First Person

How to desegregate New York City’s schools. Now.

While the de Blasio administration stalls on school desegregation, New York City students suffer.

The 1966 Coleman Report — widely considered the most important piece of education research of the 20th century — showed that the success of low-income students is tied to whether they attend school with wealthier kids, whose advantages benefit all. Yet a 2016 study showed that nearly all of New York’s black and Hispanic students attend schools where the majority of students are poor. Other research has shown that this isolation isn’t inevitable: many schools are poorer and more racially segregated than their neighborhoods.

This racialized concentration of school poverty creates a persistent achievement gap, and it must stop. Now.

Brown v. Board called for an end to publicly sanctioned school segregation in 1954, after all. The Coleman Report turned 50 years old this month. And while the issue has been growing in prominence recently, the mayor and Chancellor Carmen Fariña have paid scant attention. (Fariña recently called it “the elephant in the room,” as if no one else had noticed.) As City Councilman Brad Lander concluded, the city Department of Education has provided “nothing approaching systemic action or even a coherent plan.”

Before becoming a professor, I practiced desegregation law. I know that addressing this problem hasn’t always been pretty. But people know how to do this — and they’ve been doing it at least since the Brown decision.

So what should such a plan look like?

New York City needs a dedicated, professional staff of outreach workers, educators, demographers, lawyers, and planners who can assemble data and fan out across the city to engage the public. Parent involvement is key, but so is more general input, since all will benefit from desegregated schools.

They should consider all of the strategies available to address the problem. Some schools are already using “set-asides,” meaning they hold a portion of seats out from general enrollment lotteries so spots are assured for specialized populations like low-income students and those living in shelters. Broader “controlled choice” plans could help distribute high-needs students.

Many districts around the country simply change school attendance zones — even repeatedly — as population shifts dictate. (This is part of what the city is now looking to try on the Upper West Side.) Older children and siblings are often grandfathered in for their own and their parents’ convenience.

And while there are many reasons city officials might not want to try desegregating schools, legal concerns shouldn’t be one.

The Obama administration has released guidance suggesting many permissible routes to integrate schools that have all been vetted to avoid race-based legal entanglements. One option is using permissible proxies for race, like income and residence. But the door also remains open — if only a bit — to consider race and ethnicity outright.

Parents Involved, the last Supreme Court case on K-12 voluntary integration, contains a concurrence by Justice Kennedy that provides for the possibility of districts creating race-based integration plans. Changes in the Court’s makeup over the next several years may further improve the chances of progressive challenges to the status quo.

It would thus not only be foolhardy but wrong to assume that legal impediments will forestall efforts at racial desegregation.

All of this can be done in a way that is sensitive to families’ needs. In New York City, elementary, middle, and high schools need to be considered separately, given their different enrollment systems and transportation considerations. The final look of schools’ integration numbers will vary, too, from neighborhood to neighborhood and across district lines. And considerations of diversity should not be confined to race and income but extend to students’ multitude of ethnicities, languages, and special needs. Desegregation is no longer black and white; set quotas an impossibility.

Squarely facing the political realities of desegregation is a tall order for any administration. Mayor Michael Bloomberg ignored the opportunity, and Mayor de Blasio has thus far squandered it. But putting off the issue is irresponsible and a disservice to the people of New York.

It is time for the mayor to proclaim, “Desegregation now. Desegregation forever.”

changing city

The thorny problem of segregated schools and Denver’s newest plan to address it

Denver schools are more racially segregated today than they were a decade ago, even with the district’s share of white students growing over that time.

That finding, from the KIDS COUNT report released by the Colorado Children’s Campaign today, highlights a problem that has dogged officials in Denver and across the nation for decades and will soon draw the attention of a new Denver Public Schools committee charged with addressing school diversity in the gentrifying city.

Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he doesn’t necessarily agree that Denver schools are more segregated today, citing some city schools such as Skinner Middle School that are better integrated today than 10 years ago. Still, he acknowledged that race- and income-based segregation is a major challenge for the district.

“We have very significant housing separation and segregation in this city as we see in so many communities across the country … so then you also see that in our schools,” he said.

Data provided by the Colorado Children’s Campaign — but not included in the 2017 KIDS COUNT report — shows a slight downward trend in Denver Public Schools “segregation index” since the measure’s high-water mark in 2014-15. Even so, that index today is higher than it’s been in the district for most of the last 13 years and higher than in any other Colorado district.

Despite a surge in the city’s population, enrollment growth is slowing in DPS and low-income families are being pushed out. This year, about three-quarters of students districtwide are students of color and two-thirds are low-income — both lower figures than five years ago.

In Colorado, segregated schools aren’t unique to Denver. Suburban and rural districts, including St. Vrain Valley, Eagle County and Greeley, also have highly segregated schools, according to the KIDS COUNT report.

Highly segregated schools, where poor children of color are often concentrated, typically lack the financial resources and more experienced teachers that can be found in less segregated schools. The report also cites recent landmark research from Stanford University that shows segregation is a significant predictor of achievement gaps — differences in achievement levels associated with students’ race or socioeconomic status.

Boasberg said the district’s new “Citywide Strengthening Neighborhoods” committee, which will have about 30 members and kick off in June, will discuss possible changes to the district’s school boundary, enrollment and choice systems “to drive greater integration in our schools.”

He acknowledged that race, class and segregation can be highly sensitive topics.

“Will there be concerns on all sides? Yes,” he said. “Will there be any one set of proposals that will make everyone happy? No.”

Still, he noted that he hears both parents and students say they want to see Denver’s diversity reflected in their schools.

Plus, he said, “There’s lots of research that says integrated schools are win-win for all kids, for all economic backgrounds and races.”

Lisa Flores, a school board member who represents the rapidly gentrifying northwest Denver, said she hopes the committee will focus not just on crafting policy but also examining the public perceptions that accompany ideas like desegregation and integration.

“We have in many ways evolved as a community and in many ways face some of the cultural challenges that we faced 40 or 50 years ago,” she said. “I’m hoping for some short-term wins and I’m aware that this is long haul work.”

The district has made some efforts to increase integration, including the use of enrollment zones. Students living in such zones are guaranteed enrollment at one of several schools within the zone’s boundaries but not necessarily the one closest to their home. The idea is to pull students from a larger, more diverse area, thereby lessening the effects of highly segregated neighborhoods. So far, the zones have had mixed success. 

Seven of the district’s 11 enrollment zones focus on middle schools and two on high schools. Two others, one encompassing the upscale Stapleton neighborhood, and a smaller one in far southeast Denver, target elementary schools.

Still, segregation at the elementary level can be stark. For example, the KIDS COUNT report highlights two schools with vastly different demographics: Valverde and Steele elementaries.

At Valverde, which has the lowest of five quality ratings, 95 percent of students are children of color and 96 percent qualify for free or discounted meals, a proxy for poverty. Two miles away in the pricey Washington Park neighborhood is Steele, which has the second highest quality rating. There, just 17 percent of students are children of color and 6 percent qualify for free or discounted meals.

But evening out such imbalances is a tricky proposition given the fraught history of integration efforts. In Denver, court-ordered busing in the 1970s sparked massive white flight to neighboring suburbs and more recently, enrollment zones have stirred worry among some parents. Contentious battles over integration are in full swing elsewhere, too, including in New York City where wealthy white parents have relentlessly fought school boundary changes that would lead to integration.

Despite the potential for acrimony, Flores draws optimism from her own experience as a Denver student during the era of court-ordered busing.

Her white, affluent classmates “were children of progressive parents who wanted to walk the talk around integration,” she said. “You will still find those parents today that share the value of socioeconomic and racial integration and want their children to experience that type of learning environment.”


With students arriving every day, Memphis seeks to join other cities with newcomer programs for English language learners

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
A teacher leads class at a newcomer academy that opened in 2016 in Indianapolis for students who recently arrived in the United States. Leaders of Shelby County Schools want to open a similar program for high schoolers in Memphis in the fall of 2017.

Responding to an influx of students from Central America and a federal investigation into how Shelby County Schools is treating them, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson wants to create a “newcomer program” for high schoolers new to the U.S.

The program for English language learners would be housed at Wooddale High School and would accept 100 students this fall. A second location is planned for the following year.

The $750,000 program is part of Hopson’s proposed budget, which the school board is expected to approve in May.

Newcomer programs have been in place for years in cities with a long history of educating immigrant students. Others like Nashville and Indianapolis have added them in recent years as their immigrant populations have swelled.

In Memphis, English learners are the district’s fastest-growing subgroup and make up about 8 percent of the student population. Most are from Spanish-speaking countries, but many are refugees from elsewhere.

Under Shelby County’s plan, core classes such as math, science, history and language arts would be infused with English language learning for up to two years. Students would join the rest of the student population for elective classes.

Currently, the district places newcomers in two class periods of English language learning before they join core classes alongside native English speakers — an approach that officials say contributes to the achievement gap between subgroups.

The school-within-a-school model would be more intensive. “What we want to do … is to help them fill in those gaps while they are developing a foundation in English,” said ESL adviser Andrew Duck.

The program would create a new option for English language learners in Memphis following the 2016 closure of Messick Adult Center. Before the state pulled its workforce development contract with Shelby County Schools, Messick was the district’s only ELL program for adults and students ages 16 and older.

The newcomers program also would help address concerns raised by a federal civil rights investigation launched last year into how the district treats English learners and communicates with their parents. The Associated Press reported that Shelby County Schools was among several districts nationwide that discouraged unaccompanied minors from Central America from enrolling in its schools and encouraged them instead to attend an adult learning center.

“We’ve seen kids get turned away from schools when they try to go register without any real explanation,” said Casey Bryant, legal director for Latino Memphis, a nonprofit organization serving the city’s Spanish-speaking population. “The closure of Messick meant that those high school-aged kids who were being turned away didn’t have any place to attend school.”

The federal investigation is ongoing and, if the district is found in violation, Shelby County Schools would have to negotiate a resolution with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights — or face a lawsuit.

Duck said the investigation offered “a kick in the pants” for launching the newcomers program — but that the influx of students from Central America is the bigger motivator. “… We had actually been working on this off and on since 2007 in the Memphis City Schools system,” he said.

And Tennessee’s new schools plan, submitted under the new federal education law, places a higher emphasis on how schools serve English learners, giving Memphis leaders one more reason to step up services for those students.

Officials say Wooddale High School was chosen as the program’s first site because of available space there and its proximity to Hickory Ridge, an area with one of the city’s largest populations of English learner students. The school is now at 70 percent capacity.