A panel at the Brooklyn Historical Society Wednesday night tackled the thorny issue of school diversity, sparking a conversation about whether integration is a viable option and delving into the causes of school segregation in New York City.
“We want to get to the bottom of this,” said moderator Beth Fertig, who covers the city’s public schools for WNYC, after reminding the crowd that a report released last year found that New York’s schools are among the most segregated in the country.
But with school segregation — and the country’s largest school system — there are no simple answers. Panelists discussed the nuances of racial versus socioeconomic segregation and argued about whether magnet schools or changes to enrollment policies could be workable, long-term solutions.
The panel comes at a time when school segregation has garnered attention in New York, following a UCLA study that detailed how the the state’s schools are deeply divided along racial lines. The report found that in 19 of New York City’s 32 community school districts, 10 percent or less of public-school students were white in 2010.
The event, which drew a large audience, started with a foundational question: What causes school segregation?
Panelists disagreed about whether the issue is best understood as divisions along socioeconomic or racial lines. Socioeconomic segregation is the best way to frame the issue, said Clara Hemphill, the founder of Insideschools, a website that offers reviews of the city’s public schools. Hemphill said that concentrated poverty is the largest challenge to a school’s academic performance.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, a writer for the New York Times Magazine who has spent years covering school segregation, argued that the issue at hand is race. Black, middle-income Americans are more likely than poor white children to live in poor neighborhoods, which means black children are more likely to attend high-poverty schools, she said.
“This is a racialized poverty,” Hannah-Jones said. “I think sometimes we are more comfortable with class-based [segregation] because we feel we can transcend our class and you can’t transcend your race, but these two are absolutely linked.”
Craig Gurian, a civil rights lawyer, pointed to a map of the city, color-coded to show where low percentages of black residents lived in blue and areas with high percentages of black residents live in red. The map revealed clusters of each color but little overlap.
“Even though you can’t go 10 minutes in New York City without hearing how diverse the city is, it’s actually residentially an extraordinarily segregated place,” Gurian said. “And where you have segregated housing you have segregated schools.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña also faced criticism over their slow response to integration plans proposed by a dozen individual schools last year, an issue Chalkbeat highlighted earlier this month. Both officials were asked about the delays, and whether they have plans to promote diversity, on the first day of school.
Fertig paraphrased their responses: “In other words, no solution,” she said.
Panelists themselves were split over whether there are feasible ways to combat school segregation. Some panelists offered magnet schools as a potential tool. But Hannah-Jones said that when she talks and writes about segregation, “I never end on a hopeful message.”
“If you are in a city with one of the most progressive mayors in the country, and we are under the Obama administration, and they will not talk about school integration and segregation,” Hannah-Jones asked, “what really hope does one have that we’re going to see any large-scale change for the masses?”
Norm Fruchter, a senior policy analyst at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform and a member of the Panel for Educational Policy, noted that he plans to introduce a proposal at the next PEP meeting that he hopes will be “a beginning discussion” about how the city could boost school diversity.
The proposal is to strike a footnote in city rules that says race may be considered in school enrollment decisions only by court order. Fruchter also said he favors setting aside a certain percentage of seats in each high school for students with disabilities, English language learners, and over-the-counter students, who enroll outside of the traditional admissions process.
He acknowledged that enrollment changes aimed at distributing the city’s neediest students are more difficult to implement in middle and elementary schools, Fruchter said, since a family’s address plays a large role in determining younger children’s school assignments.
“I can’t figure out how you would do this below the high school level,” he said.
At the end of the discussion, Fertig asked the crowd whether they believed integration should have been on the education agenda that Mayor Bill de Blasio outlined in a high-profile speech earlier on Wednesday. The mayor’s plan includes expanding access to Advanced Placement classes, adding reading specialists to elementary schools, and providing computer science instruction in all schools.
One parent raised her hand to raise a different point: The battle that matters most to black and Hispanic families is not whether their children’s schools are segregated, but whether they have access to the resources they need.
“Parents of color have thrown up their hands,” she said, then directed her comments at white members of the audience and panel.
“Segregation is not our conversation,” she said. “This is y’alls conversation.”