to implement a real plan to fix the problem.

“New York really never had a serious desegregation plan,” Orfield told the Voice. “It was never sued; there was never a court order. People have had much less experience with integration than people in almost every part of the South. This is new for New York.”

The most vigorous attempt at integration in New York City happened shortly after the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. But anger from resistant white parents and the absence of simultaneous housing desegregation crippled the effort. In 1963, the New York State commissioner declared that schools where over 50 percent of students were black were racially imbalanced and incapable of providing equal education. Today, 70 percent of public schools remain majority-minority, and even in racially diverse neighborhoods where parents have great choice in elementary schools, classrooms remain starkly segregated.

As part of its Equity and Excellence agenda, the de Blasio administration has undertaken some sweeping reform for kids in segregated schools. Advanced Placement courses in computer science have expanded to 115 schools citywide, 32 of which had never offered an AP class before. The mayor’s signature universal pre-kindergarten program offers high-quality early education to any child for free — a move that research shows improves future academic outcomes. And College Access for All seeks to provide every middle school student a college visit before high school, and graduates high school students with an individualized college or career plan.

According to Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, these sorts of moves will be impossible without the extension of mayoral control of schools. “That’s what happens when you’re able to, with one voice, say to all the superintendents, ‘This is what our expectation is. This is what we want to see you do,’ ” she said at a press conference in support of a renewal. “And then everyone gets out there and gets the work done. And that could not have happened if every community was making their own decisions.”

But with the state legislature failing to resolve the issue before adjourning their session on June 21, mayoral control is set to expire on June 30, with authority shifting back to local school boards for the first time in nearly ten years (it expired briefly in 2009). That would make top-down leadership mandates difficult, though by and large the city has shied away from them anyway when it comes to addressing the segregation issue.

The preferred approach has been a few grassroots initiatives developed at the district level, something experts say can produce good results while avoiding community backlash. Parents in Brooklyn and Manhattan are using grants to design integration plans, changing middle school application processes that encourage segregation, and ironing out a program known as “controlled choice,” developed by District 1 in Manhattan, that would allow schools to take parental preference and socioeconomic status into consideration in enrollment.

But these are just a few of the city’s 32 school districts. The rest remain largely homogeneous. And the problem is getting worse: Intensely segregated schools in the New York metropolitan area — those that house between 90 and 100 percent students of color — increased by 70 percent from 1989 to 2010, according to the UCLA Civil Rights Project. That’s nearly half of all schools in the city and its surrounding suburbs.

When the Department of Education has stepped in to address overcrowding in hypergentrified, racially segregated neighborhoods, angry parents have moved to block the efforts. A 2015 rezoning proposal in Brooklyn would have reassigned students from the well-resourced but overcrowded and heavily white P.S.8, which serves kids from a huge chunk of wealthy Brooklyn Heights and Vinegar Hill, to P.S.307, an under-enrolled, lower-performing school whose mostly black and Latino students are from the nearby Farragut Houses. Parents from both schools fought back. A more recent rezoning effort on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, designed to alleviate overcrowding and produce racially representative student populations in eleven school zones, had angry parents threatening legal action, though the DOE says it will move forward.

While mayoral control has over the years helped systematize things like academic standards, testing, and curricula, it left decisions about zoning untouched.

“The irony of mayoral control in my mind is that after centralizing standards, the curriculum, the assessments, what it left decentralized was student access to schools,” said Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, referring to Community Education Councils in each district that must approve all school zoning changes.

“It’s the opposite of what it should be. If you go back to Ocean Hill and Brownsville, what they were fighting for was to have a say over their own curriculum and what kids learn and who taught it. So thirty years later when Bloomberg took over and won mayoral control, that’s the thing they took away. We leave it up to locals, where cronyism and power play, where people with more money and whiter skin [tend to benefit]. Any system that is going to address segregation, you have to centralize some of it and have strong incentives, mandates, and sanctions, and there has been none of that.”

Can de Blasio’s new plan untangle these problems? Halley Potter, an education researcher at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, said that while the city’s proposal is an important first step full of reasonable goals, the strategies outlined in the plan won’t be enough.

“Programs focused on individual schools or tweaking admissions and specialized programs will get us part of the way there,” Potter told the Voice. “But in order to move significant numbers of students [into racially representative schools] the DOE is going to have to think about how we make diversity directly a priority in different enrollment strategies.”

Potter offered examples such as controlled choice and rezoning efforts that help alleviate the consequences of housing segregation, especially in elementary schools.

Orfield, the Civil Rights Project co-director, said the city’s plan is so unspecific that it’s hard to predict whether it will have a lasting impact. If the city really wants to get serious about desegregation, he said, it will need to pair plans for schools with plans to address systemic segregation present elsewhere in the city: “What the city needs to get toward if they’re going to be serious would involve housing desegregation. It would be good to hear some talk about how to make sure the subsidized housing sector, which is large in New York, be administered in a way that fosters this process rather than undermines it.”

Columbia’s Stuart Wells said that correcting the racial and other demographic imbalances in student populations in every school building could achieve desegregation, but that true integration requires taking a hard look at biased curricula and teaching practices, retraining teachers so they’re racially literate and equipped to deliver equitable education to newly diverse classrooms full of kids, compensating for inequitable resources in students’ home lives, and correcting segregation that occurs as a result of academic tracking.

At a rally on the steps of City Hall on June 19 — organized by the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ) — parents, students, and activists chanted in English and Spanish for just that. A crowd of about 45 protested in support of an expansion of culturally responsive curricula, a method of teaching they say is crucial to the mayor’s plans for integration. Many wore red in honor of the 152nd anniversary of Juneteenth, the holiday commemorating the liberation of the United States’ last slaves, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. They criticized de Blasio’s plan for failing to address needed changes to the curriculum and additional training for teachers.

“When we think about integration we think in terms of shifting bodies but we don’t think about worldview,” said Natasha Capers, coordinator for the CEJ. “You can’t be serious about integration without mentioning anti-bias training for teachers, without talking about how you recruit and retain teachers of color and administrators of color. You can’t be serious unless you talk about what students are learning.”

Malachi Davidson, eighteen, who will graduate this month from Scholars’ Academy in Far Rockaway, said that the picture of American history offered to him throughout his schooling has been incomplete.

“We need to know the whole story. There is no reason I’m eighteen and just learning what Juneteenth is. That’s ridiculous,” said Davidson. “There is no reason why the first thing we think of when it comes to blacks in this country is slavery.” Similarly, a Chinese-American student criticized her U.S. history curriculum, which glossed over Asian-American contributions to society and excluded South Asians and Pacific Islanders altogether.

Fatoumata Kaba, a mother of three public school children, moved to New York City from Guinea five years ago and said that teachers with more cultural-competency training could, for example, more readily understand that when her children fail to look them in the eye while listening to them, it’s not insubordination, it’s a sign of respect.

And Felicia Alexander, whose four children attend schools in districts 16 and 23 in Brooklyn, said that until all students see themselves reflected in their curriculum, racial and other hierarchies that harm kids will continue to thrive in schools.

“The fact that Columbus Day is still taught as the day that Christopher Columbus discovered America is troubling. That’s not what happened. He decimated a culture, he stole their land. And we celebrate that day,” she said.

Experts like Stuart Wells echoed their concerns. “It’s more than just the racial balance across schools that’s important,” she said. “In the 1970s, we moved kids around so numbers in buildings looked better, but what we learned was that creating diverse student bodies is only one step. We’re not addressing what’s happening inside schools, how curriculum is segregated.” And if that doesn’t happen, Stuart Wells said, “You’re just going to repeat segregation again.”