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.”

desegregation dilemma

Silicon Valley’s school integration paradox: More black and Hispanic students get to college — and get arrested

PHOTO: Thomas Hawk / Creative Commons

New research on schools in the heart of Silicon Valley comes to a familiar conclusion: Poor black and Hispanic students get a leg up academically by attending a less segregated school.

But the results come with a significant downside. Those students who left their hometowns to attend wealthier schools in places like Palo Alto were also more likely to be arrested.

The study, which was conducted by Columbia professor Peter Bergman and has not been formally peer-reviewed, speaks to both the promise of integration and the complicating factors — including discrimination — that can dampen its effectiveness.

“Policies that aim to integrate schools … could reap long-run benefits in college enrollment,” writes Bergman, who himself attended public school in Palo Alto. “These policies should simultaneously consider programs to mitigate the potential risks for participating students as well.”

Bergman examined an initiative created after a 1985 lawsuit settlement required several northern California school districts to allow a small number of students from Ravenswood, a largely low-income district, to transfer to more affluent schools in places like Palo Alto and Menlo Park. (Technically, the program can be used in both directions, but only two students have ever transferred into the less-affluent districts.)

Since the program included a random lottery, Bergman was able to compare the outcomes of students who won a spot versus those who applied but did not.

The results were fairly dramatic. Using data from 1998–2008, the study finds that students who got the chance to attend the more affluent schools were 10 percentage points more likely to go to college.

These results were driven by enrollment in two-year colleges, and the effects were largest for boys.

This is consistent with older research on integration programs, which have been shown to boost test scores, graduation rates, college attendance, and adult income for students of color.

Bergman was also able to link students who transferred school districts with their adult arrest records. Here, the results were more discouraging: The program increased the likelihood a student would be arrested by about 5 percentage points, with an even greater impact on boys and black students.

The rise in arrests was due to driving- and drug-related offenses outside the students’ hometowns, and there was no increase in violent crime. This suggests that the arrests may have less to do with any changes in criminal behavior and more to do with students doing more driving — and having more run-ins with police — in wealthier areas, where they had made connections or were attending school.

“Lurking in the background is definitely this idea of racial profiling,” Bergman told Chalkbeat. “[If] you’re driving a beat up Civic in Palo Alto and you’re minority, you really stand out — it’s all Teslas around here.”

Another potential factor: cops in affluent areas have more time and resources to prioritize traffic stops and drug enforcement.

“The Palo Alto police [are] probably facing a lot less baseline crime, so they have a lot of time on their hands,” Bergman said.

Still, the study can’t identify the cause, or explain the consequences for students, such as time in jail.

The research also doesn’t wade into other key questions about this type of integration program, including how it affects students who remain in the poorer, racially segregated schools.

It’s unclear why students who participated saw those academic gains. Research on older programs has found that the academic benefits of integration seem related to increases in school spending, potentially driven by the presence of families with greater political sway. Indeed, in this case, the more affluent California districts generally had greater resources and lower student–teacher ratios.

New layer

Tennessee cuts ribbon on its first charter school under State Board of Education

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Principal Jonas Cleaves cuts the ribbon at Bluff Hills High School's opening day ceremony. He is surrounded by students, faculty and leaders of Green Dot and the State Board of Education.

With the snip of a ribbon, Tennessee leaders helped to officially open a charter school on Tuesday in Memphis that marks a major shift in how the charter sector can grow in the state.

Bluff City High School, operated by Green Dot Public Schools in southeast Memphis, is the first charter school authorized by the State Board of Education.

The school opened last week at full capacity with 160 ninth-graders and a waiting list, despite uncertainty about its location as recently as four months ago. The plan is to grow the school to 600 students and four grades by 2020.

Bluff City’s opening adds a new layer of oversight to charter schools in Tennessee, where local school boards and the state-run Achievement School District already have that authority. Now the State Board does too under a 2014 state law that allows charter applicants to appeal to the State Board when local school boards deny their applications.

That’s what happened in Memphis last August when Shelby County Schools denied Green Dot’s application. The State Board later voted unanimously to overrule the local board.

“We felt like Green Dot really was prepared to serve this community well, and I think that’s already born out in the fact that it’s fully … enrolled even in its first year,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, the board’s executive director.

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Math students are at work during the school’s second week.

Most students came from Wooddale and Kirby middle schools, both operated by Green Dot under the ASD. Green Dot used a lottery system to decide which of 270 applicants could attend. The operator already runs two other Memphis high schools, Fairley and Hillcrest, also under the ASD.

“Part of the reason we even applied for this school in the first place is — when the moratorium on growth for the Achievement School District happened — we were just starting our third year with Wooddale Middle and had bused 27 students across the city to Fairley. We still do that, but it’s hard for students,” said Megan Quaile, Green Dot’s executive director in Tennessee. “If they didn’t have a ride home, they didn’t get to participate in extracurriculars or sports the way you would if you were able to walk home from school.”

Quaile said her organization felt strongly about appealing the local school board’s decision. “We have been running schools since 2000, and we have a very strong high school model,” she said of the California-based operator.

Bluff City is starting with 10 classrooms and plans to build a gym this fall.

“Working with the State Board of Education has just been a very positive experience,” Quaile said. “They’re very thoughtful, they’re very responsible. We’ve worked really well with them to get everything started.”

Now the State Board will need to work with both Shelby County Schools and the ASD to align the city’s public schools and services to meet students’ needs in the Bluff City. That could be challenging given that the State Board stepped in to authorize the new Memphis school. 

“This is new territory for all of us in terms of the working relationship that we’ll need to continue to build out with Shelby County,” said Heyburn Morrison, whose team will also begin overseeing two Nashville charter schools in 2019.

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Darryl Buchanan and Adarrius Hicks are founding class members of Bluff City High School.

While the road to starting Bluff City High School was complicated, students who participated in Tuesday’s opening ceremony were mostly just interested in what lies ahead. They were excited to have a say in building the school’s culture by voting on a mascot (the wolves) and a school color (Carolina blue). Plans are also underway to establish clubs and a student government.

“I feel pressure, but this is going to make us into better leaders,” said Darryl Buchanan, 14, who wants his education to prepare him to be a politician someday. “Everyone here is going to be something and they want us to be successful. They want us to be a somebody.”