With new grants, these five NYC districts are taking their own approaches to school integration

Democratic presidential hopefuls Joe Biden and Kamala Harris recently tussled on a debate stage over how busing should fit into efforts to integrate the country’s still-segregated schools. 

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio — who is waging a White House bid of his own — has already taken that option off the table. Instead, the mayor and schools chancellor are hoping local school districts will forge their own paths towards more diverse classrooms. 

New York City is home to one of the most segregated school systems in the country, recent research has shown, and grassroots activists have pushed the mayor to take on the issue in recent years. 

Last month, the education department awarded $200,000 grants to five of the city’s local school districts to gather feedback and ideas, and ultimately craft their own diversity plans.

Such a process is what guided Brooklyn’s District 15 to implement one of the most far-reaching integration plans in the city: This year, the district spanning Park Slope and Sunset Park eliminated competitive middle school admissions, which many fault for fueling segregation. 

It remains to be seen whether other districts in the city will take similarly sweeping steps. Though one of the grant recipients is already considering admissions changes similar to what other districts and schools have tried, others are just kicking off public conversations about what needs to be done. 

In still others, where most students are black or Hispanic, districts are taking different approaches, supporting efforts to boost school quality and create environments that are more fair, even if the absence of large numbers of white students in the districts at present make racial and economic integration exceedingly difficult.  

Some who support integration say that these community-led efforts help build buy-in and reflect unique local realities in the country’s largest school system. Others have criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio’s preferred approach of relying mostly on locally driven change, saying such efforts are unlikely to make much of a dent in a systemic problem.

De Blasio grew up in Boston when the city was rocked by protests against integration efforts through busing, although historians and authors have argued that students ride buses all the time for other reasons and that such opposition was just a cover to fight integration efforts as a whole — efforts that have largely proven effective boosting student outcomes. 

Still, de Blasio recently defended his approach on the presidential campaign trail. 

“There are better ways of doing it,” he told reporters, referring to busing as an option to avoid.  

With integration efforts in the national headlines, here’s a rundown of how school districts in New York City plan to work towards more diverse classrooms, according to their recent grant applications. 

District 13

Brooklyn’s District 13 became the center of an integration debate in 2016 with a contentious rezoning of some elementary schools. It was also one of the first to land a state grant to explore integration measures for its middle schools but has largely faded from the spotlight as other districts pushed forward with their own admissions changes. 

Spanning the neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene, and part of Bedford-Stuyvesant, the district enrolls more black and Asian students than the city average. At 17 percent, white enrollment is close to that system-wide, but the district skews slightly more affluent than the city as a whole. 

Facing the pressures of gentrification, the district’s grant doesn’t target any specific enrollment changes that might be pursued, but suggests local leaders want feedback from the community to build schools that residents want and that serve diverse students well.  

“Our classrooms are not reflective of the diversity of the rapidly gentrifying communities we serve. We would like to bring people together from across the district to identify shared goals and how to support schools in offering programs and services in alignment to diverse needs of our children,” the district’s application states. 

District 28

District 28 stretches across central Queens, including affluent neighborhoods such as Kew Gardens, and working class enclaves such as South Jamaica. The district largely reflects the borough, known for its diversity, but enrolls more Asian students than the city average: 30% versus 16% systemwide. 

The district is already weighing possible admissions changes to help integrate its middle schools, which are largely segregated by income in the more affluent northern half of the district, and the poorer southern end. Under the district’s proposal, students from the southern portion would receive priority in admissions for schools in the northern end.  

“We feel that it is important to engage with our community in order to continue to build on our vision for diversity in our schools,” the district’s grant states.

District 31

District 31 encompasses all of Staten Island, where white student enrollment (45%) is the highest in the city. About 30% of students are Hispanic, while 12 percent are black and 11 percent are Asian. At 57%, the district has the third-lowest poverty rate in the city. 

In its application, the district specifically notes racial and economic segregation among the challenges facing Staten Island, but there are no specifics for how those may be addressed. The district also zeroes in on the need to address racial disparities in student outcomes when it comes to graduation rates, referrals for special education services, and proficiency rates on state tests.

Integrating Staten Island schools may require a hard look at attendance zone lines. Many students there are assigned to schools based on where they live, so residential segregation poses a challenge. So does transportation, with limited public options across the vast borough. 

District 16

District 16 is one of the city’s smallest, serving fewer than 7,000 students in the historically black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. 

The district is almost exclusively black and Hispanic and has struggled with a host of issues: gentrification as newcomers buy up brownstones, dwindling student enrollment, and competition from charter schools. The district has one of the highest rates of students bypassing their local public schools for other options. 

“Despite their differences, many families — old and new — are opting to leave the district or attend local charter schools,” the district’s application notes.

The district wants to better engage families, highlight the positive work already happening in schools, and preserve its original history and culture to try to boost enrollment. Part of the district’s goal is also making sure schools “have equitable resources and supports” — which is likely a recognition that some longtime community members would rather see the district focus on boosting school quality for those students already attending local schools rather than expending energy on explicit integration measures that face resistance from white parents or could ultimately displace children of color.  

District 9

What is striking about District 9’s plan is that it doesn’t, at least for now, focus on changing enrollment policies or shifting the racial makeup of students at particular schools. That is likely an acknowledgement that wide-scale integration will be tough in a school system that is majority black, Hispanic, and poor. 

District 9 in the South Bronx includes the area around Yankee Stadium and neighborhoods such as Grand Concourse and Tremont. With more than 34,000 students, it’s one of the city’s larger districts — comparable in size to the entirety of many urban school systems. 

District 9 has the highest poverty rate in the city, and almost all students are back or Hispanic, making integration with white students, at least within district lines, currently all but impossible. But the district’s application for the grant asserts the district also has unique strengths. 

“We often hear the term diversity but don’t honor all the nations, languages and cultures that exist within black, brown and Latinx communities,” the district’s grant application states. “We feel strongly that our school communities of color are not monoliths.” 

The district plans to start its work by reforming school discipline policies. Suspension rates in the district are above the city average, and across all city schools, black and Hispanic students are disproportionately punished. District leaders want to use the issue as “an entry point into larger conversations about equity,” the grant application states.

But the district’s plan also highlights the potential limits of community-driven plans, which is why busing was once deemed necessary: in areas marked by deep residential and economic segregation, it’s impossible to integrate schools without more wealthy, white communities participating.