“Everybody Hates Chris:” School Integration Must Not Replace Addressing Poverty/Crime/Education in a Coordinated Initiative

“Everyone Hates Chris” was a highly acclaimed program, Chris Rock narrated his trials and tribulations as one of the few black students in a  middle school (”   … a prime example of how to take serious issues and approach them in a humorous yet thought-provoking way. The series is innovative, funny, and stereotype-defying — enjoyable for teens and their parents.”).

During the period referenced in the program I was the union rep in school district, and, I’m very familiar with his school. The school neighborhood was Italian-Irish single family houses and the school had a sprinkling of black students who traveled across the borough. I remember a day I was visiting the school, as I was talking with a teacher at the classroom door an Afro-American kid came running by the classroom followed by a rather large adult screaming “Come back here you f___ n ___.”

The teacher, apologetically, “He’s the dean, he gets excited.”

I skulked away hoping I wouldn’t have to defend his actions.

Don’t think Chris Rock enjoyed his middle school years.

It’s easy to integrate schools by the numbers, it’s difficult to create welcoming, integrative school cultures.

The May, 2014 UCLA Civil Rights Project report, Brown at 60: Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future, made headlines across nation. One of the conclusions,

Segregation is by far the most serious in the central cities of the largest metropolitan areas; the states of New York, Illinois and California are the top three worst for isolating black students

The report especially resonated in New York City, led by a mayor and a city council that is among the most progressive in the nation: how could a liberal city, with a mayor who ran on a platform of equality accept a segregated school system? In his inaugural address Mayor de Blasio emphasized the inequality theme,

… the state of our city, as we find it today, is a Tale of Two Cities – with an inequality gap that fundamentally threatens our future.

The facts are far more complicated. From 2010 to 2014 the population of New York City has grown by 3.9% (4.7% in Brooklyn – See detailed NYC population data here). The increase is due to increases in births over deaths – New Yorkers are living longer and having more kids, international migration – we’re a worldwide destination city as well as immigration from across the country, although the out migration is almost as high.  The city is booming – demand for housing has sharply increased costs, gentrification is a citywide phenomenon as formerly undesirable neighborhoods become “hot” the poor are forced into fewer and fewer areas of the city. Demand for affordable housing increases, developers build expensive market rate housing.

The White Flight to the suburbs in the 50’s through 80’s has become a White Flight into the city in the 00’s.

The city is 44% white – the school system is 15% white and white students are concentrated in Staten Island and a few other neighborhoods. The racial differences in elementary schools a few blocks apart may be stark, one almost all white, the other all of color.

At the high school level the landscape is more complex; the specialized and small “boutique” screened high schools are segregated, Stuyvesant High School has 20 black students in a register of 3326 (0.6%), Bronx High School of Science has 66 black students, the register is 3006 and Eleanor Roosevelt, a highly desirable screened school has 22 black students in a school of 554.

On the other hand two of the most soughtafter large high schools (each school has over 3,000 students) in Brooklyn, Madison and Midwood, have diverse populations.


    HISPANIC 572 17.6%
    ASIAN 642 19.75%
    BLACK 572 17.6%
    WHITE 1,429 43.97%


    HISPANIC 490 12.34%
    ASIAN 1,379 34.72%
    BLACK 1,156 29.1%
    WHITE 888 22.36%

Screened and testing for admission high schools are overwhelmingly white and Asian, large traditional high schools located in middle class neighborhoods reflect the ethnicity of the city.

At the elementary school level schools are far more segregated, Chancellor Farina’s former school, PS 6, located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan is an example,


    HISPANIC 50 7.14%
    ASIAN 88 12.57%
    BLACK 15 2.14%
    WHITE 525 75%

There are many examples of elementary schools that abut minority neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly white.

Two members of the City Council, Brad Lander and Richie Torres, referencing the UCLA Report, bemoaned the segregated nature of NYC schools,

 More than half of New York City’s public schools are over 90 percent black and Latino. Meanwhile, many of the best-regarded public elementary schools are getting whiter

Lander and Torres  passed legislation  that requires the city to release detailed data that  ” … will include extensive school-by-school data, down to the grade level (and within specialized programs like gifted and talented programs), as well as the Department’s specific efforts and initiatives to strengthen diversity” and an additional bill that “calls on the NYC DOE to establish diversity as a priority in admissions, zoning and other decision-making processes.”

Lander/Torres advocate for the Department of Education to adopt district-wide “controlled choice” enrollment practices.  A lengthy paper  describes the principles of controlled choice,

The comprehensive citywide or zonewide educational offerings of Controlled Choice sever the hostage relationship between real estate market forces and personal educational opportunities. With Controlled Choice, an individual’s schooling opportunities are no longer constrained or facilitated by one’s capacity to rent or purchase housing near to or distant from a preferred school. Controlled Choice operates on the premise that schools are public and should be available to everyone, while housing is private and its use is, therefore, limited to an individual or a family of individuals. Thus, the Controlled Choice method assumes that schooling opportunities should not be dependent upon one’s financial capacity to rent or purchase various housing accommodations. Indeed, Controlled Choice prevents these experiences from being linked by ensuring that all schools are available to all students. Controlled Choice provides comprehensive educational opportunities to population groups by insisting that groups with which individuals chose to identify and that are recognized by the school system should receive proportional access to all public educational opportunities provided. If school assignments were made in a random way, this would occur automatically. Since individuals are granted the freedom of choosing schools, this individual freedom must be constrained by reserving seats for groups. This method is fair to individuals and to groups. Moreover, by reserving a proportion of school seats for members of various population groups, Controlled Choice ensures the presence of a critical mass of students unlike the prevailing group and thereby guarantees diversity in all schools.

Families list schools in the catchment area in preferential order and a computer algorithm assigns students utilizing the preferential choices as well as diversity data. The controlled choice concept has been used in a number of cities including Boston.

The Department has granted permission for seven schools, all in gentrifying neighborhoods to reserve seats in the incoming 2016 kindergarten class for “disadvantaged” students, aka students of color.

The move to “Controlled Choice” (which will probably be branded with a different name) will be difficult, and, perhaps flammable. In a decision about where to live a major consideration is the quality of the neighborhood school; in a controlled choice environment there is no neighborhood school.

Even if the city adopted a controlled choice plan only hundreds of students would be impacted. An enormous battle to create integrated schools, a virtuous goal; however, integrated schools do not guarantee academic success. Chris Rock’s parents placed him in an academically successful school and the experience was far from positive. Sadly, the white students  may gain more than the students of color traveling from a distance into a foreign neighborhood.

A hundred schools are either renewal or receivership schools or both – the lowest achieving schools in the city. For the most part the schools are located in the poorest zip codes in the city (See Concentrated Poverty by District report here) and in districts with the highest juvenile justice crime numbers (See Citizens Crime Commission report, Sustaining Crime Reductions in NYC: Priorities for Preventing Youth Crime here).  Living in deep poverty, living in violent, crime-ridden neighborhoods impact performance in schools; the evidence is overwhelming. (See report: Understanding the impact of trauma and urban poverty on family systems: Risks, resilience and interventions here)

School leaders and teachers, no matter their caring and skills, cannot overcome the external burdens alone. What is the city, what is the City Council doing to address the external factors that impact school performance?

The website Chalkbeat lists the school integration controversy as one of the six most important stories of the year, an interesting story, not a “most important” story. The most important story is why the city is not concentrating all city services on the hundreds of schools and thousands of students suffering in the most eroded neighborhoods

3 responses to ““Everybody Hates Chris:” School Integration Must Not Replace Addressing Poverty/Crime/Education in a Coordinated Initiative

  1. School integration as a forced concept was never going to work. The idea of busing white kids to black schools and vice versa would have seen 100s of children on buses fro as much as 2 hours or more a day. There wre exceptions, such as Minneapolis-St. Paul, where the density of rush hour traffic to get into the cities was virtually a non issue. But for the most part, wher there has been school integration it has been kinked to community living. What we see In Harlem’s gentrification , and the establishment of West Harlem as an integrated community, is now beginning to take hold in Bed-Stuy and other previously identified as “Ghetto” neighborhoods. As these communities grow,and the children of these folks begin to sit in classrooms,we will see naturally integrated schools, that will in my opinion add credence to MLK’s dream.


  2. New York City has a problem-the nearby suburbs -Nassau and Suffolk and Westchester are far worse.


  3. Peter:

    agree with Ken. Forced integration was a disaster and ended up with middle class flight from the communities and replaced with low income people of color.

    It takes just one family who finds out that their 5 year old cannot go to their neighborhood school and the pilot school choice program will collapse the “fell good” integration effort.

    Ending poverty and integrating neighborhoods is the only answer not algorithms and controlled choice to really integrate schools is not the answer to the social-economic issues that cause school segregation in the first place.

    By the way, how has the high school selection system worked? All the small Bloomberg high schools in the largely black communities in East Brooklyn and Southeast Queens are at least 80% Black and few,middle class students select these schools. Changing the community must come first before schools can achieve a diverse student population.


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