Building Justice: Segregation in NYC Schools is No Accident

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Known to be one of the most diverse school districts in the city, District 3 schools are also among the most segregated and unequal.

A cascade of crises is forcing America to confront the racism of its past and present—from overt acts of hate to subtler injustices that shape our society. Over 16 weeks, City Limits and Enterprise Community Partners will feature prominent New Yorkers’ views on how race and housing policy intersect to create a legacy each of us must confront, and the way forward we should take together. These are not necessarily views we endorse. But they are views we fully believe are important to share with each other. Here is the 14th post in our series. Read the rest here.

In 1954, in response to a growing movement, led by Ella Baker along with Mamie and Kenneth Clark, to desegregate New York City’s schools, William Jansen, Chancellor of New York City’s public schools, declared, “[w]e have natural segregation here—it’s accidental.” (Delmont, 2015) This diagnostic, from over sixty years ago, could just as well have been issued today. Segregated schools, we are told—by elected officials, policy pundits, and those benefiting from the hording of resources that segregation ensures—are the natural by-product of segregated neighborhoods. But a closer look makes clear that this is not the real story and that, just as before, segregated schools (like segregated neighborhoods) are not natural, and do not occur by accident.

Fifteen years ago, we were both part of a community-based social justice organization called the Center for Immigrant Families (CIF). Rooted in District 3, which stretches from 59th street to 122nd street on the West Side of Manhattan, CIF began organizing for desegregated schools after members of our Women’s Popular Education Program shared experiences of being turned away from local public elementary schools. They discussed the disrespect and mistreatment they encountered when trying to gain access to public elementary schools; about how they were told a school was “not for them” and that they would feel more comfortable “uptown;” about forms they were asked to fill out on school tours asking how much money they could contribute to a school; about being denied access to language interpretation; and more. As we started talking to more parents in the community, we recognized a pattern of growing segregation in our district’s public schools.

We wanted to understand how this was happening and so launched a participatory action-research project to document the experiences of hundreds of poor and working class parents of color applying to public schools. CIF‘s research (2004) identified what we called the “mechanisms of exclusion” or practices and policies—like the ones described above— that were creating and perpetuating separate and unequal schooling. During this time, about 50 percent of incoming Kindergarten seats were left empty; that is, they were not filled by students living within the zone, who had first priority. Instead, these seats were filled at the discretion of individual schools based on who they wanted: that is, who they believed would bring in the right test scores, who they thought could bring in financial contributions and private foundation grants, and who they thought would bring the right brand of “parent involvement.”

Since then, segregation has grown even more intense in District 3 (and in New York City.) Known to be one of the most diverse school districts in the city, District 3 schools are also among the most segregated and unequal. Based on the criteria put forth by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, seven public elementary schools in District 3 are “intensely segregated”; and two schools are within a percentage point of “apartheid schools.”

Today, school segregation in District 3 is the result of many factors, including, for example, the drawing of zone lines to exclude low-income housing as well as the ability of those with economic wealth to buy or rent a home in close proximity to a desired school. In District 3, the latter has resulted in an aggressive urban local proprietism where wealthy families increasingly express a belief that they have a special “pact with the city that ensures them access to a certain school. School segregation in District 3 also takes shape through the creation of programs in schools that create intra-school segregation as well as the creation of new kindergarten seats—and even, the creation of a new school—despite ample room in nearby schools, ensuring the separation of wealthy children. Finally, in District 3, school segregation is also fueled by the ability of many with economic resources to choose and gain disproportionate access to schools outside of their zoned school.

That some parents choose schools outside their zones is not new; it is, again, what we often found to be the case over a decade ago. What has changed and is notable, however, is that, as neighborhoods within District 3 have become increasingly gentrified, segregation has become even more pronounced. While researchers (see for example, Stillman, 2012) have questioned whether, and often proposed that, schools would become more integrated as a result of gentrification, findings in District 3 have been a resounding indication that, no, this hasn’t happened. In fact, as gentrification has intensified in District 3 neighborhoods, causing irreparable harm to poor and working class families, the gap between the neighborhoods people live in and the schools they attend has also widened. That is, as neighborhoods have grown more demographically “diverse” as a result of gentrification, the schools within them have become more segregated than ever.

Earlier this year, The Center for New York City Affairs issued a report with data and detailed maps documenting the deep divides between who attends schools in a neighborhood vs. who lives in the same neighborhood. The report highlights District 3 as one of the districts in New York City with the deepest neighborhood-to-school divides. Significantly, there is a strong low-income and public housing infrastructure throughout District 3. According to the Center, the primary reason for this divide is that wealthy parents choose a school that is outside of their zone.

The Center’s data points to how schools are increasingly driving how public goods and urban space are imagined and claimed by families in District 3 (Aggarwal, 2016). One way this claim-making takes shape is the ability of gentrifying families to access schools outside of their neighborhoods or zones, which is tied to a lack of investment in local public infrastructures such as schools1. As one parent leader put it at a public meeting, “I can’t be faulted for buying a home in a neighborhood where I don’t want to send my child to school.” And as gentrification has intensified, such (once hidden) proclamations, that divorce real-estate investments in low/middle-income neighborhoods from any sense of local or collective responsibility, are openly declared.

The reality is that it is only some who seem to be able to choose the schools they believe will best serve their child. As Marilyn Barnwell of the Bloomingdale Family Head Start Center Program puts it, the poor and working class parents she works with, have “false choices.” Like the members of CIF, the parents of the Bloomingdale are denied access to many of the schools and programs in District 3 — the mechanisms of exclusion have shifted some over time, but the result remains the same: choice for some and exclusion for others. (Aggarwal, 2015) The problem that these uneven choices exacerbate—combined with an increased investment that some wealthy families are making in certain public schools — is that schools in neighborhoods that are now increasingly demographically “diverse” remain as segregated as ever, and a two-tiered public education system has become even further entrenched.

What segregated public schools in District 3 mean is that there is a huge concentration of wealth and resources in some schools and often a lack of resources in other schools. These resources go to pay for extra staff, facilities, equipment, and enrichment programs —all of which have been documented to impact a student’s educational growth and achievement. This does not happen accidentally.

To address this growing crisis, parents from the Bloomingdale Family Head Start Center Program have formed the Parent Leadership Project (PLP) to continue CIF’s work of organizing for desegregated public schools in District 3. Joining others in Districts 1 and 13, PLP and the District 3 Equity in Education Task Force have called for an admissions policy of Controlled Choice in District 3 that would ensure that all schools reflect the demographic make up of the district and serve, reflect, and respect all families.

We know that meaningful and effective solutions must address and be rooted in the long and specific histories of communities and school districts across the city, specifically, in the experiences of those who have borne the brunt of exclusion. In District 3, our organizing for Controlled Choice came after researching and experiencing a wide range of other unsuccessful policy measures—including magnet programs, charter schools, and district wide choice programs.

What we have in District 3 is an already racially and economically diverse student body in the district as a whole. We also have extreme segregation and inequality from school-to-school and within individual schools. A Controlled Choice student assignment plan in District 3 would mean that, even in gentrifying neighborhoods, schools would require local collective investment and would reflect as much.

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The problem of segregation in NYC has gained visibility in recent years, and integration and diversity have increasingly become buzzwords of late. However, in District 3 we are clear that desegregation and a redistribution of resources is our goal and that integrated schools –that is, schools that reflect the demographics of the District—is the outcome. The crisis of segregation in District 3 schools has captured national attention. Yet, despite increased visibility—and widespread acknowledgment of the problem—many still continue to defend school segregation as natural, and specifically, as the natural by-product of segregated neighborhoods and housing.

But there is nothing accidental about school segregation (or about segregated neighborhoods or housing). Nothing is innocent about policies that create security and stability for some as a result of creating insecurity and instability for others. Nothing is normal that creates or maintains school segregation and educational apartheid—not preferences, not lifestyles, not the so-called sacrifices of property investments that some families are able to make, and not the desires of some parents for great schools just for their children.

Amidst increased conversations about how Controlled Choice might work has been an oft-repeated question: how can we ensure that some wealthy parents, who now have choice, won’t leave the school system—or the city? The answer is simple: We can’t. We can’t predict what those who currently benefit from segregated enclaves—and work very hard to defend those enclaves—will do. We can hope they will support public schools that well serve and value all our families. But we also can’t let such a logic—one that prioritizes the needs and desires and rights of those with greater economic resources — to guide us, to be the ballast that determines who a public school—and our city—is for.

Desegregated schools—schools with equitable resources, schools in which all children are encouraged to flourish and thrive— are not outside of our reach. And, as made clear by Ella Baker, Kenneth and Mamie Clark years ago, and PLP today, communities of color and those committed to justice have and will continue to organize to achieve that result. Segregated schools are part of intentional policies a society chooses to invest in everyday. We can just as easily—and need to—invest in the opposite.

Ujju Aggarwal, a researcher and educator, is a Spencer Foundation/National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellow. Donna Nevel, a community psychologist and educator, is a coordinator of PARCEO, a participatory research center. Aggarwal and Nevel have been long-time organizers for justice in public education.

11 thoughts on “Building Justice: Segregation in NYC Schools is No Accident

  1. I hate to break this to you but if middle-class parents see that their kids are going to be forced to attend dangerous inner-city schools they’ll either take their kids of of the public system or move to the burbs. It happened in the 1960s and 70s and could easily happen again.

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  3. Thank you for a thoughtful article about this issue. I am in this district and believe that a high quality education for my daughter can only take place within a context of diversity in her student body. That’s why I want to raise my daughter in New York City, where she can learn from the lives of the many different kinds of people around her. When my neighbors learn that success requires a student body that reflects our community, we will see all outcomes improve.

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  5. You cannot speak for all middle class families in NYC , in fact what you are stating is an old outdated, racsit narrative . If you can’t see the value of equity and access across our city then you’re right you should go live and love your life in the burbs .

    • It’s not racist, it’s just reality. The parent in Douglaston won’t send their kid to a school in Jamaica. Why? Maybe just because they don’t want Johnny or Mary to get stabbed for his/her lunch money.

  6. @native new yorker?? Can you show me any statistics that support your claim that students are being stabbed in Jamaica on a regular basis. Please leave if you don’t like NYC. The rest of us are very happy to have our kids go to school with other children of every color, creed and class.

  7. In the 70’s to 90’s the elected District 3 school boards created “boutique” schools zoned for the elites, the white families that dominated the elections. District 3 was a checkerboard, small predominately white high performing schools and lower performing minority schools. With the end of decentralization in 2002 Mayor Bloomberg continued the practice, created screened schools with entrance criteria, appealing to potential Bloomberg voters. The current mayor, elected on a platform of the “Tale of Two Cities” is bucking a forty year plus tide. With a possible hotly contested election in the September primary de Blasio is appealing to progressive and minority voters.

    The NYC school system is 15% Afro-American, 13% live in white neighborhoods (Staten Island, etc.), yes, controlled choice plans can integrate a handful of schools impacting few hundred kids – the issue should be improving outcomes for the tens of thousands of kids in low achieving schools in the inner city ghettos. “Fixing” District 3 is fifty years too late – “fixing” Brownsville and East New York is the challenge for today.

  8. Segregation and integration are two topics that can’t be addressed with a binary thought. There are many layers beneath how a particular school became segregated. As a community is important to celebrate our diversities, and create plan and policies that support every kid despite their race, gender and family income.
    Moreover, racial discrimination should never be accepted as a valid factor to support a segregated school.

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