letter to the editor

Letter to the editor: City needs systemwide solutions for school diversity

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Mishi Faruqee talks to her daughter, Naima, who is in kindergarten at P.S. 38 The Pacific School in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.

This letter comes from Mishi Faruqee, who Chalkbeat profiled last week after her question was selected to become the focus of our next Raise Your Hand series.

To the Editor:

Chalkbeat New York has played a major role in furthering the public conversation about how to address school segregation in New York City’s public schools. That is why when your Raise Your Hand series asked readers to submit questions about school segregation and diversity, I asked Chalkbeat to investigate: which public schools reflect the diversity of New York City?

I asked this question not because, as a public school parent, I was simply looking for more diverse schools to choose from. Rather, I asked Chalkbeat to investigate diverse public schools in New York City because I want to know if the diversity in these schools is a result of policies and practices that can be replicated systemwide – so that New York City can move forward rather than backward in integrating its public schools.

Like many New Yorkers, I am very concerned the city’s schools are the most segregated in the country. A recent report from the New Schools’ Center for NYC Affairs found that school segregation in New York City is not just a function of residential segregation. There are many diverse neighborhoods in New York City that still have segregated schools.

It is important to recognize that school segregation, like residential segregation, is not an accident. Segregation is a result of deliberate policy choices, and, hence if we want to reverse segregation, New York will have to adopt specific policy reforms to make this happen. The city took a first step by adopting a new law requiring schools to report on diversity and what steps they are taking to improve school diversity. Also, the city recently announced that seven schools — six of which are unzoned schools — will adopt diversity plans to set aside seats for low-income students.

But much more needs to be done. First, we need to reframe the debate to move away from a false dichotomy between diverse schools and “high-performing” schools. In fact, diversity adds to a school’s quality. Research indicates that all students – white, African-American, Latino, affluent, middle-class, low-income – benefit from attending diverse schools.

That is why I am hoping the Chalkbeat investigation will illuminate possible policy and practice choices by looking into diverse schools in New York. Many middle class and affluent parents seem to favor progressive schools that emphasize critical thinking and project-based learning. Can the city implement this educational philosophy in more schools to attract a more diverse mix? Should New York City eliminate residential school zones as they have done in Manhattan’s District 1? What policies can New York City introduce to prevent displacement and ensure inclusive school cultures? School choice within school districts has sometimes exacerbated class and racial differences among schools, but what role can “controlled choice” policies play in integrating schools?

As a public school parent, I have been lucky to find diverse, high-quality schools for my two children. But ultimately, if we want to dismantle school segregation, we have to broaden the discussion away from individual choices or even individual schools to the larger system changes that the city must undertake to ensure educational equity for all students.

Sincerely,

Mishi Faruqee

By the numbers

Do any schools’ populations mirror the city average? Just two.

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty / © 2013

It’s not quite Powerball odds, but it’s pretty rare for a school’s demographics to line up perfectly with the city average.

Still, when a reader asked us which schools closely reflect the racial and economic diversity of New York City, amid a spate of headlines addressing the city’s severe school segregation, we were up for the challenge. We analyzed nearly 1,800 district and charter schools to identify the ones that come closest to sharing the racial breakdown of the city’s overall student population.

We found just two schools that came within five percentage points of the city school system’s overall student demographics for Hispanic, black, Asian, and white students during the 2014-15 school year: P.S. 97 in the Bronx and International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn.

For many reasons — including school zones, high school choice, geography and residential patterns — the New York City school system is not set up to evenly distribute students.

In the case of these two schools, one is in an unusually diverse neighborhood, while the other is set up to enroll recent immigrants from all over the world and illustrates the limitations of looking at a school’s racial breakdown to assess school diversity.

First, there’s P.S. 97 in the Pelham Gardens neighborhood of the Bronx.

This District 11 elementary school is zoned, meaning it accepts students who live in the surrounding neighborhood. Its state test proficiency rates (27 percent of students passed English, and 39 percent passed math) surpassed those of the district, but were very close to the city averages.

And the nearly 750-student school also looks pretty similar to the city when it comes to its share of low-income students and students with disabilities.

Then, there’s International High School at Prospect Heights in Brooklyn.

While the school has similar racial demographics to the city school system, Principal Nedda DeCastro said all of the enrolled high school students have been in the United States for four years or less and city data shows that 90 percent of students last year were still learning English.

“It’s a diverse school, but I don’t think it’s representative of the city,” DeCastro said.

Beyond racial diversity, where are the city schools that reflect the city’s economic and academic diversity?

Not including demographic data, five schools come with three percentage points of the city statistics for poverty, English learners, and students with disabilities.

  • PROGRESS High School for Professional Careers in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, which has a 68 percent four-year graduation rate.
  • Business, Computer Applications & Entrepreneurship High School in Cambria Heights, Queens, which is currently in its last year of being phased out.
  • P.S. 58 The School of Heroes in Maspeth, Queens, where about half the students passed the state English and math exams last year.
  • I.S. 228 David A. Boody in Gravesend, Brooklyn, which offers dual-language programs in Russian, Chinese, Spanish, and Hebrew.
  • Brooklyn Studio Secondary School, which enrolls students in grades six through 12 in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

raise your hand

Raise Your Hand: Which schools reflect the diversity of New York City?

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Mishi Faruqee stands outside her daughter's school, P.S. 38 The Pacific School in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.

Mishi Faruqee is in a bind that many middle-class New York City parents find themselves in: she wants a diverse educational environment for her children, but has found that tracking down a top-rated school with a mix of students from different backgrounds is easier said than done.

Like many parents, she ultimately decided to send her son and daugher — who are in sixth grade and kindergarten, respectively — to the highest-performing schools in her district where she could nab seats. In Faruqee’s case, that meant opting out of her zoned elementary school in favor of gifted and talented programs at schools in the neighboring District 15, one of which is just blocks from her home.

Her choice isn’t unusual. New maps created by the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs show that many schools have less of a demographic mix than their surrounding neighborhoods — even in gentrifying areas with residents of different races and income levels.

Considering the important role that parents can play in integrating one of the nation’s most segregated school districts, Faruqee said she wished there were more diverse schools to choose from. So she asked Chalkbeat to investigate: Which schools reflect the city’s diversity? And how do they do it?

After earning the most votes in a public voting round, Chalkbeat is taking on Faruqee’s question as part of our Raise Your Hand series, which turns reader-submitted questions into stories.

Faruqee, who is South Asian, and her husband, who is black, have lived in Fort Greene for the past 15 years. Like many parents in gentrifying areas, they said their ideal school would be strong academically with a student body that reflects their neighborhood’s diversity.

Mishi Faruqee talks to her daughter, Naima, who is in kindergarten at P.S. 38 The Pacific School in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.
PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Mishi Faruqee talks to her daughter, Naima, who is in kindergarten at P.S. 38 The Pacific School in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.

“I would never consider a private school where it’s really overwhelmingly white. We just wouldn’t want our son to be in that kind of school,” Faruqee said. “But, obviously, we were also looking for a high-quality middle school, too.”

They landed on the selective M.S. 447 The Math and Science Exploratory School for their son. While Faruqee said she has been “thrilled” with the school, it also enrolls more white and affluent students than District 15 as a whole. (About half of M.S. 447 students were white and only one-fifth were low-income last year, compared to 27 percent white and more than two-thirds low-income across the district.)

This choice between school performance and diversity flared up recently with a pair of contentious rezoning proposals in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood and on the Upper West Side, which would send some families at high-performing schools to ones with weaker academics but also more students of color. Although the moves would have spurred more integration, many parents at the higher-achieving schools resisted.

“I would like to think that if we were rezoned for a school that is something we would consider doing,” Faruqee said, “but I also don’t fault parents for wanting their kids to go to the best schools.”

Have suggestions of schools where the student population reflects the city’s economic and racial diversity? Send tips to Chalkbeat’s community editor Stephanie Snyder at ssnyder@chalkbeat.org. And keep submitting your own questions — they could turn into our next Raise Your Hand investigation.

Correction: This article has been updated to clarify that the school Faruqee sent her daughter to was the closest school to her home, though not her zoned school.