Nikole Hannah-Jones and her husband were facing one of the toughest decisions since they became parents; where would they send their 4-year old daughter to school in an intensely segregated New York City school system? The family lived in the predominantly low-income, black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant and if their daughter attended the local public school, she would be attending the school with a majority of low-income black students.
They could send their daughter to a private school, as they were middle class, but what about the parents that could not afford that option? And what would the different experience mean to their daughter? The dilemma faced by these parents highlights the struggles of having a child in the New York CIty school system, which is highly segregated by both race/ ethnicity and socioeconomic status. New York City faces one of the highest rates of segregation in the country, varying in type and based majorly on residential factors, that has not been addressed with legislative reform.
New York City is home to one of the largest and most segregated school systems in the country. In the city, many students attend schools mainly with people of their own race or ethnicity and socioeconomic status, which means that a majority of schools are segregated and would not be considered diverse. As New York City becomes more diverse as a city, this does not allow for greater integration, but rather for more segregation due to a lack of a system to deal with a diverse student body.
In the city public school system, 75% of the students are low-income and 70% of the students are black or Latino. These students, however, mostly attend school with each other and not with other members of different races/ ethnic groups, not allowing for them to be exposed to diversity. Further, the issue of socioeconomic diversity is also factored in, as many of these students are of low-socioeconomic status and do not attend schools where socio-economic status is mixed.
Illustrating this lack of socioeconomic diversity, in 2010 half of NYC public school student were considered low-income and white students typically only attended schools with less than 30% low-income students, while black or Latino students attended schools with 70% low-income students. In addition in regards to both income and race, only 20% of schools in the NY metropolitan were considered diverse in 2010.
This lack of diversity has to do largely with the geographic composition of the city, in which students live in areas with other students of a similar races/ ethnicities and socioeconomic status and attend local public schools with these students. Segregation is frequently based on residential segregation, especially at the elementary school level where students have less of a choice in which schools they attend and generally attend the nearest school in the vicinity. As New York City in general is very split into neighborhoods based on socioeconomic status, this could be problematic in fostering diversity.
This in turn means that in order to address the issue of school diversity, at least at an elementary level, the issue of housing diversity would have to be addressed, which had been historically difficult. In terms of secondary education, the trend in a lack of diversity continues as students go on to high school. With specialized high schools that require testing to get into, people of color and low-socioeconomic status are often put at a disadvantage because they lack the opportunities in their younger years to prepare for this school process.
Without schools that promote the pursuit of better education students might not even know of the opportunities available to them or be able to pursue these opportunities. The segregation also varies with different types of schools, where most charter schools in the NY metropolitan area were intensely segregated and most magnet schools were fairly well integrated. Even within schools there is an issue of segregation in classes, where influences such as performance and school policies toward ESL students cause segregation.
Currently, to combat the lack of diversity in New York City schools, there has been no comprehensive reforms passed. According to the chancellor of New York City schools, Carmen Farina, she does not want to mandate schools to implement diversity programs, but rather she wants the schools to implement the programs on their own. This approach though can and has been criticized for not properly addressing the problem and allowing schools too much leeway in trying to desegregate. New York City’s Department of Education, however, has been trying to address the problem slowly through small changes.
According to the New York Times, last fall the department approved a proposal by a group of principals for setting aside seats for low income and ESL students in higher performing schools. The city has also been expanding its bilingual programs and reduced academic screenings, as well as created programs for gifted low-income students, all in an effort to foster diversity and opportunity. These programs are designed to allow traditionally disadvantaged students the opportunity to participate in stronger school programs.
In addition, officials are considering a system in which parents pick New York City public schools they want their children to attend and the districts place the students in schools based on their choices, while also keeping in mind the geographic make-up of these schools (this program is called “controlled choice”). Controlled choice would allow the parents of students to have some say in their children’s education, while also allowing the administrators to make the schools more diverse.
The efforts to further instill diversity in the New York City public school system are important, as a variety of research suggests that integrated classrooms help students achieve higher learning goals. Although there has been no major reform proposed by the New York City government, a study by UCLA suggests a variety of ways in which New York City schools can be diversified. Because the diversity of schools is so heavily linked to housing, as mentioned before, the UCLA study advocates for better housing policies that will allow low-income families into areas with better performing schools.
As the de Blasio administration has been focusing more on affordable housing and integrating neighborhoods, this could potentially affect the diversity of schools in the city. The study also recommends that all schools be subject to civil rights programs, in which they are held accountable to implementing policies that will ensure diversity. Again, with Mayor de Blasio’s focus on closing the inequality gap and the fact that he has mayoral control of the schools, this could be a possibility.
Implementing diversity in New York City schools is a worthy goal because studies have shown that more integrated schools have a better chance of turning out more socially conscious students and diversity in schools should be a goal of a global city that prides itself on its diverse citizens. With the focus on desegregating schools, the residential segregation that takes place in New York City also needs to be addressed, as that furthers the segregation problem.
In addition, issues of segregation depending on the type of school as well as segregation within schools needs to be addressed, as these are additional areas of concern. Whether through the use of school and parent organizations or through legislation that focuses on fair residential policies and defends civil rights this issue deserves attention. In order to allow equal opportunity, we need a system that does not disadvantaged students at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder from the beginning, but rather a system that allows students to excel, regardless of their socioeconomic status.