Racial Isolation in Public Schools: While School Integration is a Worthy Goal Improving All Schools Must Be Our Primary Goal

In an editorial (“Racial Isolation in Public Schools) the NY Times writes,

New York’s schools are the most segregated in the nation, and the state needs remedies right away … Minority children are disproportionately trapped in schools that lack the teaching talent, course offerings and resources needed to prepare them for college and success in the new economy.

The editorial board makes an incredibly bad assumption: that by moving minority children into primarily white, middle class schools the ills of generations of segregation and racism will be wiped away.

Kudos to Merryl Tisch and the members of the Board of Regents for not jumping onboard the simple solution bandwagon.

High poverty schools are plagued with problems beyond the classroom; at the December, 2014 Regents meeting the issue of “chronic absenteeism” was highlighted. The Center for New York City Affairs, in a recent report, “A Better Picture of Poverty: What Chronic Absenteeism and Risk Load Reveal About NYC’s Lowest-Income Elementary Schools,” spotlighted the insidious impact of children not attending school as part of a wider pattern,

Tisch and her colleagues have spent months crafting new English language learner regulations to both remove obstacles to better instructional strategies as well providing clearer guidance to school districts

The Times’ “solution,” is an example of deja vu, again,

… the state cannot just throw up its hands. It has a moral obligation to ensure that as many children as possible escape failing schools for ones that give them a fighting chance. And history has shown that districts can dramatically improve educational opportunities for minority children — and reduce racial isolation — with voluntary transfer plans and especially with high-quality magnet schools that attract middle-class families.

Running away from the problems of high poverty neighborhoods, running away from what the Center for NYC Affairs called “risk load,” running away from in increasing numbers of English language learners is foolhardy.

To blame inner city schools for the “problem” is just plain wrong, The Times claims that the “lack of teaching talent, course offerings and resources” can be cured by moving kids to whiter, middle class schools. If the inner city and suburban school swapped teachers student achievement would be unchanged. When kids enter kindergarten well behind middle class kids in all academic skills teaching and learning becomes “catchup” from day 1. The requirement of passing five Regents exams results in double periods of English and Mathematics, remedial and tutorial classes, the lack of course offerings is determined by the skill level of the students.

Fifty years ago New York City embarked upon an effort to integrate schools. James Madison High School, a high-achieving large high school in a lovely neighborhood of private homes was “integrated;” within a few years the school moved from all-white to 70% White and 30% Black. The new principal, Henry Hillson, was a shining light among high school principals, the UFT Chapter Leader, Chet Fulmer, sent his kids to a school in Bedford-Stuyvesant as part of a reverse busing program, and, although white, served as an elder in Milton Galamaison’s Siloam Church in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. The young Madison staff members enthusiastically supported the “experiment” in school integration. The end of January staff development days focused on the “new” student body and “new” methods of instruction and integrating students within the building. The “old timers” were unenthusiastic about school integration, the school was “ruined,” the new young teachers, and I was one of them, were totally engaged in creating a new school, a new racially integrated school, a model for a new school system.

A decade later Madison was torn apart by student racial clashes,

SCHOOL IS CLOSED BY RACIAL CLASH
Outbreak at Madison High in Flatbush Involves 300 New Fights Threatened

White students at James Madison High School in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, armed with sticks, window poles, pipes, canes and chairs, attacked a group of black students there yesterday morning in a new outbreak of continuing racial tension at the school.

The riot was deeply disturbing, if racial integration stumbled at Madison, could it be expected to succeed anywhere? Madison had a socially liberal, welcoming staff; the school was located in a liberal community, what went wrong?

The NYC Human Rights Commission conducted an in depth study, spending weeks in the school interviewing scores of students, teachers, parents and community members. The report was prescient, forty years later we have failed to resolve the issues highlighted in the report. (A sobering read forty years later)

The 1974 report begins, “Even when integration has succeeded in becoming a major goal of education and urban planners, the means to attain this goal have seemed increasingly elusive” and goes on to admit, “In too many instances across the nation we have seen schools become integrated only to become resegregated … we know how to integrate …what we do not know is how to make integration work on a permanent basis.”

The commissioners praise the Madison staff, although they note the hostility of the old-timers.

The problem of integration, the Commission avers, goes well beyond the school,

“The relationship schools and neighborhoods is a close and reciprocal one but plans for integration almost never foresee the differences or strive to make the relationship between the newly integrated school and its neighborhood a healthy one.”

Perceptively, the report writes, “The Commission believes that the operative factor here is class, rather than race.” The better educated, liberal elements in the community supported the integration of the school, the more blue-collar, less educated elements in the community led the growing opposition, and, many of their children were involved in the physical confrontations.

While the school was technically integrated, classes in the school were largely segregated; classes were homogeneously organized, as were extra-curricular activities.

The report suggests 13 recommendations and admits “…little has been done anywhere in the country to develop practical strategies to cope with the daily challenges of integration to make integration work.”

In September, 1975 the city tottered on the brink of bankruptcy, 15,000 teachers were laid off and the city administration abandoned support for school integration.

Buffalo, as the Times editorial states, was deeply engaged in school integration,

As The Times reported in 1985, the city was viewed as a national model for racial integration; educators who wished to learn the lessons of Buffalo’s success flocked to the city from around the globe. Things went downhill in the 1990s, however, when court supervision ended and Buffalo experienced severe fiscal problems.

“Severe fiscal problems” escalated over the last twenty years, industry and population have fled, and white flight has turned Buffalo into an empty shell, a city without resources, a city surrounded by affluent suburbs, a city with a rapidly increasing school population of English language learners.

Just as the fiscal crisis of 1975 ended efforts to promote racial integration in New York City the collapse of the Buffalo economy turned Buffalo into a racially segregated, economically distressed city.

Inner city schools in St Louis, in Rochester, in Chicago, in city after city across the nation face the same issues. Working class union jobs are gone, jobs have scurried to Asia, and automation continues to shrink the work force. Charter schools have drained students with social capital out of neighborhood public schools, and, a closer look at charter schools is not encouraging; when you adjust for the absence of special education and English language learners in charter schools, when you adjust for the expulsion of “discipline problems;” charter schools are no better and in many instances lower achievers than public schools.

There are outliers, schools in poor neighborhoods that outperform neighboring schools; the answer is always school leadership and school staffs, not measured by a score on a principal-teacher evaluation, “measured” by the non-cognitive skills. School staffs that exhibit grit, persistence and humility, the same qualities that we find in successful students.

Black kids ask, “Why can’t we learn in schools with other black kids? Do we need white kids to learn?” The 1974 Commission report emphasizes the influence of class as well as the impact of race. Black families that move up the economic ladder are as likely to seek out better housing in lower crime neighborhoods as white families.

I was visiting classroom in an all-Black public high school in Harlem, a European History Advanced Placement class. The lesson was about the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the lesson was at the level of a lesson at the most prestigious schools in the city.

The race of the students in a school does not determine the level of instruction or the course offerings, the academic level of the students determines the direction of instruction.

While NYS law does not allow for the state taking over a school district, in the instance that a law was passed that allowed the state to take over the Roosevelt School District the results were not encouraging.

“Solutions” must include the community, the electeds, the union, the business and faith-based communities; all what we euphemistically call “the stakeholders.”

Unfortunately Governor Cuomo, rather than leading efforts to engage the Buffalo community has chosen a confrontational path, a path that will only drive the stakeholders further apart.

In the poorest county in the nation, McDowell County in West Virginia, the American Federation of Teachers, the West Virginia governor, the business community and fifty other organizations are organizing and working together.

All fights end, and it is essential that the current toxic climate between the governor and the educational community end, perhaps Chancellor Tisch and the Regents can take the lead.

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3 responses to “Racial Isolation in Public Schools: While School Integration is a Worthy Goal Improving All Schools Must Be Our Primary Goal

  1. Dr. Jose Gabriel Maldonado

    Anyone interested in a model of successful racial and socioeconomic integration in NYC should look at the results of Columbia Secondary School for Science, Math and Engineering. A selective school with a STEM focus which I founded and whose admissions strategy I engineered with the expressed goal of having the most diverse STEM school in the country, and whose first class just graduated in 2014, with what is arguably the strongest diverse college bound class record in NYC. The trick to attracting/not losing the white middle class educated is to have high quality and unique academic offerings, like those of elite private and international schools. This can be done, even with severe budgetary constraints (CSS was in the bottom 10% of NYC public schools per student funding during its first 3 year start-up (and received negligible financial support from Columbia U.). The second element is the geographically segmentation of the admissions pools, coupled with specific academic criteria for admissions. This allows you to take advantage of the horrendously real zipcode poverty and race relationship, using it for the purpose of having diverse student body. The use of geography to produce diversity is an allowable category that has withstood the test of several court cases. Why have selective themed schools in the first place – why not have just strong comprehensive schools that are naturally diverse? Why not bus kids? Why not offer financial incentives to families that matriculate across the railroad track schools? Because none of this has ever really worked in the long run. – and the highly educated and the middle class cannot be forced to put their kids in public schools they do not want. If we want those that have other options to embrace at least some public school, they will have to be special – and geographically segmented – or we will have more Bronx Sciences, and Stuyvensants within our system.

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  2. It would be your time, if not the frog who wrote this blog post, to read Gerald Grant’s book that on socioeconomic integration: Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There are No Bad Schools in Raleigh. It contrasts what happened in integration efforts in Syracuse with what happened in Wake County, NC. Very different approaches and very different results.

    First and foremost, Raleigh consciously planned their integrated system with the support from business leaders, churchmen, educators, university folks, parents, etc. The business community of the Research Triangle knew a vital Raleigh with quality public schools was key to continuing to attract brainy companies to the area. Secondly, they built infrastructure beginning with intense professional development that was more than one day (see above). It was a buy-in process, and new teachers were recruited who wanted to be a part of an integrated system. Skeptics were invited to get onboard or go elsewhere. Thirdly, they recruited dynamic leaders who understood what the Coleman Report meant and what social capital is and how it is shared and transmitted. Fourthly, they created a whole bunch of quality magnet schools, so that parents across the consolidated system would have real choices. In the end, they devised a system where most schools had no more than 40% free and reduced priced lunch by using a controlled choice plan that gave parents option.

    This kind of success has happened elsewhere, too, as documented in a growing body of research on economic integration. Such efforts stand in stark contrasts to the AFT/UFT/NEA/TURN apologists-for-segregation approach, which spouts the Wall Street ideology of keeping the one percent fat and buying off the union leadership to sell children and teachers down the river. Segregation, whether supported by billionaires or working stiffs, is on the wrong side of history, and the segregationists have a choice to understand the importance of integration to democratic living or to get pushed aside by a tide that gates and fences won’t hold back.

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    • Jim
      Buffalo was lauded across the nation in the 90s for an urban-suburban busing program and a magnet schools program that integrated the school system, twenty years later the population of Buffalo is halved, white flight, jobs flight, high poverty, high unemployment, endlessly shrinking tax base, while Research Triangle has a thriving economy … Unfortunately there are too many cities with Buffalo economies and too few with Raleigh economies.

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