Separate. Unequal. Still. How public school segregation plagues New York City, and why it matters

NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Sunday, August 16, 2015, 5:00 AM
Protesting testing at PS 321 in Park Slope
Stephanie Keith/for New York Daily News
Protesting testing at PS 321 in Park Slope

In the fight over how to close the racial achievement gap in education, you rarely hear about the only policy that's ever worked on a national scale: desegregation.

 Reformers push school choice and tougher teacher evaluations. Unions demand higher pay and more focus on out-of-school problems like poverty. But desegregation is perhaps the biggest success story in the history of American education.

During the 1980s, when desegregation was in full effect — with forced busing in some cities and less dramatic strategies elsewhere — the black-white achievement gap on the National Assessment for Educational Progress shrunk faster than it ever has before or since.

When black students went to schools with white ones, they were able to access good teachers, principals and guidance counselors, updated textbooks and more advanced classes. Desegregation broke up concentrated poverty in segregated schools that had been forced to educate the toughest kids with the fewest resources.

With these new opportunities — including access to the social and career networks white kids took for granted — research found that black students not only did better on tests, they earned higher degrees and got better jobs. White students, meanwhile, didn't suffer any negative consequences from attending integrated schools — and studies found they became more open-minded and less prejudiced.

So, with New York City public school students returning next month, the question is: Why isn't more being done to bring students of different races together in the most racially and ethnically diverse city in the country, one where the public schools have had little success closing a huge racial achievement gap?

A study last year by UCLA's Civil Rights Project found that in the New York City metro area, the number of "intensely-segregated" schools — those that are between 90% and 100% minority — increased by 70% since 1989. The percent of black students enrolled in intensely segregated schools jumped from 67% to 74%.

Racial segregation overlaps with economic segregation. In New York, the typical Latino and black student attends school with nearly triple the percentage of low-income students than the typical white student, according to the UCLA study.

Two schools in leafy, affluent, predominantly white Park Slope offer a stark example. At the coveted PS 321, the student population is 75% white and 8% of students are poor enough to qualify for free lunch, according to Department of Education data. The school excels academically, with 82% passing state reading exams and 75% passing math exams.

A few blocks away in the same neighborhood, the population at PS 282 is nearly the reverse. It's a zoned school, but most nearby families shun it, so students generally come from beyond the immediate neighborhood. About 86% of students are black or Hispanic — and the low-income population is 65%. The school struggles, with fewer than a third of students passing the tests — below city averages.

The same story repeats itself across the city. PS 145 on the Upper West Side, with a 91% black and Hispanic population, struggles compared to its whiter neighbors, including the more successful and more diverse PS 163 a few blocks to the south.

Or there's District 26 in Queens, the city's highest achieving district. It's 17% white and 51% Asian. About half of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Meanwhile, District 29 to the south, home to middle class black neighborhoods like St. Albans, is 66% black, 14% Hispanic, and 80% low-income. It posted average scores nearly 39 points lower in math and 26 points lower in reading.

It's not that black and Hispanic students need to sit next to white students to succeed. The charter school movement in particular has shown that with enough resources and effort, schools filled with 100% low-income students of color can send 100% of them to college.

Down the street, 282

Down the street, 282

But successful segregated schools are rare and hard to replicate. They rely on extraordinary, often overworked teachers, and they don't work for all kids.

Desegregation's success wasn't about pulling off educational miracles. As Nikole Hannah-Jones recently reported on "This American Life," it works mainly because spreading students around also spreads resources around — or as one civil rights activist once put it to me, "Green follows white."

When hard-to-teach kids are mixed throughout a school system rather than concentrated in a few especially tough schools, the good teachers fan out and low-income students of color get access to higher-level coursework and better facilities and materials.

In less diverse cities, the promises of desegregation may be out of reach. But New York City is lucky. About 40% of its students are Hispanic, 30% are black, and about 15% each are Asian and white. The city educates children of both wealthy and impoverished families.

No doubt, desegregation isn't a perfect solution. It can upset families in well-to-do neighborhoods who think they deserve the exact school they paid for by renting or buying near it — and it can lengthen commutes for kids of all skin colors.

When desegregation was at its height, black teachers and principals were fired and predominantly black schools closed, while other ways of separating students, including gifted and talented programs, typically created segregation within school buildings.

But the city could learn from districts like St. Charles, Louisiana, that have found creative ways to include more students of color in elite gifted and talented programs. Magnet schools are another way to bring students together.

And one of the most effective ways to integrate schools is to integrate housing; the mayor's affordable housing plans, along with the city's galloping gentrification, are opportunities the Department of Education could exploit.

Schools chancellor Carmen Fariña says the de Blasio administration recognizes the potential: "Students learn from their teachers and parents and by interacting and collaborating with classmates of diverse backgrounds," she said in a statement. "We will continue to engage with partners across the city as we work to ensure our schools reflect the city's great diversity."

It will take ingenuity, along with many more resources and effort, to harness the diversity of New York's student population and avoid the pitfalls, but there's no better place to try.

Garland, executive editor of The Hechinger Report, is the author of "Divided We Fail: The Story of an African-American Community that Ended the Era of School Desegregation."