“If I Want to Go to a Good School Why Do I Have to Go to a White School?”

The 2014 UCLA Civil Rights Project produced a startling report,

New York has the most segregated schools in the country: in 2009, black and Latino students in the state had the highest concentration in intensely-segregated public schools (less than 10% white enrollment), the lowest exposure to white students, and the most uneven distribution with white students across schools. Heavily impacting these state rankings is New York City, home to the largest and one of the most segregated public school systems in the nation.

 With the sound of bugles the mayor issued a tepid plan to begin school integration, encouraging school communities, with financial supports, to create integration plans.

 Since the release of the report school integration (or, the other side of the coin, school segregation), has dominated the news cycles. From the mayor to the chancellor to electeds the issue resonates across the city. New York City Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation (nycASID) is one of many organizations leading the battle to integrate schools across the city. nycASID holds month meeting (see next meeting agenda here).

 Norm Fruchter and Christina Mokhtar, NYC School Segregation Then and Now: plus ca change, is by far the most thoughtful and detailed examination of school segregation in New York City, the well-researched report provides a historical context as well as a wealth of data and I recommend to all. The report concludes,

The De Blasio administration’s initial system-wide reforms, universal full-day pre-kindergarten and a community schools effort focused on more than one hundred of the system’s most poorly performing schools, begin to suggest the scale and scope of what is necessary to improve education in the hyper-segregated districts. Clearly much more is required to reverse the past half-century of pervasive school segregation and its damaging effects on both the students in the hyper-segregated districts and on all the students in the city’s schools.

 I have caveats.

School integration is not just moving pieces on a checkerboard. Race is not destiny. Canarsie (zip code 11236) is an 85% Afro-American neighborhood, the Area Median Income (AMI) is average within the city; it is a working class/middle class neighborhood: home owners, populated by teachers, accountants, hospital workers, the typical mix of a middle class that is also Afro-American. Parents want a safe, neighborhood school, and, have no interest in putting their children on a bus simply to go to school with white students. There are other “hyper-segregated” districts (Fruchter identified 17 of the 32 school districts) that are predominantly Afro-American and a few are at the city AMI average; however, most of the hyper-segregated districts are poor and require a wealth of targeted services.

New York City has grappled with school integration since Brown v Board of Education (1954). In 1964 Parents and Taxpayers (PAT) vigorously opposed school busing to promote school integration and Reverend Milton Galamison organized a school boycott to support school integration.  Eliza Shapiro, in the NY Times, recounts the history of school integration efforts. Two excellent examinations: Clarence Taylor, Knocking At Our Own Door: Milton A. Galamison and the Struggle to Integrate New York City Schools  (1997) and David Rogers, 110 Livingston Street (1969), Rogers examines the PAT movement in detail.

The Board of Education efforts to integrate schools was not a total failure.

James Madison High School was carefully selected as the first high school in south Brooklyn to be integrated in the early sixties, a swath of Brownsville was zoned to Madison – ten years later the school was 65% white/35% black, and was hailed as a successfully integrated school, until December, 1973, when, as described by the media, a “race riot” erupted. The NYC Human Right Commission investigated the incident and issued a detailed report (unfortunately no longer online).

Read a detailed NY Times article here (“It was a good school to integrate”), recollections by a former Madison student here (“Prisoners of Class”) and a discussion in a previous blog post here.

 In the late 70’s District 22 in Brooklyn (Flatbush, Midwood, Sheepshead Bay, Mill Basin) created and implemented an under-reported integration initiative. While school boards, as Fruchter reports, were widely viewed as corrupt and incompetent, a few were glowing examples of bottom-up education policy-making. Concerned over federal intervention District 22 created a plan that bused Afro-American students from the overwhelmingly Black northern end of the district to under-populated all white schools in the southern end of the district. The school board, the superintendent and the team skillfully built support and the plan was implanted and stayed in effect for decades. Eventually as the neighborhood changed schools integrated naturally.

 Two school districts (Upper West Side and Brownstone Brooklyn) have implemented “controlled choice” integration programs, ironically after decades of supporting segregated schools under decentralization; whether the Afro-American students are welcomed, provided with “supports” within the schools, hopefully, will be closely monitored. The chancellor reported that other districts are exploring locally created integration plans.

A few years ago I was at a forum discussing the Obama My Brothers’ Keeper program; New York State has adopted and funded the program.

A high school senior asked the core question, “Why do I have to go to a ‘white’ school to get a good education?”

New York City has come a long, long way: there were 2100 murders in 1990, in 2018 there were 275 murders. (Maybe the creation of small, personalized high schools has played a role in reducing the murder rates) The de Blasio administration ended “stop and frisk,” and, crime rates continued to plummet. High school graduation rates have continued to move upwards, although incrementally. Universal Pre-K for three and four years olds are a hopeful step in the right direction.

School integration is a step, how big a step open to question.

William Julius Wilson, in The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy (1989, 2012), wrote,

 … a racial division of labor has been created due to decades, even centuries, of discrimination and prejudice; and that because those in the low-wage sector of the economy are more adversely affected by impersonal shifts in advanced industrial society, the racial division of labor is reinforced. One does not have to ‘trot out’ the concept of racism to demonstrate …that blacks have been severely hurt by deindustrialization because of their heavy concentration in the …smokestack industries.

 Racism and a changing economy has created an underclass, the truly disadvantaged.

Kim Nauer and others, A Better Picture of Poverty, The Center for NYC Affairs (2014),

 The report, … identifies 130 schools in which more than one-third of the children were chronically absent for five years in a row. Perhaps not surprisingly, these schools have very low levels of academic achievement as measured by standardized tests.

Chronic absenteeism correlates with deep poverty–high rates of homelessness, child abuse reports, male unemployment, and low levels of parental education. In fact, the report states, chronic absenteeism is a much better index of poverty than the traditional measure of the number of children eligible for free lunch. Moreover, it’s very hard for schools to escape the pull of poverty: only a handful of schools with above-average rates of chronic absenteeism had above-average pass rates on their standardized tests for math and reading–and most scored far below, the report states.

The report identifies 18 “risk factors” that are associated with chronic absenteeism, both in the school building and in the surrounding neighborhood. Schools with a very high “risk load” are likely to suffer from poor attendance. Some of the school factors are: students in temporary housing; student suspensions; the perception of safety; and principal, teachers and student turnover. The neighborhood factors include: male unemployment, presence of public housing or a homeless shelter in a school’s attendance zone, adult levels of education, and involvement with the Administration for Children’s Services.

School integration is a worthy goal; however, racism, a changing economy and the pernicious impact of poverty must be addressed: A Tale of Two Cities is an accurate description of New York City (as well as other urban centers) and remains the most intractable issue confronting the city and the its schools.

2 responses to ““If I Want to Go to a Good School Why Do I Have to Go to a White School?”

  1. It is a myth that LIMs are being held back by underfunded schools and lazy, burned out teachers. Schools don’t fail any kid willing to show up every day and work hard. Its time to separate school opportunity and support from the attendance and efforts of the students.


  2. Pingback: School Integration is More Than Counting Kids by Race … | Ed In The Apple

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