A push to integrate Queens schools has ripped open a fight about race, resources, and school performance

A stream of angry parents strode up to a microphone and vented for nearly two hours at a public meeting earlier this month about a possible plan to integrate Queens middle schools.

They heckled public officials, booed each other, and waved signs, railing against the possibility that their children would be assigned to schools they deemed “failing” and too far from where they live.

Shavvone Jackson, who is black, stood to give her take on what was playing out at the meeting, where a mostly white and Asian crowd filled the auditorium at Briarwood’s M.S. 217.

“The parents in this audience seem very racist,” she said, prompting a flood of protests from the crowd, who insisted race was not at play. 

Queens, one of the most diverse counties in the nation, may seem like an unlikely battleground for school integration in 2020. But New York City schools are among the most segregated in the nation — and District 28 is no exception. Spanning the mostly white and affluent neighborhoods of Forest Hills to the north, and the more racially diverse and working-class communities of Richmond Hill and Jamaica to the south, the district is now taking some first steps towards making its middle schools more integrated. 

An official proposal for how to do that has yet to be put forward. But the response from families has already been so intense that the local Community Education Council, a body of parents who oversee school issues, has held multiple meetings like the one at M.S. 217 to give people a chance to learn about the process and weigh-in. 

So far, there have been loud shows of opposition, but also signs that support for more diverse schools could be growing. Here’s what you need to know about what’s happening in Queens District 28. 

The district is diverse — but its schools and neighborhoods don’t always reflect that. 

Across the district, about 30% of students are Asian, just under 28% are Hispanic, almost 22% are black, and about 16% are white. But not a single school reflects the area’s demographics, according to a recent analysis from the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York.

The north is mostly higher income and white, though quite diverse. Immigrants make up more than half of the residents in Forest Hills and Rego Park, according to 2018 data from NYU’s Furman Center for real estate and urban policy. Many come from Russia but there’s also a substantial Chinese community, figures from the Department of City Planning show.

To the south is Jamaica, where many black residents live. There’s also Richmond Hill, home to a mix of working class Indo-Caribbean Guyanese, Indian Punjabi, and Bangladeshi neighborhoods. The area is lower income and also has a sizeable Muslim community.

Segregation in the area’s neighborhoods helps drive divisions in middle schools: Most of District 28’s middle schools are zoned, meaning enrollment is assigned based on where students live. Families often buy or rent homes and apartments with the expectation of going to certain schools, segregating students based on what their parents can afford. 

In Forest Hills and Rego Park, the median price for a single-family home was $970,000, according to 2018 Furman Center data. That was more than double the median sales price in Jamaica and Hollis, which was $465,000.

Real estate values often figure prominently in fights over who has access to which schools. So far, parents in Queens seem to have intentionally steered clear of that argument. On a Facebook page that was created for families to discuss the district’s integration plans, posters warned against discussing how school assignments would impact home prices, with one person saying it would “play badly.”

“Don’t discuss ‘property values.’ It is not the [education department’s] job to maintain our property values, it is their job to educate all students,” one poster wrote, offering tips for parents who planned to speak at a public meeting. “Moreover, it makes us sound like greedy affluent people, which is what they want us to sound like.”

Jean Hahn-Choko, a Rego Park parent who is the Facebook administrator for the group, called Queens Parents United, said, “The quote from the Facebook post reflects the singular view of a former member.”

She added, “We are  not anti-diversity nor anti-integration, but this boils down to resources, and feel the DOE is not doing their job funding schools adequately. More resources, not reshuffling, that’s our mantra.”

Rancor has already exploded at the suggestion of integration. 

How to integrate the district’s schools hasn’t yet been decided. District 28 is about to kick off a public engagement process to hear parent concerns and also collect suggestions for possible solutions. It’s the same process that happened in Brooklyn’s District 15, after advocates there insisted that integration plans had to be informed by feedback from a diverse swath of the community. 

That process, led by urban design studio WXY, was heralded by elected officials as inclusive and comprehensive. So the city gave other districts, including District 28, grants to follow a similar model in their own communities. 

In Queens, the public process hasn’t started yet, but it’s already under attack. Parents have voiced skepticism about how feedback will be collected, who was chosen to participate in working groups that will help steer decisions, as well as the format of planned public meetings, which favor small-group discussions led be a facilitator. 

“There’s really not trust in the transparency of the process,” said Kristin Gorman, speaking at a public meeting where she said she had been interviewed for the working group but was not selected. “It’s a format conducive to setting an agenda.”

Many have argued the city has already made up its mind about what needs to be done, pointing to the grant application written by the former district superintendent, in which she suggests giving students in the southern end of the district priority in admissions for schools in the northern end.

The district’s northern end is home to Halsey and Russell Sage, Forest Hills schools coveted by affluent families, where white enrollment is as high as 40% — more than double the district average. These schools are still diverse, by some measures, except when it comes to enrollment of black students who are vastly underrepresented. At the southern end, at Redwood Middle School and M.S. 72, about two-thirds of students are black.

These stark divides between black and white students could have implications for how the integration fight plays out. 

In New York City, black students are the least likely to go to school with white students (or Asian students), according to demographic data. Some of the city’s most bruising integration battles recently have been cases where white parents faced the possibility of their children being sent to schools with mostly black students, such as in Brooklyn’s Vinegar Hill

Queens parents have not talked about race, but have expressed concern about the possibility that their children will have to travel long distances to get to school in a district that’s poorly served by public transit — which can be a big deal for kids as young as 10 years old.

“I don’t want them to go far from home,” one mom said of her children at a recent public meeting. “That’s the only reason I’m here — no other. I want my kids to go to their school.” 

On Facebook, parents from Montgomery County, Maryland — where school leaders are considering a controversial redistricting plan to integrate schools and are working with WXY — have been weighing in with tips about what to expect, and how to navigate the process that’s unfolding. 

Questions remain about representation. 

In public meetings, one persistent critique from some families about the process so far, is that it is lacking Jewish voices. 

The working group that WXY put together includes students, teachers, parents, school leaders, and community organizations from across the district. There are no members specifically representing Jewish groups, though the area is home to one of the largest communities of Bukharan Jews, whose families hail from Uzbekistan and other former Soviet republics in central Asia. 

Pointing to recent anti-Semitic attacks in the city and state, one commenter on Facebook said he was “outraged” by the makeup of the working group, writing: “Our community ties mean more than you think they do. We should have a say.” 

Also, at a recent meeting to discuss District 28’s integration plans, some Asian parents who have fought against admissions changes at the specialized high schools, like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, showed up and waved signs protesting the integration push in Queens. One sign read: “Stop your D28 diversity plan: We don’t want it!” 

Asian students make up the majority of enrollment in specialized high schools, and some have argued against integration efforts at those highly competitive schools, saying any reforms would pit communities of color against each other. It’s unclear, though, how representative these protesters are of the district’s larger, diverse Asian community.

And while Hispanic students make up the second-largest enrollment in the district, few people, if any, identifying themselves as Hispanic have spoken at recent public meetings where integration plans have been discussed. 

The education department and WXY have said they are planning to host a number of smaller meetings across the district, including with communities that might be harder to reach. 

“We know that plans are better when decisions are made directly by the local community around issues that will affect them,” representatives for WXY said in an emailed statement. “We are facilitators in this process, and are looking to create ways for the community to give feedback and work to inform government partners on what the local interests are directly on the ground.” 

Some parents want the education department to focus instead on lifting performance at schools in the district’s southern end.

When segregation leads to extreme concentrations of poverty, the result is often lower academic achievement, and fewer resources for schools, including programming or parent fundraising to support arts programs, after-school enrichment, and other activities. Many black and Hispanic parents who are skeptical of integration efforts want to see more investment in the schools in their own backyards. 

Lorraine Reid, the PTA president of Redwood Middle School in Jamaica, recently wrote a desperate letter shared widely across District 28. She begged for help fixing the school’s auditorium lights, which were dark ahead of a student holiday show, and complained of roaches infesting the gym. 

“Practically everything in the building that the students in ALL three schools use is broken, damaged or in disrepair with no signs of ever being repaired or replaced,” she wrote. “How can that be possible, while we sit here and discuss diversity?”

Many parents in the north of the district have raised similar points, demanding the city fix “failing” schools on the opposite end of the district. Some have pointed out that such arguments sound insincere when coming from communities who have not expressed concern about the state of schools that serve mostly children of color — until faced with the prospect of sending their own children to those schools. 

The assertion also makes broad assumptions about school performance in an entire swath of the district, often boiling judgements down to test scores, which can mask the progress made at schools where most of the students are already behind grade level when they enter.  

“We hear over-simplifications about good and bad schools that can stigmatize entire schools and their students,” said Ted Chang, a member of the local Community Education Council, at a recent public meeting. “We hear hurtful generalizations about mediocrity, but without any constructive solutions that address disadvantages that students face.” 

There is also a growing contingent who support integration. 

While opposition has been organized and loud, there is also a growing group of district parents who have stood up to support the engagement process and integration. Some have called the process an important opportunity for the community to shape its own school policies. 

“For the first time that I can remember, you guys are asking for our help to do the right thing,” Rafael Lena, a parent in the district, told school officials at a recent public meeting. “What we can’t do is stop the planning before it starts. It would be a shame. It would torpedo our chances to speak plainly to you guys about what would work for our district.” 

Integration could be a way to address disparities in both resources and academic achievement: Studies that show that attending diverse schools can help boost learning for all kinds of students and provide more access to resources like qualified teachers, and well-maintained buildings. 

Andy Medas-King, a member of the Community Education Council, argued at a recent meeting that parents should trust the planning process, saying it could address the unequal resources and opportunities that he said keep students of color out of competitive programs like gifted classes or the specialized high schools. 

“What the DOE is trying to do is make the playing field level,” he said. “They’re trying to break down those boundaries.”