At a town hall meeting in southeast Queens this spring, a parent leader asked David Banks, the newly minted schools chancellor: Will you fight to integrate our segregated schools?
“I think diversity, when it’s done well, provides a level of enrichment for education that you cannot beat,” Banks responded. “But I also think that it is critically important that we not lose sight of the fact that we have to increase the quality of all of our schools.”
Six months into his tenure, Banks, along with his boss, Mayor Eric Adams, have not laid out plans to advance integration in the city’s school system — one of the most segregated in the nation. Instead, as the chancellor told that crowd in Queens, they have said their focus is on making sure all of the city’s 1,600 schools are effective.
“I don’t want our kids or our families to feel like I’ve got to run away from the school that’s right in my own neighborhood because it’s not working well,” Banks recently told parents in a virtual town hall.
Over the previous eight years, a movement steadily built across the five boroughs, prodding a reluctant Mayor Bill de Blasio to take baby steps towards fostering more diversity.
But opponents have gelled into an effective counter-lobby, arguing almost verbatim for the same approach that the current administration now favors. Adams campaigned on expanding specialized high schools, the vaunted schools criticized for enrolling few Black and Latino students. One of the first major education policy decisions made by Adams and Banks was to open more gifted programs, which are starkly unrepresentative.
Calling school diversity a “critical piece” of the education department’s goals, spokesperson Nathaniel Styer said the city will “support districts that wish to engage in a process that is driven by and for families” to spur integration.
“Still, while these efforts benefit future generations, we are committed to ensuring students in schools today receive better literacy programming, more mental health supports, cutting edge career programs and other interventions to ensure that their schools are excellent regardless of the makeup of the student body,” Styer said.
Integration advocates are now regrouping after the pandemic, and turning their attention from citywide policies toward building support on the ground for more local changes.
“We knew when Adams was elected that we were going to be in for a big fight,” said Shino Tanikawa, who has been an outspoken advocate for more diverse schools.
Bused to better schools
At introductory town halls early in his tenure as chancellor, Banks often told the same story that may give a glimpse into how his views on education were shaped.
He recounted how, after his family moved from Brooklyn to Queens, he and his brother were forced to wake up at 6 a.m. to take a long bus ride. They commuted for more than an hour to attend a middle school in Flushing, Queens, that his parents thought was better than the ones nearby.
Banks attended Hillcrest High School in the early 1970s. The campus is in District 28, a diverse corner of the city with a history of fierce opposition to integration. He said he had been slated to attend Andrew Jackson High School, which had tipped from mostly white to majority Black and Latino by the time Banks entered ninth grade.
Before even welcoming its first class of students, Hillcrest had been at the center of a battle over segregation as education officials struggled to draw attendance zone lines around the new school and others in the area. On opening day in September 1971, white parents from the Forest Hills neighborhood boycotted Hillcrest. They showed up at the school they had previously been zoned for, trying to enroll their children.
Banks has said his education was “great,” calling the diversity of his classmates a benefit. But there have also been hints that he is wary of the toll that integration efforts can extract on students and families.
“You don’t want to be in a school where people are fighting and they don’t want you to be there, the community doesn’t want you to be there. So, these things have to be handled delicately,” he told parents in Manhattan’s District 2.
In the time that Banks grew up, Black families often bore the brunt of school diversity plans, said Mark Winston Griffith, a community organizer who has also reported on education issues in Brooklyn and Queens for the podcast School Colors. Often that meant long commutes into communities that were hostile to Black students.
“If you grew up in the time that Banks did in New York, you probably have some battle scars from it — that is, from being bused,” Winston Griffith said. “I think few people would argue that there are no benefits to integration. I think it’s more of a distrust and a disbelief that it can happen without doing harm.”
When Banks became an educator, he opened a school in the Bronx that came to be well-regarded and enrolled mostly students of color. He went on to launch a network of schools dedicated to educating mostly Black and Latino boys, a demographic often poorly served by the public school system and weighed down by poor education outcomes. The Eagle Academy network, Winston Griffith noted, “is predicated on some degree of Black determination and that Black folks are going to have to do for themselves, and build institutions in Black neighborhoods.”
“Then there’s less of a reliance and belief and investment in integration,” Winston Griffith said.
But it’s also the case that today’s integration movement is more nuanced than the past. Advocates are less focused on precise demographic enrollment goals — simply moving students around — but also the experiences of students once they arrive at the schoolhouse door. That means thinking about discipline policies, how resources are spread out, and how representative teaching staff are, compared to the students they serve.
All of that is, of course, exceedingly hard to do well.
So is trying to turn around schools without tackling integration — though countless education reform efforts have tried. Segregated schools concentrate needs, making it harder to help students overcome all the hurdles stacked against them. They also tend to have fewer resources, whether in the form of experienced teachers or parents who can contribute to the PTA.
Integrated schools, on the other hand, tend to have higher graduation rates and student test scores, and even help students become more civically minded and tolerant.
The de Blasio years: Slow progress
This administration’s hands-off approach echoes the early de Blasio years, when the former mayor wouldn’t even say the word “segregation” and his first chancellor, Carmen Fariña, said she wanted school diversity to occur “organically.”
But the issue was unavoidable as advocates coalesced and city leaders faced constant questions from the press about whether it was acceptable that New York City, hailed for its diversity, had such unequal schools.
Things began to shift after Fariña retired and de Blasio appointed Richard Carranza, then the chief of Houston schools. Carranza quickly became a firebrand on the issue.
In spring 2018, with less than a month on the job, Carranza tweeted a viral video of a mother protesting a proposal to integrate Upper West Side middle schools. It was headlined: “Wealthy white Manhattan parents angrily rant against plan to bring more black kids to their schools.” He didn’t become any less strident.
De Blasio had been dragged firmly into the fray.
By the June of 2018, the mayor called for admissions changes at the city’s specialized high schools. By the fall, he was alongside the chancellor at a triumphant press conference to approve a plan to integrate some Brooklyn middle schools. About a year after Carranza arrived, de Blasio finally used the word “segregated” to describe the city’s schools.
As these measures gained steam, however, so did backlash.
Parents filed a lawsuit to stop de Blasio’s plan to enroll more Black and Latino students at the specialized schools. The proposal drew particular ire from Asian American families, who worried their children would be elbowed out since most students in the specialized schools are Asian American. They protested the chancellor around the city, swarming his car, rallying at City Hall, and accusing Carranza of discriminating against Asian American students.
Opposition crystalized as the city also considered changes to its gifted program. A cadre of mostly white and Asian advocates formed Parents for Accelerated Learning, or PLACE. They have steadily grown its influence ever since, winning races for local education boards and endorsing candidates for office.
In the last race, PLACE’s pick for mayor was Adams. He took office in January 2022.
Integration advocates start over
There are issues where integration advocates and the current administration seem to align, including on the belief that students should be taught lessons that reflect their different backgrounds and cultures. This spring, Banks and Adams announced the education department would get to work on an Asian studies curriculum.
Banks has declared himself “not a big believer” in using competitive admissions criteria, a common practice at many New York City schools that is often blamed with exacerbating segregation. The school network that he started is not selective.
Yet advocates say it’s been a challenge to get access to the new administration, and those they have managed to meet with seem unaware of the groundwork laid before. There have been multiple city working groups dedicated to suggesting ways to foster integration, reams of academic reports, and hours of town hall meetings with the public.
“There’s some sort of willful amnesia from this department of education, from this new administration, on equity-related policies,” said Nyah Berg, director of New York Appleseed, a nonprofit that has been central to pushing for school integration.
Parents with PLACE, on the other hand, say they have experienced a much different reception.
“I just feel that he’s really listening,” said Deborah Alexander, a vice president of PLACE, shortly after Banks announced the city would be expanding its gifted programs, which her group had been advocating for. “I find him just so incredibly authentic and honest, and he really gets it.”
In many ways, it feels like starting all over again, said Matt Gonzales, who advocates for school diversity policies through the Integration and Innovation Initiative at New York University’s Metro Center. Advocates are building new connections as many in the previous administration have moved on, and recent elections turned over much of the City Council. The chancellor also hired a slew of new superintendents, who have been key in shepherding district-level diversity goals.
In District 13, where parent advocates had been working toward eliminating gifted programs and replacing them with school-wide approaches, the supportive superintendent was replaced. The Brooklyn district still doesn’t have a permanent leader, leaving parents worried that momentum toward more changes will be stunted.
“We have been on a mission of creating antiracist schools in this district… and we can’t do that if at every turn we turn into more obstacles,” said Faraji Hannah-Jones, a member of the District 13 Community Education Council, which had worked closely with the former superintendent. (He’s also married to Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote in 2016 about finding a public school for their daughter in a segregated city.)
“The call to action should be a Black mayor and a Black chancellor doing something historic and making sure our schools are desegregated,” Faraji Hannah-Jones said. “Right now it doesn’t seem like they want that approach and it’s a disservice.”
Seeing few ways to make inroads on citywide changes, some are turning their focus back to local districts, individual schools, and other pockets of the city where there are willing partners. Those are the same tactics that advocates took at the beginning of de Blasio’s administration, when individual principals and groups of parents took up the mantle for more diverse schools.
“This has to happen school by school, district by district, and it’s always going to be harder for the administration to shoot down authentically community-driven solutions,” Gonzales said. “It requires doing some base-building and momentum at the grassroots level, and not expecting that the city leadership is going to do the right thing.”
They are also focused on preserving the little progress that they saw under the previous administration, such as removing geographic barriers that had essentially preserved some of the city’s most coveted high schools only for students living in one of the whitest and wealthiest districts in the city.
“I would say it’s a fight for sustainment right now,” Berg said.
Christina Veiga is a reporter covering New York City with a focus on school diversity and preschool. Contact Christina at firstname.lastname@example.org.