NYC Has the Most Segregated Schools in the Country. How Do We Fix That?

New York City has the most segregated public school system in the United States.

Mayor Bill de Blasio with second grade students at a charter school. Susan Watts-Pool/Getty Images

Earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio rolled out a plan to revamp the admissions process at eight of New York City’s specialized high schools in an effort to expand diversity at the schools.

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It was the closest the second-term mayor—who has been reluctant to use the word “segregation” when discussing public schools—has come to pushing for integration of the most segregated public school system in the United States. He first vowed to change the specialized high school admissions process during his first mayoral campaign in 2013.

The plan, which the mayor and New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza—who has taken a more aggressive stance on school segregation, even declaring that no ethnic group “owns admission to these schools”—involves phasing out the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). Seats would be given to the top seven percent of students from each of the city’s 600 middle schools.

Black and Latino students make up nine percent of SHS offers but 68 percent of all high school students, according to the de Blasio administration. In 2016, 21 middle schools—or 4 percent of all middle schools—constituted 50 percent of SHS offers.

When the test is phased out, 45 percent of offers would go to black and Latino students, compared to nine percent at the moment. Sixty-two percent of offers would go to female students, compared to 44 percent currently. The plan also revives the Discovery program, which seeks to expand enrollment of low-income students, in the city’s specialized high schools.

Although the state Assembly’s education committee passed the bill that would eliminate the test, state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie announced that he would take up the issue next session. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has yet to take a position on the plan, saying that integration is a “legitimate issue” and that it should be revisited as part of the debate on mayoral control of city schools next year.

Alumni groups, leaders and elected officials in the Asian-American community expressed opposition to the plan on the grounds that it would take away seats from Asian students, who make up 62 percent of students at specialized high schools.

The controversial plan has reignited conversations about the longstanding segregation that has plagued the city’s public school system—which has 1.1 million students in more than 1,800 schools—and the right approach to achieve integration.

NYC Takes on Diversity

In June 2017, the city’s Department of Education (DOE), which operates the public school system, released its first citywide school diversity plan.

Since the release of the plan, Manhattan’s District 1—the Lower East Side and East Village—implemented the city’s first district-wide school diversity plan, according to the DOE. And Manhattan’s District 3 and Brooklyn’s District 15 are working on district-wide plans.

The department told Observer the plan goes hand in hand with the city’s Equity in Excellence for All agenda, referring to the mayor’s universal prekindergarten initiative and “3K for All,” which is free, fully-day early childhood education for all 3-year-old children. The department also referred to Universal Literacy, which has the goal of making sure every student is reading on grade level by the end of second grade; Algebra for All, which seeks to improve elementary and middle school math instruction; and College Access for All.

“We’re committed to equity and excellence for all students—that means high-quality, diverse schools across the city, and we are working closely with communities to make that vision a reality,” Will Mantell, a DOE spokesman, said in a statement.

David Bloomfield, professor of educational leadership, law and policy at Brooklyn College, told Observer the plan was “far and away the closest [de Blasio] has come” to a citywide integration plan and that it is unclear “how serious he is about this.” Bloomfield also wondered why the mayor did not scrap the test at the five schools that do not require state approval.

De Blasio said his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, “ignored and exacerbated the problem,” referring to how school choice under Bloomberg’s tenure “rather than mixing kids, promoted enclaves.” He said people expect more from a “self-described progressive mayor.”

He also noted that the city’s School Diversity Advisory Group—which is responsible for assessing the city’s school diversity plan—is still deliberating.

Bloomfield said, “I don’t think you can have it both ways: use commission members to endorse a proposal while he also has them supposedly debating the proposal. And so I think in many ways de Blasio’s approach to issues of segregation has been weighted toward the political rather than the educational or social justice.”

He called on the mayor to call school segregation what it is—once and for all.

“He needs to stop blaming residential segregation for the segregation of schools,” Bloomfield continued. “That would be a huge step forward. And to use clearer language. Segregation is segregation, and diversity waters down the message.”

Time for Change

Taylor McGraw, adult facilitator for Teens Take Charge, a student-led movement for educational equity in the city, who grew up in Mississippi, said New York schools are still segregated because “they were always segregated.” After the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unlawful, the city’s 1956 integration plan fell apart due to “massive white resistance.”

“Every time the city promotes some small integration effort, there is immediate backlash and this is—people have talked about the specialized high schools—it’s a very dramatic example of the segregation that exists here,” McGraw said.

The Hecht-Calandra bill of 1971 established the city’s first four specialized high schools—Stuyvesant High School, Brooklyn Technical High Schoo, Bronx High School of Science, and Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Performing Arts—and required the former three schools to only use SHSAT for admission.

That test, McGraw explained, was put in place to combat discrimination and ensure that only merit is considered.

“From a policy perspective, I think it is an excellent strategy, and it’s worked in higher education,” he continued, referring to the mayor’s plan. “It has the support of the research community in New York City.”

Students rally for education quality in New York City schools. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Brooklyn Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte—the first Haitian-American woman elected into office in the city and a graduate of LaGuardia—told Observer that before the de Blasio administration came in, certain middle schools in the black and Latino communities were stripped of their gifted programs.

She contended that there is room for improvement and that she likes the mayor’s “radical plan,” arguing that restoring the Discovery program will benefit students who are not aware of the schools.

Bichotte also praised de Blasio for extending seats to all middle schools because it reflects the “true top performers.” She had a 98 percent average but chose not to take the SHSAT because the tests were “culturally biased,” referring to her struggles with English that she said “would have been a factor of me not doing well on the test.”

“When I was in middle school back in the late 80s, I ranked number three in my school, number three, and if this program was in place, I would have had a seat waiting for me,” Bichotte said.

Naomi Peña, a parent who serves on the Community Education Council (CEC) in District 1—which serves the Lower East Side and East Village of Manhattan—stressed the importance of the city taking initiative on the issue.

“I think on the K through 8 level, there is some sort of push on, ‘Let it be community-led,’ but it’s harder to do that on the high school level because high schools are a very different animal altogether… It’s harder to control aspects of a school community when you can have students that cover all five boroughs,” Peña said.

Lilah Mejia, a single mother who is also in the District 1 CEC, said five of her six kids are in public school. One of her sons excelled in his classes but she skipped the SHSAT because it was a competitive and lengthy process.

“To hear the mayor wanted to tackle that diversity and start off with the testing, I’m excited. I think those testings are ridiculous,” Mejia said. “I couldn’t pay for prep testing If I wanted to. Does that mean by son doesn’t deserve it?’

Janay Daniel, a graduate student at New York University’s Graduate School of Public Service who has been working in the public and charter school systems for nearly 10 years, grew up in a low-income community in Brooklyn and took the SHSAT but did not get in because her test score was not high enough.

She attended Bard High School Early College, a four-year public school that provides students with a two-year tuition-free college course of study.

“I was very privileged to be able to have a quality education that allowed me to go to a great university that really launched my career, but there are a lot of students in New York City who do not have the same privilege of getting into a quality high school if they do not get into a specialized high school,” Daniel said.

It’s the Wrong Approach

Students in a classroom at J.H.S. 088 Peter Rouget school in Brooklyn. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Former Bronx Assemblyman Michael Benjamin, a member of the editorial board of the New York Post who attended Bronx Science, blasted the mayor’s plan.

“I don’t understand why he rolled it out so late in the legislative session,” Benjamin said. “He didn’t—in my mind—acknowledge, engage the various…communities about this plan.”

David Lee, education committee chair of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York, graduated from Brooklyn Tech in 1978. He told Observer that before his class, the school was majority white but in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, it was majority black and Hispanic because there were honors classes in elementary and middle schools. Despite the fact that the current test was codified into law in 1971, a test has been in use for the last 90 years, he explained.

“In the absence of the ‘Special Progress’ classes and honors classes, the Asian community—they found a replacement for it, they found a solution for the lack of these rigorous classes, and that was the enrichment classes, after-school weekend classes,” he said.

He opposes the mayor’s plan, pointing to a study conducted by Sean Corcoran, associate professor of economics and education policy at NYU, that shows that any method other than the test would bring down the schools’ academic rigor.

DOE told Observer the average GPA of a student in the top seven percent of their class, at 94 percent—the same as students who received an SHS offer this year. The average state test score of a student in the top 7 percent of their class is 3.9, about the same as students who got an SHS offer this year, at 4.1 on a 1 to 4.5 scale.

State Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, who represents Lower Manhattan, said that while the school system is “very, very segregated,” specialized high schools are majority-minority because most of the students are Asian.

She referred to DOE’s plan to increase diversity in Community School District 1 that involves a school choice system. And she noted that it is hard to get into specialized high schools if students do not attend the “feeder” middle schools that guarantee admission to them.

“That’s like over half of the specialized seats go to… 20 middle schools, and if you go to an elementary [school] that can’t get you into those, then your chances are greatly reduced,” Niou noted.

Parent advocate Mona Davids, president of the New York City Parents Union—whose daughter graduated from LaGuardia two years ago—called the mayor’s plan an “avoidance scheme” and accused him of refusing to address the root of the problem, which she says is K-8 education.

“The fact of the matter is that the majority of students, especially black and Latino students in the public school system are not reading, writing and doing math at grade-level, and this does not start in the eighth grade,” Davids said. “This starts in the elementary schools, both elementary and middle schools.”

And she noted there are other “great” public high schools that do not require a test that are segregated, pointing to schools like Bard High School Early College, Hunter College High School, Townsend Harris High School, and Beacon High School.

Brooklyn Councilman Mark Treyger, chairman of the Council’s Committee on Education and a former public school teacher, believes segregation is a “very serious problem” but that it has to be addressed and fixed in an “inclusive and meaningful way.”

“Integration should start sooner than the ninth grade in a few schools that make up under two percent of our entire student body,” Treyger said. “So with all due respect to the mayor, this was more of a two percent-plan at the 11th hour because there were only 11 days left in session in Albany.”

The current plan, he noted, does not include enrichment programs and expansion of Gifted & Talented (G&T) programs—which supports exceptional students in kindergarten through fifth grade—in communities of color. DOE said the administration added G&T classes so there is an option in every district.

So how do we end segregation?

The debate over the admissions process for specialized high schools exposed the myriad views—and widespread division—on how the city should achieve integration of the public school system. For McGraw, the process of integration starts with “something pretty simple”: aiming to amplify integration as much as possible.

“You have to adopt the philosophy that our guiding principle when we think about school policy is going to be to maximize integration in every possible way at every possible level, and we have not seen that at all,” he said.

Former New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña with students. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Under the previous chancellor, Carmen Fariña, he said, the policy was to let integration happen organically, noting that in areas such as District 1 and District 15, parent advocates and school leaders “have made some headway.”

Integration, McGraw said, could come in the form of redrawing school zone lines or getting rid of them as well as bussing.

Jorge Morales, 18, a senior at New Heights Academy Charter School in Harlem and a Teens Take Charge leader, told Observer his school is 96 percent Latino and about three percent black. He is part of Teens Take Charge’s policy team.

“We focus a lot on high school admissions and how we can develop a proposal to ensure that our high schools are diverse… High schoolers are able to travel in different places all over the city,” Morales said.

Peña similarly called for a change in mindset—she urged people to put aside their privilege and show empathy toward other families and students.

“This work requires ownership of your personal feelings and your biases, and that’s messy, that’s very messy work,” she said, adding that parents are often fixated on what they want “versus what’s right.”

She also said people have to change their mindsets as far as what constitutes a good school, noting that just because alumni attended Ivy League schools does not mean that other high schools “aren’t as capable of doing the same.” As to DOE, she said the department has struggled with transparency and communication.

Mejia said teachers need to become aware of different students’ circumstances.

“It’s having more training for teachers who come into these black and brown neighborhoods who are not aware of the culture, the struggle,” she said, giving the example of ensuring kids who live in shelters get meals.

Others called for zoning reform. Bloomfield said the community school districts were set up along racial and ethnic lines. He also called for greater curricular opportunities at low-performing schools.

“There needs to be a citywide effort… that citywide effort has to entail both a technical approach to zoning and other issues as well as community outreach,” he said.

Indeed, Daniel called for the entire high school process to be an open enrollment process in which students can pick schools based on location and career interests, for example. But she conceded it would be a tough endeavor, referring to parents on the Upper West Side who were “infuriated” over a plan first reported by NY1 that seeks to integrate middle schools in the neighborhood.

Her own parents did not want her to go to her zoned middle and high schools due to the quality of the education.

“I think the zoning process is honestly one of the most dated systems in our city, and I think it has allowed segregation to persist in New York City public high schools,” Daniel said.

Others were skeptical of the push for a citywide integration plan. While Lee supports integration, he wondered whether it is what parents in the city want. He says he does not support “forced integration.”

“They really want to attend schools in their communities, but they want the quality, they want the quality,” he said. “So a parent will send their kid to another district to attend a school because of the quality. But you have to imagine that if they had a choice, a quality school in their own neighborhood, they would like to stay in their neighborhood.”

Benjamin says the solution is improving middle schools as well as education overall in neighborhoods that are majority black and Latino. And he added that screened schools—schools that have discretion over who is admitted—have low proportions of black and Hispanic kids.

“Integration at this point in time is a red herring,” Benjamin said, calling the screened schools the real problem. “In school districts where you can show where black and Hispanic kids are being sort of screened out, then that needs to be overcome.”

He pointed to a study by The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs that found that 40 percent of black parents are opting their children out of their neighborhood school. He also noted parents are opting their children out of public schools and that a number of black and Hispanic kids are going into Prep for Prep, a leadership development program that gives students of color access to private school education.

“Carranza and de Blasio don’t seem to get that,” Benjamin maintained. “They’d rather focus on phony social justice issues rather than the core mission of educating children well and attracting their parents to want to be a part of the city school system.”

NYC Has the Most Segregated Schools in the Country. How Do We Fix That?